On this day in 1817, one of my heroes was born. He made his family’s pencils into the greatest in the land and wrote millions of words in his lifetime. Most of all, he lived. Today, we honor Pencil Hero, Henry David Thoreau.
I’m on vacation in Cambridge/Boston, and I found some cool pencils at the Black Ink in Harvard Square tonight: The Bear Claw, from Koala Tools. It’s a fat, triangular pencil in 2B, with a green eraser. I haven’t had them long, but in I used one in my Moleskine Voyageur tonight at the hotel, with excellent results.
[This wonderful post is both written and illustrated by Pencil Hero Vivian Wagner. Many thanks to Vivian for allowing us to publish this fantastic piece!]
I doodle. I admit it. I doodle a lot. In fact, around a third of what fills my notebooks when I’m presumably writing is actually doodling. Drawing circles, squares, wine bottles, flowers, scribbles, bird silhouettes, random buildings, peculiar faces. Sometimes I just use whatever I’m writing with – often, lately, a pencil – to fill in an area with cross-hatching. It’s what I do. I can’t imagine writing longhand without doodling.
What I’m finding is that though doodling might seem secondary to the work of writing, it’s actually central to my process. It gives my brain a chance to pull away from whatever I’m focusing on, become a little daydreamy. And in that liminal, relaxed, seemingly unfocused space, I make connections. I have new thoughts. I imagine different directions. And I return to my writing refreshed, calm, and ready to think about it anew. Doodling is like a little vacation, but without all the hassle.
I’m realizing, too, that my affection for doodling is one of the main reasons I like to write longhand. Sure, there are ways to doodle on a screen. There are apps for that, and I’ve experimented with them, especially on my iPad. But there’s something vital about the visceral laying down of graphite, ink, or pigment. This, too, is part of the process. The physicality of writing and doodling on paper keeps me grounded and helps me remember that I inhabit a body, that I live on a planet. My hand’s movements across the page link me to the electricity firing in my brain, to the sound of rain and wind, to the feel of my chair sliding on the floor.
Usually, even when I’m composing on my MacBook Air – which I’m doing with this essay, in fact – I’ll have an open notebook next to my keyboard, along with a few sharpened graphite and colored pencils and pens. Every few minutes, I’ll stop typing, turn to my notebook – in this case Baron Fig’s Metamorphosis, which, by the way, has wonderful paper for both doodling and writing – and absentmindedly scratch out a few lines and shadings. Sometimes, too, I’ll flip back to earlier doodles in my notebook, looking for pencil drawings that I can fill in with color. In this way, my doodles become my own self-created, anxiety-relieving coloring pages.
I usually don’t show anyone my doodles. They’re not art, really. They’re not meant for any outside audience, any more than my unedited handwritten pages are. But they’re a record of a mind at work, and an integral part of my creative process. Nothing that I write and publish is ever done without the shadow world of my doodles behind it, and I’m grateful for all the analog tools that allow me to experiment, to assay my way through my thoughts and world.
Probably most people doodle, secretly, on the corners of to-do lists or the backs of envelopes. I’d like to just give all of us permission and encouragement to keep doodling. Keep making marks. Doodling is like doing yoga, meditating, vacationing, brainstorming, improvising, daydreaming, and even sleeping. It’s not secondary to our real work. It is our real work.
And, besides, it’s fun.
Vivian Wagner writes and doodles in New Concord, Ohio, where she teaches English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books). Visit her website at www.vivianwagner.net.
Still available, it seems. Go get some.
[This article comes from Jan Jeffrey Hoover, who recently visited The Fitzgerald Collection at Jackson, Mississippi. Many thanks for letting us share this piece and these photos!]
For more than 40 years, from the 1930s until the 1970s, Frank Stanley Fitzgerald and his wife Erva Mae Fitzgerald collected Americana, now housed in a single rustic building at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson, Mississippi. Their “collection of collections” includes arrowheads, flatirons, guns, glass insulators, hand tools…..and pencils. According to the museum, their collection of more than 7,000 pencils was once cited in the Guinness Book of world records.
The Fitzgerald pencils are displayed in a single glass-fronted case in the middle of the exhibit. There are no labels or information cards, but specimens are arranged in broad categories and are turned so that their imprints are clearly visible for enthusiasts. The top shelf is a hodgepodge of writing implements obscured by the upper surface of the cabinet, but the lower shelves are easily observed. Extemporaneous cell phone photography can be challenging, but a low conveniently-situated rail encourages visitors to try pictures from various angles.
Many of the pencils, and most of those of those on the second shelf, are promotional, principally from Mississippi-based businesses and officials, particularly those of the Delta which was home territory for the Fitzgeralds. They represent the diverse commerce of the region. Numerous pencils promote agriculture- and forestry-based interests, while others promote products available in feed and general stores. Oversized pencils are well-represented. One appropriately colored pink-and-black pencil bears the imprint “Sincerely Yours Elvis Presley” but is sub-titled with the name of a business.
The third shelf contains specialized material. There is a collection of “hammers and nails” – mallet-shaped with perpendicular double erasers and metallic-colored with flat-caps and lacking ferrules. Not surprisingly, some of these advertise lumber companies. Also pictured above is a collection of “bullets” – always appealing to the pencil connoisseur.
The bottom of the case functions as a bin – holding a voluminous, colorful scatter of pencils. Some are familiar national brands, but, like the bulk of the collection, are largely representative of Mississippi Delta business and industry that thrived during the mid-20th century. The Fitzgerald’s pencils then are not just a testament to a couple’s unusual hobby. They represent a tangible and enduring historical record of the Delta economy.
[Text and images, Jan Jeffrey Hoover, 2017. Used with kind permission.]
We will conclude our series of posts about maximizing the performance of pencils for long-term writing with a short look at pencil accessories.
For journaling, I almost always prefer a long point. I like a point that starts sharp and is able to continue making neat lines without having to stop and sharpen every paragraph, or even every page. And the concave point produced by a crank sharpener like the Classroom Friendly model fits the bill perfectly. On the go (or if you prefer more control of your point), the KUM Masterpiece makes an insanely long point/longpoint and does not draw as much attention in a cafe’ as cranking a large metal contraption might.
The best erasers for preserving pencil writing will not smear, will erase completely, and they will not mar the paper. Generally speaking, some kind of plastic eraser fits the bill for all three of these requirements. This blog is lacking in eraser reviews, but I generally reach for the Staedtler Mars plastic eraser or the Faber-Castell version for journaling.
As mentioned earlier, I prefer a piece of an old map, a cut sheet from a Rhodia pad, or some other smooth and flexible paper for my blotter sheets. This helps to keep your journal neat in the first place, and stationery nerds seem to gravitate toward maps. Win-win.
Do Comrades have other tips or pieces of gear they use for keeping pencil writing safe for future Revolutionaries?
We’ll take a closer look in the coming days. But hurry and order yours while they’re still available. Word is that the pencils are especially in danger of disappearing soon.
We have established that pencil is the perfect medium for preserving your writing for the future. We recently examined what to look for in a pencil for journaling and/or long-term writing and some examples thereof. Today we will look at paper for keeping your pencil writing safe.
There are several details on which to reflect when selecting a notebook or journal if you plan to fill it with pencil, and this is even more true when one wants to preserve the writing forever.
Spiral bindings can allow pages to rub against other other, creating smearing and thereby affecting the legibility of your writing for the future. Write Notepads & Co. solves this with an enormous rubber band. Generally, if I am going to carry a notebook around for more than a week, I prefer something with an elastic closure like this or like a Moleskine. A staple-bound Field Notes book lasts only a week; so there’s little time to smear. The Write Notepads pocket books are tightly-bound with the PUR spine, and they do not rub much either. Also, consider that an notebook crammed into your pocket will not move very much against other paper, that the fabric of your pocket (and your butt/leg/etc.) will likely keep the pages together anyway. For bouncing around in a bag, I never use a book that can open a even a little on its own, allowing the pages to mingle. Graphite is not to be trusted in the open like that!
I avoid papers with too little or too much tooth. For instance, anything with more tooth than (and sometimes even including) a Scout Books pocket notebook will collect more graphite from the point of the pencil than the marks which one seeks to preserve. This results in dust and smearing and a generally untidy notebook. This is fine sometimes; pencil is not always tidy. But for writing which we seek to protect, smearing can render words, lines — even pages — illegible. Even worse is paper which is too smooth. The writing never even has much of a chance to stay put. The paper on Rhodia pads, for instance, is a lovely and smooth surface on which to skate a piece of graphite. However, I would not trust words meant for future generations to such glassy paper.
An overly-tight graph or narrow lines can cause one’s writing to bunch up, resulting in less crisp lines. Something around the line-spacing of a Moleskine and 1/4 inch is my own preference, though I often just forgo any guide whatsoever too. Try to go line-free with pencil and the intention that your writing with last forever. Be bold!
Archival Quality of the Paper
These days, most major-branded books (Moleskine, Field Notes, etc.) are bound with acid-free paper. Since graphite does not react with paper anyway, this is, I assume, slightly less of a issue than when using ink. However, brittle and yellow paper can cause an issue for any writing medium.
As in pencils, the key is balance. I like a paper with a medium tooth, light (or no) lines, and a binding that will not allow the paper to rub against itself. As with pencils, this is harder to explain than it is to give examples of.
Write Notepads & Co. – This is probably my favorite notebook paper right now. The 70# stock takes graphite wonderfully, and the minor stiffness of the paper combines with the PUR binding to hold the pages still. The texture is nearly perfect, and they use a nice 1/4 inch line-spacing which is a great balance of efficiency and comfort. Plus they are made in my hometown, and Chris is a friend IRL. But I still claim not to be biased. Their books really are that good.
Moleskine – I swear that Moleskine has been quietly (because loudly would be admitting the paper was inferior before?) improving their paper. The texture is lovely for your less soft pencils, and the elastic keeps everything in place. If you hit Target at the right time of year, you can steal one for a few bucks from the clearance section. I like to remember that a Moleskine in 2002 led me to being lucky enough to co-host a really fun podcast.
Paperblanks – I have not used one of these in a while, but the paper is very stiff for nice pencil lines. Some of the covers get a little…LOOK AT ME for my taste, but the subtly-designed ones work well. Ghosting/graphite transfer is very low on this paper, even without a blotter.
Baron Fig – In speaking with Joey and Adam, I learned that this paper was designed, in part, for pencil, and it shows. The texture is lovely, and the themes and special editions they produce appeal to me greatly.
Field Notes – The newer 60#T version of the Finch Paper Opaque Smooth is lovely for pencil. I’m not sure why it works so much better than the 50# version, which I find to border on too smooth. These do fall open and allow pages to rub together in a bag. I generally get only a week of pocket carry out of them, however; so I do not experience this issue.
What are some papers/books Comrades like to use for long-term writing and/or journaling in pencil?