Lead on, Macduff.

[Today’s post comes from guest writer Lara Connock who lives and writes in South Africa. Many thanks to Lara for this wonderful essay about the virtues of journaling in pencil!]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good notebook must be in want of a pen. Then, having secured the pen (by which I mean a fountain pen) he or she will want ink. And so begins the eternal – some might say infernal – quest for the perfect combination of paper, pen and ink. I have spent the majority of my writing life on such a quest and have left in my wake a brace of abandoned pens, innumerable bottles of ink and teetering piles of nearly-new notebooks in which the quick brown fox features over and over again.

“Are you ever going to write anything real?” my exasperated husband said one day. “I hate seeing you wasting your time and talent like this.”

“Then don’t look!” I snapped back. “This is important!”

Although I hated to admit it, my husband had a point. My focus had always been on the form, so I’d never really got down to the function; you know, actually writing stuff (apart from that wretched fox/dog scenario). See, I’m a perfectionist with OCD, hence the search for the aforementioned combination that would ensure that my notebook would be uniform, consistent and, well, perfect. I tried to explain this to my husband but he wasn’t having any of it. “If you really wanted to write, you’d write, and it wouldn’t matter what your notebook looked like. Imagine if Shakespeare had messed around the way you do!” Naturally I ignored this.

A couple of days later I was testing a new pen, ink and paper (again). The nib was an extra-fine, the ink the driest I could get, and the paper easily ten times more absorbent than Kleenex. There was ink everywhere – on the paper, the desk, the wall, the cat, my fingers, my clothes. And. I. Was. Done. I could not, would not, waste another moment more on such an utterly pointless exercise. The pen went into the pen coffin with all the others, ditto the ink, and the notebook went into the bin.

They say that sometimes, when one gives up hope, one feels so much better. It’s true. Having crossed that particular Rubicon, I really did feel a sense of relief – but it was short-lived. You see, I still wanted to write. I just had to find something to write with. My husband’s groan of despair could be heard three provinces away. “Just use a damn ballpoint!” was his suggestion, which, though kindly meant, was patently ridiculous.

Honesty compels me to admit that I actually quailed at the thought of having to try out all those gel pens, liquid ink pens (isn’t all ink liquid?), rollerballs and fineliners. When did writing instruments get so complicated? One’s writing life in days of yore must have been so much simpler when all one had to write with was a bit of graphite and a raggedy old piece of vellum or whatever. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the Bard himself would have tossed his goose quill in the quill coffin, along with his iron gall ink and all its attendant issues, the moment he found out that he’d have far less hassle writing those plays of his with a stick of graphite wrapped in string. “Out, damned quill! Is this a piece of graphite which I see before me, the sharp end toward me? Come, let me clutch thee.”

And there was the solution to all my problems. So simple. (My husband’s sigh of relief was deafening.) I bought a cheap notebook and an equally cheap pencil. Indeed, a pencil. Which, come to think of it, wasn’t actually that cheap. If I was going to be writing with a pencil, it had to be a good one. The art store offered two choices: locally produced pencils or imported German ones. It was the proverbial no-brainer, my thinking being that since this particular German company had been producing pencils since 1662, they had more than likely perfected their craft by now.

Pencils have, um, revolutionised my writing and journaling. They have taken away all the pain and left only the pleasure. I did get a bit sidetracked in the beginning by the myriad grades of hardness and darkness; my own fifty shades of grey, you might say. I settled on F-grade pencils, the baby-bear’s-porridge grade: not too soft, not too light, just right. (FYI: an F pencil is a #2.5 in the US.)

Pencils are what an old friend of mine would call “willing writers”. I know that when I put that beautifully sharpened point to paper (any paper!) it will write the first time. No skipping or hard starts because the ink isn’t flowing; no feathering or bleeding or ghosting either. I won’t be able to change my mind halfway through a journal entry about the colour of the ink or the feel of the nib or the tooth of the paper. And when the pencil has been worn down to the ferrule – having given up its life purely for my writing pleasure (cue violins) – there will be a quiver of its clones to choose from. They will all write in exactly the same way as their predecessor did, thereby ensuring that the pages of my notebook remain beautifully uniform and thus appealing to the twin gods of Perfectionism and OCD. (And did I mention the thrill of being able to erase mistakes?)

Consistency being a big thing for me, I like the fact that a 500-year-old piece of graphite (quaintly known as plumbago in those days) will write almost as well as a Koh-I-Noor or a Blackwing produced in 2019. (But I’m basing that assumption on the online community’s reviews of them, not yet having had the opportunity to test drive them myself.)


The world is a vastly different place now than it was when farmers in Britain’s Lake District, circa 1560, used the recently-discovered, new-fangled plumbago to mark their sheep. Fast forward five centuries and there are legions of six-year-olds clutching jumbo-sized, triangular-shaped pencils and learning to write their names for the first time.

Pencils have survived world wars, industrial and technological revolutions, feasts, famines, droughts and disasters, and are still here. Of course, in our digital world, Millennials, Generation Z’s and converts from Generation X might rather take notes on their smartphones or tablets, but that doesn’t mean that pencils have become obsolete. Far from it. People apparently love the vintage, the antique, the old fashioned things of bygone eras. (I suspect we may have Downton Abbey to thank for that.) Vinyl records have made made a comeback along with manual typewriters, fountain pens and – in certain homes – afternoon high tea.

Pencils have never really gone out, and in the last decade or so they have enjoyed – and are still enjoying – an increase in popularity. The difference now is that people are buying, collecting and using pencils because they want to, not because they have to.

No pencil article would be worth its weight in graphite if there was no mention made of those literary greats who loved pencils – Hemingway, Steinbeck and Thoreau, and, before them, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci. I’m not going to repeat everything that has already been written about John Steinbeck’s passion for Blackwings because any pencil lover who doesn’t know about it must be living on a remote, nameless island or in an underground bunker previously occupied by hobbits.

Today, more than 20 billion pencils are produced worldwide every year. Currently there are upwards of 40 blogs devoted to pencils, my host’s included. Online stores are doing roaring trades, as is the now famous pencil store in New York owned and run by Caroline Weaver. (One day, when I don’t have to pay 14 South African Rand for one US dollar, I’ll make my pilgrimage. Until then, I’ll just skulk around the place online.)

Don’t get me wrong. Just because I’m a new convert to pencils does not mean I’ve fallen out of love with fountain pens. This isn’t a rebel song about their many vagaries or a protest march against the cost and elitism of fountain pen friendly paper. And don’t think I don’t see you glowering at me from the sidelines, you Pilots and Sailors and TWSBIs, and your besties, Clairefontaine, Rhodia and Tomoe. You all still have your place; it just isn’t in any of my notebooks. I tried so hard to love and bond with you, I really did, but I just don’t feel it. Now I’ve lost my heart to the product of an old German family, the House of Faber-Castell, and I’m committed for life.

Even so, it isn’t happily-ever-after just yet. I still have to find the ultimate pencil sharper and the apogee of erasers, along with pencil caps, pencil extenders and a pencil case to carry it all. So, lead on, Macduff.

Mechanical Pleasures.


We are lucky to publish another essay by the wonderful writer Vivian Wagner (see her 2017 piece here). Many thanks to Comrade Vivian! What do other Comrades think of mechanical pencils?

Mechanical Pleasures, by Vivian Wagner

I know what David Rees says in How to Sharpen Pencils: “Mechanical pencils are bullshit.”

For a while, I agreed with him. I’d fallen in love with all kinds of fancy, fabulous wood-cased pencils – and that love affair continues to this day. On principle, I stayed away from mechanical pencils. I had everything I needed with my Blackwings and Tombows and Mitsubishis.

One day, though, I found myself at my college’s bookstore, hanging out, as one does, in the stationery aisle. I happened to see some packages of Bic Atlantis 0.5mm pencils for a few dollars each. I’ve always liked Bic Atlantis ballpoint pens, and these seemed worth a try. I hesitated a moment, what with my loyalty to wood pencils and the fact that Rees’s words were seared on my conscience.

But, I thought, what the hell? No one’s going to know. So I bought a few to try out.

Reader, they were lovely. Even with the basic, French-made Bic lead in them, they were smooth and fun, and – as a bonus – I didn’t need to sharpen them. I could write and write and write – something I spend a lot of time doing – and I didn’t have to stop to refresh my point.

They weren’t wooden pencils, to be sure, but they were just fine. Better than just fine, in fact. They were a good, useful addition to my daily routine. I began carrying one with me in my journal, finding it was easier to have a mechanical pencil on hand than a wooden pencil while teaching and going through my day, when I couldn’t always stop to sharpen. In the evenings, I returned home to my wood pencils at my desk, but the Bic mechanicals quickly became a part of my everyday carry.

I discovered, as well, the world of nice, soft, dark 4B Uni and Pilot leads, and these changed the game even more. Suddenly, it was truly a pleasure to write with mechanicals.

Since that fateful day in the bookstore, I’ve discovered that Bic Atlantis 0.5mm pencils are pretty hard to come by these days. Those packages I found, apparently, were old stock. I’ve been experimenting with a few others, including a Ohto wooden Sharp Pencil, a TWSBI Jr. Pagoda, and a Pilot G-2, and a few others. I like all of them, but my favorite is still the Bic Atlantis 0.5mm, maybe just because it was my first.

I still love wood-cased pencils, but I’m here to say that mechanical pencils have a place, at least in my world. And they aren’t bullshit.


Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), The Village (Kelsay Books), and Making (Origami Poems Project). Visit her website at VivianWagner.net.