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.

In Defense of Doodling.

[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.