When I was visiting my parents in July, I spent some hours tunneling through decades of debris in the old family mansion. My assistant was my 12-year-old nephew, Jared. We had hard hats, headlamps, rope, pickaxes, specimen bottles – everything you need when dealing with your parents’ lifetime store of stuff. My main goal was to not lose Jared back in the 1950s.

Jared wasn’t impressed by most of what we found that afternoon. I think he was hoping for something that had fallen off a passing comet and that Dad had trapped in the back yard and boxed up in the basement. About the only thing that interested him was an electric, plug-in calculator that only printed on one side of a roll of paper tape. Jared, who lives in a wholly digital world, thought it was cool that a machine could leave a printed record of its work. Either that or he just thought it was cool that I let him take it apart.

But I found something I thought was cool: Pencils.

Toward the end of our expedition we uncovered Dad’s buried office-supply ammunition dump. Among the billions of staples and petrified erasers and rubber bands that no longer band and gummed labels to label things that no longer exist, were unopened boxes of pencils he’s been accumulating since World War II:

Bygone pencils
In case you’re wondering, an old pencil’s value on eBay is approximately one dollar in U.S. money.

I was thrilled to find these, though I couldn’t say for sure why. When I don’t have a computer in front of me, I have a pen in my hand. But there’s something about pencils, and their fragrance, that makes you happy. Like skipping. You can’t skip and not be happy. You can’t open a box of pencils and not feel happy looking at all that unsharpened potential.

I’ll use these extra-thick crayons when I write to emphasize my characters’ emotional traumas.

I brought some boxes home in my luggage and vowed to try writing with pencils. Why not? Two writers who have meant a lot to me, Thomas Wolfe and John Updike, used pencils.

Thomas Wolfe holds two important records in American letters:

  1. Most posthumous novels: 2 (The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again)
  2. Most bad writing from a great writer: I figure it’s about 50-50.

Wolfe, who was six and a half feet tall, used the top of a refrigerator as his desk. He wrote with a pencil almost as thick as a crayon to scrawl 20 or 25 words on a page. He then swept the page off the fridge and started on the next. Then there’s Updike, who wrote Couples and three of the four Rabbit books with a pencil. So who am I to argue?

“Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.” (G.K. Chesterton)
The first thing I noticed about writing with a pencil is that the physical process is exhilarating. The feel of the pencil in your grip, the paper under the point, the lead wearing down, your words spooling out from under your hand. Some of these pencils were of a diameter that no longer fits inside modern electric pencil sharpeners, and I don’t have one of those crank models with the different aperture sizes. I had to whip out my pocketknife and whittle these guys to a point.

The second thing I noticed about writing with a pencil is that it’s goddamned slow. We are not accustomed anymore to slow. We live in a world where our computers occasionally ask us if we want to “disable add-ons and speed up browsing.” Some of those add-ons are adding an extra 0.2 seconds to our browser load times. Accursed add-on! From Hell’s dark heart I stab at thee!

However, I do love revising, and writing with a pencil reminded me of writing with a pen and, when I got the story off the ground, moving to my typewriter. Later I wrote with a pen and moved to my computer, and for years now the computer is where I’ve started.

But this pencil thing was interesting, and not just from nostalgia. A couple of pencils and a pad of paper work better for me on a plane because the airlines have taken away all the space I once had to write with my laptop. Pencil and paper works better for me at my favorite coffee spot. And if you love to revise, you’ll love pencils, because what you just wrote with a pencil is in no way ready for public viewing.

You can also doodle with a pencil. Try that in Word.

I’m not going to replace my computer with pencils, but they’re a welcome change-up. As for my nephew, a retired gentleman in his hometown has been teaching Jared how to whittle. Cool is not reserved for what’s online.

Random Pick of the Day
Fitz and The Tantrums, More Than Just a Dream (2013)
1960s soul meets alternative rock, assuming anyone can define “alternative.” If you love whistling (and I know you do), you’ll love “The Walker.” The album’s closer, “MerryGoRound,” is a throwback to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.

Random Pan of the Day
Prince, Controversy (1981)
Coming off the success of Dirty Mind, I would’ve expected better. The title track is a towering inferno, offering an inescapable dance groove and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. C’mon, isn’t that what you want to hear at a club? But musically, the rest of this album lies down and stays put.

These songs are about sex or social protest, or sex and social protest. When Prince sticks to sex he’s on surer ground, particularly on “Jack U Off,” in which he volunteers to help sexually frustrated females: “I only do it for a worthy cause/virginity or menopause.” After side trips to “the movie show,” a restaurant, and “your momma’s car,” he demonstrates his egalitarian nature:

If you ain’t chicken baby, come here
If you’re good, I’ll even let you steer
As a matter of fact, you can jack me off

Unlike Springsteen, who hit his stride with his third album and didn’t falter until he released Lucky Town and Human Touch in 1992, Prince’s fourth album doesn’t sound good after Dirty Mind. But on his next album he parties like it’s 1999. Until then.

Random Wife of the Day
This weekend, Special D is touring the gritty, industrial, culturally backward wasteland that is Seattle. Hope she can find a decent cup of coffee. In case you’re reading this: I have conquered the wisteria.

Random Video of the Day
If you haven’t visited my video yet, please do! True, it’s one minute and 11 seconds of your life that you’ll never get back, but what were you going to do with that time except watch cute animal videos? (Many thanks to Loyal Reader and Southern Industrialist Corncobb for the link.)






  1. seasidedave says:

    My 6th grade teacher (Mrs. W____) at Beaumont grade school in Portland, Oregon used to extol the virtue of the pencil as it related to brain activity. She insisted that just having a pencil behind/on top of one’s ear led to an increase in the ability to think. She even mentioned that her young son had undertaken the same practice of carrying a pencil on top of his ear (the right ear seemed to be the preferred one).

    This was the beginning of geekiness (rhymes with meekness), which along with pocket protectors was responsible for ushering in the Internet Age. You can bet that Al Gore has a lot to say about the value of a good pencil. Call him up and ask him! As for myself, my supply of early pencils began with the trove that my Great Uncle began acquiring on the U.S.S. (somethingorother) shortly after WWI….where his job as a supply quartermaster offered up all sorts of opportunities for stashing away excess and obsolete “equipment.” Most of which he shipped home, thereby providing generations of the family with free and exotic writing implements (and ERASERS) and various other useful items. (“Don’t worry, Mother, about the boxes of things that I ship home to you, as they are otherwise just going to be deep-sixed.”)

    P.S.–Remember that a dozen pencils in their original box is worth much more than their worth as individuals on ebay. MIB (“mint in box”) is a pencil collector’s sword in the stone.
    P.P.S. or P.S.S.–does you dad happen to have an amble supply of pocket protectors to go with his pencil collections?

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Mrs. W might have been on to something. I was never able to keep a pencil in place behind my ear. It always fell out, and it tried to spear me on the way down. This may explain the deficiencies in my thought process.

      It just figures that somewhere in your past you had an honest-to-god quartermaster! No wonder you have so much stuff today. Well, somewhat less stuff. I know you’re engaged in a great battle to move at least some of it into someone else’s residence, and more power to you.

      Alas, MIB pencils on eBay are still about a buck a pencil. Like in the Monty Python cheese shop sketch, “I’m afraid we don’t get much call for it around these parts.”

  2. Number 9 says:

    I don’t believe you mentioned the pencil eraser. Did your dad’s pencils not have them? This is a burning issue for me – I still use pencils sometimes “for archival purposes” but today’s pencil erasers DON’T WORK. They don’t erase, they just smudge. I’m at my wit’s end – can you help? And, by the way, thanks for the anniversary card! And also, yes, she did find a decent cup of coffee – we stopped at Diva’s.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      I can’t speak for today’s pencils. Thanks to my Dad, I’ve never had to buy a pencil.

      Most of the pencils I’ve uncorked from the stash I found last month were not made with erasers. I haven’t opened the Ticonderogas. When I do, I’ll let you know how their erasers have held up….Years ago, I discovered (by accident) that if you buy one of those Pink Pearl erasers and keep it in a drawer instead of on your desk, it won’t fossilize. It will erase rather than smear. Mine has been erasing for years. So if I were you, I’d buy an eraser and start over.

      Happy anniversary, and thanks for finding my wife good coffee in that provincial town!

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