People in Paris and elsewhere are holding up pencils, and big pencil effigies. These are meant to be symbols of free expression; but they've got me, at least, thinking about pencils in my life.
The first time I really appreciated these writing tools was when I couldn’t get decent ones. At the end of my twenties I was working in Kathmandu, Nepal as a teacher of English and a freelance editor and magazine writer, and I was trying hard to produce my first book, about traveling in Muslim Asia and trying to understand something about Islam today. (“Today,” at the time, being the early 80s.)
Most of the writing I was doing on a portable Olivetti typewriter, which I’d lugged through eight months of travels for the project. I’d gone from Dubai on the Persian Gulf over to Pakistan on an old British steamship, then up the Indus River basin by train and eventually, by bus and truck, into high northwest India. I was trying my best to write a nonfiction novel, a personal story about the conversations and experiences I had with the Muslim men (they were only men) that I met. The Olivetti had a steel plate on the bottom, so I used it as a sort of laptop on many hotel beds, in libraries, and so on. After completing the journey I fetched up in Kathmandu, where I lucked into a job as an English teacher. So I stayed there — I loved Kathmandu — for almost a year and a half, working and moonlighting and trying to write.
I needed pencils mainly to make corrections on the typescripts. I made many, many corrections. In fact I kept digging myself into deeper and deeper holes in my project, typing and correcting and throwing away reams of scribbled-over paper. And I could not find decent pencils to work with. You could find a lot of things in Kathmandu — including some things you were smart to stay away from, if you were struggling to write and digging deeper holes — but some things were not there. No cheese as we know it. No wine, good beer or good bread. And no good pencils.
I taught half-days at the American English Language Institute on New Road; and one night, visiting one of my colleagues, a middle-aged woman who’d taken time off from working as a psychologist and was also trying to write, I discovered that she’d brought with her a whole, gorgeous package of yellow Dixon Ticonderogas. Number twos! My god they were beautiful. I begged and pleaded and finally wheedled, I think, two. I was so careful with those pencils. I tended them, sharpened them only as needed. Made them last. I didn’t finish my book till some years after I finally got home, and it was rejected 75 times.
In that process I made my way up into Vermont. I was working in Montpelier as a freelance writer, doing newsletter articles, annual reports and so forth, mainly for nonprofits — work that I still do — while writing and rewriting my Muslim Asia book and coping with its rejections. By then it was the 90s, and personal computers were coming in. I invested, wisely as it turned out, in a fine early model, an Epson QX-10 with a 300-baud modem, which was very useful for the articles I was also contributing to big-city newspapers. And somewhere along the way I read an article about the world’s best premium pencils.
The piece named two in particular, both American-made: the Velvet Executive, by Faber Castell, and — I swear these were their names — the Black Warrior by Mirado. I rushed out and found the Warrior at a stationery store, the Executive at a pharmacy.
The Black Warrior had a round black barrel with very dark, assertive lead and a terrible eraser. The Velvet Executive had a pearl-gray, octagonal barrel and a line that was elegantly smooth. With my packages of pencils in hand I rushed into the offices of one of my clients, the Vermont Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, where I’d become friends with two women who worked at the front desks. Connie was smooth and low-key; Carolyn was emotional, impassioned. I presented each with the pencil that I felt would suit them — a Velvet Executive for Connie, a Black Warrior for Carolyn.
A month or two later, back at TNC to work on their newsletter, I asked Connie, just then alone in the front office, if she was taking good care of her pencil. “Oh, sure,” she said, and held up a nearly pristine, perfectly sharpened Executive. “Carolyn, on the other hand ...” She reached over to the next desk and held up a passionately chewed, miniscule remaining stub of a Warrior.
Pencils are personal. They are good tools. You can’t get the Velvet Executive any more, but you can still buy the Black Warrior. And I still use them, mainly to correct hard-copy printouts of advanced drafts. I’m still working on the Muslim Asia book, too. In recent years I began to reimagine it as a suspense novel for middle and high schoolers, and I’m well along. I guess I don’t have much to say about free expression. I just depend on it, the way we do on the most vital tools of our work and our lives.