La Rentrée is a big deal in France. All over the country children fuss over new felt pens, new notebooks, new rucksacks. French supermarkets are always full of seasonal items, and for the last fortnight of August the seasonal items are all to do with stationery. Kids develop an obsession with paper ruled the right way, with getting a cool school diary and with having the correct pencils. This time always reminds us of John Steinbeck.
Steinbeck wrote most of his manuscripts using a pencil. He said, “I always write by hand and my fingers are very sensitive to shapes and textures. Modern pencils and pens are too thick and ill-balanced.
“Pencils must be round. A hexagonal pencil cuts my fingers after a long day. You see I hold a pencil for about six hours every day. This may seem strange but it is true. I am really a conditioned animal with a conditioned hand.”
Steinbeck liked his pencils sharp, but he found sharpening a pencil interrupted the flow of his writing, so he developed a ritual. Each morning he would sharpen 24 pencils, then arrange them, point up, in a box. Then he would begin writing. Each pencil would last roughly four to five lines. He would put the dulled pencil in a second box, point side down, and pick up another pencil. He repeated this process until all 24 pencils had been used, then he would sharpen them all again and continue writing.
One of his favourite pencils was the Eberhard Faber Blackwing. He said, “I have found a new kind of pencil — the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too but it is black and soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper.”
Of course we know that all you poets are far too sensible to obsess over your tools, but if you are a fan of writing by hand we’d like to wish you well in your quest for the perfect writing instrument and hope that you find your equivalent of Steinbeck’s Blackwing pencil.