My favorite pencil sits beside the keyboard as I type. The design’s vaguely Art Deco: black paint with swirly gray squiggles that look vaguely like treble clefs dancing. The eraser (a good one, not one of those that leaves smudges) is gray; the ferrule is silver. Embossed in gold on the body, in sturdy capitals, is advice from the Muse: “Write that shit down.” I do like a salty muse. The lead makes nice, dark letters and the point never breaks off. I sharpen it in using old-fashioned blade sharpener with the same mechanism of the ones I lost annually on the second or third day of school. This is a fancier one, shaped like an upright piano, surprisingly heavy, with the sharpener in its base. There’s no reservoir for the wood shavings, which means they scatter like loose tea, but it’s an enjoyable mess. It produces the kind of point I prefer: enough edge to glide along the page, enough dull so that I don’t stab through the paper when I speed up or press harder.
Mostly I use the pencil for marking up music scores (“Always bring a pencil to your lessons!” an echo from every music teacher ever). My earliest stories were in pencil, but I switched to pen around fifth grade. My son and husband are also pencil aficionadoes. Sonny uses pencil for his stories; Dave for work notes and crossword puzzles. Our house may have more pencil cups than average. Fine by me: the sight of a mug packed with sharp-tipped pencils makes me want to write.
I’m grateful for the brilliant Nicolas-Jacques Conte. In the age of Napoleon, when embargoes prevented the French from buying pencils from England and Germany, Conte was tasked with figuring out how to manufacture the implements locally. People had been writing with graphite, the soft-solid that is used in pencil lead, for a few centuries at that point, but figuring out how to contain that material for this use had proved tricky.
Conte—a dauntingly talented person who worked as an artist, a scientist, a teacher, and a French army officer—solved the pencil problem after experimenting for just a few days. He developed a mix of graphite, clay, and water and figured out a way to press this mixture between two cylinders of wood. He patented his invention in 1795. You can still buy Conte brand pencils today.
Another thing I like about pencils is that they can be erased. I’ve tried erasable pens and correction fluid, but pencil erases the best and thereby lets you start again sooner. Because it’s erase and start over, not erase and leave the page blank, amiright? Brush off the pencil dust and lay down a new line, and eventually…
I bet Conte went through bunches of pencils in the process of developing his various inventions. He was a practical and productive guy, the kind of person you go to when you need a quick, smart solution. When he was posted with the French army in Egypt, he fixed lots of logistical problems— while also organizing hot air balloon expeditions in his spare time. Some of the balloon trips went well, and others were near disaster. That’s not how he lost his eye, though.
He lost the eye in a lab explosion; that didn’t stop him. Sadly, it was grief related to the death of his wife that blocked his desire to invent. Conte followed her within a year, suffering a fatal aneurysm at the age of 50. All those pencil cups. Is it the cups or my family members who stock the cups (or leave the pencils all over the coffee table when the cup is right there, dammit) who spark the urge? I don’t want to know. For now, I’ll just write that shit down.