Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Steinbeck's Obsession with Pencils

I just came across a rather odd book about odd habits of writers.[1] In it, we find about Steinbeck that he "preferred to compose his works in pencil, for the most part. He kept twelve pencils at his desk, and it was essential that each had a sharp point. An electric pencil sharpener was one of his most cherished tools. Steinbeck summed up his work regimen: ‘I sharpen all the pencils in the morning and it takes one more sharpening for a day’s work. That’s twenty-four sharp points. I can make a newly sharpened pencil last almost a page.”

Apparently, he liked the famous Blackwing pencils the best.[2] I would have suggested to him that he use mechanical pencils. Perhaps an "Eversharp"? But it would not have done, as he found the shape of the pencil irresistible: "My pencils are all short now and I think I will celebrate by getting out 12 new pencils. Sometimes just the pure luxury of long beautiful pencils charges me with energy and invention. We shall see. It means I will have to have more pencils before long though. Would you send me another box. They are Mongol 480 #2 3/8 round." Octogonal pencils gave him callouses.

He also needed yellow legal pads to write on. So the page that a sharpened pencil would last was probably a "yellow-pad page," but he also used ledgers.[3]

After he wrote his draft in longhand, he dictated it into his Dictaphone. For revisions, he played the recording back, claiming that he could hear “the most terrible things” he had done in writing when he heard it. Reading aloud did not give him sufficient distance, he claimed, because his eyes were involved.

1. Celia Blue Johnson, Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors. Penguin Books: 2013

2. See also Perfect pencil: John Steinbeck, Blackwing Pencils and the Mongol 480. See also Michael Leddy who provides another quotation.

3. See here.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

I had to smile at the word odd: I bought a copy of that book last summer but have yet to look into it.

Steinbeck also went on record as liking the Blaisdell Calculator. The blog pencil talk, now offline, had a terrific post on the the Calculator, the Mongol, and the Blackwing.