Tag Archives: writing

Ode to the Mechanical Pencil

I have a small college-ruled notebook that I use to scribble notes for blogs, copy recipes I find elsewhere, keep phone numbers–you know, write down whatever.  It took me a while to establish the habit of writing down ideas in the moment I have them, rather than ruminating on the thought, giving myself a satisfied “Huh,” and forgetting it ten minutes later.  Now I can actually put together informed writing based on something that jumped in my head two or three days ago.  But there’s an additional perk to the notebook.

It gives me the opportunity to admire my own handwriting.

I’m sure that sounds a bit vain.  Hell, it is vain.  But I have developed an admirably sketchy scrawl, a style of my own.  It sure took me long enough.  My penmanship has never been stellar, and in my youth it was often downright ugly.  But over time, I have adapted some of the qualities in others’ writing–the casual uniformity of my middle school math teacher’s all-capital style, the occasional bubbliness of a typical girl’s writing, and the hybrid print/cursive we all develop out of laziness and impatience–into something that has been consistently my own for a few years now.

My participation in debate impacted my writing the most.  You have to be able to keep legible notes at a rapid pace, while understanding the thoughts behind what you wrote later.  But as I stopped competing and only judged, I focused on organizing my “flow” (the term used to describe the set of notes kept during a debate) and ensuring it had a certain organized beauty to it by the end of the round.  Clean printing and clean lines–I need clean lines–and I had a flow that had, well, flow.  My preferred weapon of choice was and still is the Pilot G-2, preferably the 0.5 mm thickness.  Before that, I rocked the Uniball Vision.

The two pens contrast each other nicely.  The Vision is a thicker pen with a cap, and the roller tip has a gritty feel, so you know you’re really writing when you scribble.  The sharp tip prevents bleeding, but it also dilutes any stylistic flourish you may add when you have more contour to your writing piece.  You’re left with a strict examination of the formation of your letters (how high is the loop in your lower case ‘e’?  how low do you cross your ‘t’?) with no evidence of your pen movement.  The Pilot G-2 is a clicky (don’t know the correct term for this) gel pen, meaning thicker strokes of ink on your pad, but also an increased probability of smear.  Counterintuitively, it is a bit more sensitive to pressure, so you get thickness diversity.  The tip glides (“You takin’ the glide back!?”†) better,  so what starts as printed letters on your page you can’t help but turn into the hybrid.  It almost forces you to develop your style further.

This commercial is infuriating on so many levels.  First of all, what kind of locker room looks like that?  Giant swaths of open space, and mirrors with lighting in a Hollywood dressing room style?  “Gillette–I’m ready for my close-up.”  Then this guy barges in, full of fabricated verve, telling all these big bad macho men about HOW MUCH IT HURTS WHEN THEY SHAVE, and OWIE I THINK I STUBBED MY TOE, and WOULD YOU PLEASE SLICE THE CRUST OFF THE BREAD WHEN YOU MAKE MY PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICH!?  Then these douchebags, whom we’re supposed to assume these crazy “challengers” have caught totally off guard, offer glowing praise for another ridiculous shaving product.  Then the jerkoff at the end–“you takin’ the glide back?” gives us the most excruciatingly rehearsed but supposedly non-rehearsed personal endorsement I’ve probably ever seen on TV.  The guy looks ashamed for having to blurt out that phony blabber.  Recent versions of the commercial have edited this guy out, maybe just keeping his “wow” statement.  In fact, in a recent clip, some guy says “it, like, really glides.”  Only slightly subtler than those old HeadOn clips.  End rant.

But these days I don’t judge too many debates anymore, and the only time I’m  writing anything (besides in my notebook) is when I’m completing crossword puzzles.  And I don’t like using ink on a crossword puzzle.  You make two or even three mistakes in one block, and you’re left with the only option of basically filling in the entire block and rewriting the correct answer in contrasting correctional fluid.  So I’ve swapped my pen collection for the most artsy, stylish, feel-friendly writing utensil of them all–the mechanical pencil.

I lean toward the mechanical pencil over the standard wood pencil for a few reasons.  First of all, obviously,  is the convenience of the mechanical.  You never need to sharpen.  Beyond that, though, the lead tip of a mechanical offers greater uniformity over time than does a wooden pencil.  The amount of lead in a wooden pencil is downright wasteful.  You start with a the tiniest, sharpest tip and watch it slowly expand until your letters turn to mush.  Then you get up, find a sharpener (where, I have no idea), and start the whole process over.  Sometimes you go too far and feel the wood press against the paper, and it makes that terrible scraping sound, and AHHHHH  I JUST CAN’T HANDLE THAT.  Beyond all that, the gummy mechanical eraser is always better than the gritty crappy pink wooden eraser.  Sometimes the pink ones leave giant pink streaks on your paper–who the hell wants that?  Don’t they test these things first?  Then you have to find an eraser to erase your eraser marks.  No thanks.

My first option for mechanical pencil was a massive 24-pack of cheapo Bics, because I manage to lose pens and pencils at about the same rate Colts players are placed on Injured Reserve.  Sure enough, 24 became 17, which became 12, which became 8, which became 2, and now they’re all gone.  So I decided to lean toward quality rather than quality, and picked up a two-pack of Paper Mate ComfortMate ULTRA with 0.7mm lead and extra lead and erasers, which I diligently leave in the same space in my messenger bag after each use.  It is probably the most awesome writing instrument I’ve experienced so far.  The grip is just right in my hand.  The eraser clears any writing in its entirety.  When I work the angle of the pencil just so, it gives my notes an authoritative sketchiness.  I could write “purple jalopey dinosaur” fifteen times in a row, but if you took a glance at the page, you’d initially think, “Oooh, this guy has some deep thoughts.”

I was inspired to write this post when, after having noted my passion for this pencil on my Gmail status today, a friend of mine sent me a quick note debating my lead thickness of choice.  He denigrated the lowly erasable pen, and I started forming a response, when I realized how much I enjoy seeing words on paper.  Words formed by humans.   We’re slowly turning into a world where the literal written word (not typed or texted or whatever) becomes obsolete.  At some point, we’ll probably be able to think of letters and see them simultaneously placed on electronic paper.  But writing words out has a feel that is irreplaceable.  Sometimes the act of putting words to paper sparks a chain of thoughts or ideas in the mind that typing can’t foster.  I recently read that Pauline Kael, the celebrated movie critic, always hand-wrote her reviews.  I can understand why.

So thank you, Paper Mate, and Pilot, and Uniball.  When I see my notes, or my crossword puzzles, or my signature on a check, I can embrace the physical connection to our language.  And I’m sorry I didn’t use any of you to create this blog.

UPDATE:  I ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.  The Week says so.

On Faux Gravitas; or, Writing Is Hard

Writing is hard.  Yes, another blogger whining about writing.

But don’t you think?  You just swirl all these ideas around in your head.  Compelling metaphors, sophisticated turns of phrase.  (Actually, I hate the phrase “turn of phrase.”  Please disregard.)  Sentence after sentence you’ve trimmed and edited, sometimes it’s a whole paragraph in your head.  You don’t even know what theme binds these thoughts together, how you’ll express them coherently.  You know, though, that you’ll sit down, and just blurt words out, BLAHBLAHBLAHBLAHBLAH typetypetypetypetype, and you’ll go and go and go, and you’ll look like a Hollywood writing montage, the camera panning slowly up and down while you tappity-tap away on your typewriter, the lens catching you schingping! the scroll or whatever it’s called back to the left, the camera keeps scrolling up, catches your head tilted up but eyes tilted down, peeking through your bifocals, and you just type all damn day.  Ideas!  Expression!  You’re an artiste!

Then you really do sit down, and you stare at the screen or at your paper.  And you type a whole paragraph, read it, delete it.  Maybe your problem is you write the same thing four different ways.  I like to write paragraphs that sum up an entire idea and resolve it by the end.  “Too efficient” is what I tell myself, such a smarmy, self-aware way to dismiss crappy writing.  Then I reverse course and write every stupid single word that enters my mind, and then–well, then you get the past few sentences.  (I’m trying to acknowledge that no one wants to read about another whiny blogger here, bear with me.)  But that flow, the ease.  When does it begin?  How often do I write before it happens?  What happens if I suddenly write nonstop, words pouring out of me, only to be terrible?

I ponder this because I will shortly be linking to an additional blog, Back Sports Page, where I will regularly cover the tennis world.  It’s the first time in years–since high school, really–that I’ll be required, in a sense, to produce original pieces of writing on a regular basis.  And let’s just say that then I wasn’t too inspired to meet the deadline.  But this is a gig I actively sought and appreciate having earned.  So wrangling with the anxiety of a commitment to consistent creative output, while seemingly counter-intuitive given my fondness for the subject, both refreshes my intellect and constricts my output. I look forward to the comfort of my own forum, where I can discuss a passion of my life, but that doesn’t magically eradicate the self-consciousness that can paralyze me, or any writer.  (I’m already worried about my combination of first- and second-person in this piece.  But I’m not changing it.  Confidence in a personal style choice?  Defiance of literary norms?  Uh, laziness?  Whatever.)

You blurt out a witty comment or something, you sign a birthday card with a nice pun, and people think “You should be a writer!”  Or you play a good game of Taboo.  (And I have to say, I play a mean game of Taboo.)   “You’re good with words–I bet you’d be a good writer!”  But there’s  a freedom to the spoken word that almost makes it an opposing duality of the written word.  Words you say disappear into the air.  The exact phrase you use becomes an echo in others’ minds.  You learn at a young age that you can’t erase what you’ve said, so we never develop the desire to self-edit.  (Until we hear our recorded selves.  Are we more concerned with the aural qualities of our voices, or maybe what we said, and how we said it?)  When you’re speaking, the occasional transgression is accepted, sometimes encouraged.  “And then we opened the sushi–which reminds me…”  (Robin Williams has essentially made a career out of word salad.  He just has a wide array of dressings.)  Sometimes, it’s easier to be articulate when you’re speaking, because if you put the words together just right, people admire your off-the-cuff cohesion.  You smirk, and think, if they only knew I’m not really saying anything.

Your writing, though, glares right back at you.  Immediately.  You really think that?  I mean, you wrote it! You’re forced constantly to reassess every thought–not only every thought, but the exact way you formed it.  You remind yourself of the untold history of writing, the writing that exists but will remain forever unread, the chances that your perceptions of life or the human condition have been either exactly or superlatively replicated by another.  What stirring thoughts could I possibly contribute to a sport covered by thousands internationally?  And, let’s face it, even when you’re a huge fan, enamored in the nuance replete within all aspects of the game, tennis is not the most complex sport.  They play in tournaments, where there is one winner, determined by who hits a ball back and forth the best.  Wow!

Writing leaves me vulnerable, mainly to my own self-criticism.  But great writers will tell you that to become a great writer, you just have to write.  A lot.  Daily.  Whatever you can put down.  You face what you’ve written, mold your tendencies over time, improve, feel satisfaction in that improvement.  You won’t make any sweeping changes overnight.  As Andre Agassi said (and probably Confucius before him or something), it’s about the journey, not the destination.  Kinda like life, I guess.

OK…so.  Any of you seven readers out there like to write?  Anything hold you back?  Any tips or ideas?  I’d love to read new perspectives on all this.