Pen Or Pencil?

by stephenpalmersf

At the Shrewsbury Writers’ Lab on Tuesday (the local writing group Joe Shooman and I lead, based in Shrewsbury Library) a writer asked me a question I’ve never been asked before. We began a freeform discussion on our various projects with me showing everyone my notebook, and I spoke for a while about their value. Many writers had similar notebooks, some digital some real, and an interesting discussion was had.

But the question which floored me was: “Why do you use a pencil in your notebook, not a pen?” The questioner went on to observe, “You’re not rubbing things out, you’re crossing them out.”

Notebook photo for Nicky blog

I pondered this for a few seconds, then confessed that I didn’t know why I favoured pencil. But I knew even in those few seconds that I never had used a pen and never would. This surprised me, and I had to tell the assembled writers that I didn’t know why only pencil…

Since then I’ve had time to think about it. I know for sure that I never could use a pen in such a notebook (although, see below). My notebooks have great significance to me. I explained to the others in the group that for me each notebook has to be a physical object, treasured, taken pretty much wherever I go, and carefully organised.

I begin with the basics of the scenario, the most fundamental essentials: characters, setting, tone. Then the ideas flow. Eventually I’ll get to the stage where I block out the plot of the novel on one page, usually no more than two lines per chapter. Then more notes, then a second version of the plot, with four or five lines per chapter. After a further period of work I’ll know I’m ‘ready’ and it’s time to organise all my thoughts, notes, ideas and plot into the third version of the narrative. This version has one page per chapter, and it’s what I use when doing the actual writing.

So, why pencil? I think pencil has one advantage for me, though it’s quite difficult to explain, and actually not an explanation; more of a metaphor. Pen, to my mind, is too harsh, too dark, too contrasty. I use a pencil because the marks – the words – are grey; ephemeral themselves. Pencil somehow symbolises the ambiguity and uncertainty of my thoughts at the early stage. I know that sounds a bit weird, but I’ve thought about it, slept on it, and it’s definitely right!

What’s really strange about all this though is that when I had the opening ‘two hour splurge’ for the Factory Girl trilogy, I wrote them with a pen! What does this mean? That the material for that trilogy was so ready in my mind I didn’t feel the urge to grab a pencil instead of the pen which first came to hand? It sounds weird, but then so much of the author’s art is weird…

notebook Factory G