24 Pencils

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Good writing starts with something to say. But how to say it? Peggy Hansen says you’d be surprised at how writers get there.

He was famous for them, 24 shiny, untouched pencils to begin each day. Google "Steinbeck's pencils" and you'll soon see. He took them very seriously indeed.

Writers like to talk about writing--how we do it, and why, but especially little tricks that might unlock the masterpiece we know hides somewhere inside. Rituals often come up--candles, a special tea blend, a playlist that flips a switch marked "creativity". We're eager to hear what works for others, hoping magic will grace us if we do that thing too. So when I learned about the pencils, of course I wondered what enchantment they, and their rituals, might hold.

I picture him of a morning, dark coffee to hand in a much-loved mug, feeding pencil after pencil to the eager sharpener. Did he let the shavings spill out when it got full, thickening the air with wood and graphite? Did he note the way the pencil turned between his fingers as he gave voice to another dusty migrant? How did he decide when to call in a fresh recruit? Was it when the tip grew dull, and could no longer meet the speed or clarity his plot demanded? Was it when a new twist, or a new character, emerged? Or, perhaps, when an idea failed him, the pencil took the blame, and gave way to its successor? Did he use an eraser, or cross out words that went astray, or scrap the page completely for another, naked and unsullied?

So many questions, not least being who am I, with my single, stubby yellow #2, to invoke his name, his daily dose of pencils? I know it's not the tool that makes the writer, any more than paintbrushes made Picasso--yet I can't help but wonder. And what worthy thing shall I do, now, with my remaining 23?


With a Perspective, I’m Peggy Hansen.

Peggy Hansen is a writer and organic farmer in Santa Cruz.