The Blackwing As A Gateway Drug

(This is a guest post by Jon Bemis. You can find Jon on Twitter @jtower42.)

(Note: This story is true. I have changed a few details to respect people’s privacy. The internet is a small world.)

I don’t really like pencils. I’m a pen person – fountain, gel, rollerball, even ballpoint. For me, there are just too many reasons not to use a pencil. Let me enumerate them.

  • Sharpening. It’s so fussy. I’m not talking about the mess; I don’t mind pencil shavings any more than I mind ink on my fingers. Filling a fountain pen is just as time consuming and potentially much messier than sharpening a pencil. What I mean by “fussy” is the shot-in-the-dark, wild-ass-guess aspect of sharpening. It’s a gamble every time.

Everyone knows the problems. You stick your pencil into a blind hole, twist and pray. Too little, and you don’t have a sharp point. Too much, and you lose too much wood, expose the tip and snap it off… and I just realized what an awkward turn this has taken. Kids, if you don’t know how pencil sharpening works, ask your parents or health ed teacher. Moving on.

  • Color. There ain’t any. Color is one of the things I like best about pens, especially fountain pens. There is a color of ink for every situation and every mood. I know that a true leadhead can speak passionately about the subtle and gorgeous differences between a 2H and a 2B, but it’s all fifty shades of grey to me.

Dang it, I did it again. I don’t know what it is about pencils that make me turn to innuendo and cheap jokes. I swear it won’t happen again.

  • Erasers. All that rubbing, and heat, and it’s messy afterward…Someone stop me. I need help.

  • I really do have a problem with eraser schnibbles. They make my skin crawl. Seriously, I have a huge hang-up about little bits of eraser all over my paper, my desk, my office floor. Just gross.

I don’t want anyone think I’m going to go on some anti-pencil tirade. Just because I personally don’t like pencils, and frankly don’t GET pencils, doesn’t mean I don’t respect those who do. It’s like cats. I don’t like cats and don’t get why people do like cats, but when some dear friends recently lost a beloved cat, I was there to offer my condolences. I understand that some people like pencils or cats the same way I like pens or, um, not cats.

But until recently, the mind of the pencil-lover was a mystery to me. I understood intellectually that some people preferred pencils, but I didn’t truly get it. Recently, however, I had an excellent conversation with a co-worker named Lucas, and I started to really understand. Join me in a flashback to establish the context for this graphite epiphany:

Like many “better writing” enthusiasts, even though I have my favorites, I am always willing to buy and try new things. So I had purchased a box each of Blackwings and 602’s, a couple of General 580s, and two different Uni Kuru Toga models. (Full disclosure, I do use the Kuru Toga’s infrequently but regularly for sketching product ideas, doodling and math.) I tried the woodcase pencils, but for all the reasons above, none of them could displace pens on an everyday basis.

For my co-worker Lucas, pencils were the only choice. I noticed he was using the Dixon Ticonderogas from our office supply closet (not at all a bad pencil,) and that he never used a pen. I knew he wasn’t someone I could talk to about pens, but I could still try to lead him down the path into the Lovecraftian nightmare grotto of writing instrument addiction.

So I stopped by his cube one afternoon with a couple of Blackwing 602s. I gave them to him and tried to give him some context. I told him about the legendary Palomino brand, its demise and its resurrection by I swore to him that he would perceive a difference between the Ticonderoga and the 602. I talked about aromatic cedar wood. Throughout this whole conversation, I was trying to be cautious. The one thing I didn’t want to do was overwhelm him with pencil information or trivia. I might have overshot a little when I told him about the Erasable Podcast. That was the moment when I got the look like I was crazy.

“What do they talk about?” he asked. “Just… PENCILS?” “Oh no,” I replied hurriedly. “They talk about paper and sharpeners and erasers too.” Strangely, this did not remove the skeptical look from his face. Suddenly feeling a flush creeping up my neck, I tried to get out of this conversation as quickly as I could. “I promise you, you’ll love the Blackwing. Just try it, and let me know what you think,” I said.

I backed out of his cubicle. His right eyebrow never left its incredulous perch halfway up his forehead.

For a couple of weeks, I tried to avoid Lucas. There wasn’t any ducking into supply closets or anything, but I certainly took a circuitous route around his cube. I felt like I’d told him I liked to drink pickle juice, or collected ceramic unicorns, or something equally mortifying and terrible. Even though I was merely trying to share the joy of writing, I felt embarrassed.

Finally, after chiding myself for being ridiculous, I stopped by his cubicle and asked him how he liked writing with the Blackwing. He looked at me, and I was surprised to see that HE looked embarrassed! “I thought there was NO WAY I’d be able to tell any difference between two pencils,” he said. “But man, that pencil you gave me is really smooth.”

I couldn’t help myself. I grinned. The ice had been broken. I wasn’t a pencil-pushing lunatic any more; I was just a guy with a geeky hobby. I decided to take this newfound, delicate connection out for a spin. “So, tell me, why pencils? I just can’t get into pencils – I’m pretty strictly a pen guy,” I asked.

“Well,” Lucas said, “In my job (accounting) accuracy is so critical. If I write down the wrong number and enter the wrong thing, it could be disastrous. So, if I make a mistake, I like to be able to erase it.” I nodded. “If I use pen and have to cross out a number or a date, I’ll question myself later why I crossed it out. But if I erase it, it’s gone forever.”

There was a pause.

“I know that sounds a little crazy,” he said. “I’m kind of… I mean, I’m not really OCD, but I am kind of…” “Particular?” I ventured. “That’s a good way to put it. My whole life is kind of well-organized,” he said. “I even had a girlfriend once who said she was afraid to move my stuff because I was so anal-retentive about it. We broke up after a while.”

This was a little bit of a moment. I didn’t say anything for a few seconds. “Well,” I finally said, “that’s why there are so many kinds of pens and pencils in the world. There’s something out there that works perfectly for everyone."

I had a meeting to get to. “Hey, if you need more Blackwings, let me know. I have two dozen, and I’ll never get around to using all of them,” I said. “See ya later.”

“See ya,” he said.

I walked to my meeting with a smile on my face. I was relieved that Lucas no longer thought I was an office supply psychopath. I was also glad to be reminded of the best part of the writing community; that connections can be made over something as simple as a pencil.

Posted on July 8, 2015 and filed under Blackwing.