Monday, 30 November 2009

John Steinbeck, Pencils and Sharpeners

The favourite writing instrument of John Steinbeck was the pencil. During his life he wrote 16 novels, 8 works of non-fiction, one short-story collection, two film scripts and thousands of letters. He did use the typewritter at some point but his pencils remained his preferred writing instruments. His right ring finger had a great callus  - "sometimes very rough... other times... shiny as glass" from using the pencil for hours on end. He admitted that he had to keep his hands busy: "I have to hold a pencil in my fingers. I need to write something every day".

The use of the electric sharpener was part of the daily routine of the American Nobelist as he started the day with 24 sharpened pencils which needed sharpening again and again before the day was through.The electric sharpener must have worked full time especially during the process of writing East of Eden for which he used some 300 pencils.

John Steinbeck used yellow legal-size pads and wrote in tiny script. His 500-page archive discovered in a North Hills, California residence is mostly handwritten on yellow, lined notepaper. The archive reveals the attempts of Steinbeck to transform his Cannery Row (1945) into musical theatre.

His friend Pascal Covici supplied John Steinbeck with all the pencils he needed: "It is the little things that you do, what you once called the sharpening of the pencil", Covici wrote to Steinbeck on July 14, 1945, "where some of your sharpest writing appears". Steinbeck was "fanatic about pencils. They had to be exactly the right kind, and round", observed Covici's son. The Mongol pencil, 480 #2 hit the spot.

Yet, Steinbeck observed later in life:
For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones, but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is right some days is no good another day.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Perfect pencil: John Steinbeck, Blackwing Pencils and the Mongol 480

John Steinbeck, famous author of 16 novels among which Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row and East of Eden, and Nobel Prize winner in 1962, writes in one of his letters to his friend Pascal Covici:
My hands have to keep busy. I have to hold a pencil in my fingers. I need to write some pages every day. ... On the third finger of my right hand I have a great callus just from using a pencil for so many hours every day.
Steinbeck's favourite writing instrument was indeed the pencil. It is said that John Steinbeck would start the day with 24 newly-sharpened pencils which he would need to sharpen again before the day was through with  a rare for his time electric pencil sharpener. The story goes that he used some 300 pencils to complete East of Eden (1952). For the Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Cannery Row (1945) he is said to have used 60 cedar pencils every day.

Most of his life, John Steinbeck would look for the perfect pencil. Did he ever find it?

Blackwing Pencils, Mongol 480

John Steinbeck's love of pencils and his search for the perfect pencil is legendary. He described Blackwing Pencils as "soft and fine" floating "over the paper just wonderfully". But at other days the Blackwings "cracked on him", their points breaking and "all hell is let loose". And then it was the Mongol 480 #2 3/8 round. Jay Parini identifies the Mongol pencil as Steinbeck's preferred writing instrument. And for some strange reason, Steinbeck relied on his friend Covici to supply him with his perfect pencil at regular intervals.

The famous Blackwings of John Steinbeck: Courtesy of
When John Steinbeck decided on the title of his novel East of Eden he realised that he was running out of pencils:
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."
For a review of Blackwing Pencils, see Blackwing 602 in Pencil Talk; Thomas Fensch, Steinbeck and Covici, New Century Books, 2002; Jay Parini, John Steinbeck: A Biography, Henry Holt: New York, 1996.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Giorgio de Chirico Art: Elements of Drawing and Drafting Pencils

In his Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin, English art critic, artist and social commentator, instructs on the issue of drafting pencils:
The pencil is indeed a very precious instrument after you are master of the pen and brush, for the pencil, cunningly used, is both, and will draw a line with the precision of the one and gradation of the other... I should recommend... keeping only a small memorandum book in the breast-pocket, with its well-cut, sheathed pencil.
Giorgio de Chirico, the Italian surrealist artist, read the Elements of Drawing in his youth and learnt all "these fine things" about drafting pencils and sketching "explained in great acumen and intelligence", as he writes in his memoirs. But De Chirico's first teacher was a young railway employee, a Greek from Trieste, called Mavrudis.

The Elements of Drawing and Giorgio De Chirico

De Chirico lived the first years of his life in the Greek port town of Volos, where his father, a railway engineer, was employed to construct part of Greece's railway network. From about 1896 to 1898, his art teacher was Mavrudis whose teachings left a lasting impression on the 10-year-old artist: "I looked at him and... wondered into a world of dream and fantasy... [and] thought that everything could be portrayed by this extraordinary man's magic pencil".

All the things that Mavrudis explained to him, Giorgio de Chirico found later in the Elements of Drawing. De Chirico's teacher was the first to teach him "the love of clean, beautiful lines, fine contours and well-modelled forms... and the love of good materials: Faber pencils with good points, paper of first quality, Elephant-brand rubbers, which were very soft".

Drafting Pencils

As Ruskin insists in his Elements of Drawing it is important for the artist to keep a consistent point on his writing instrument so that the point can be maintained constantly. In drafting pencils this can be done by cutting back the wood to expose the lead and shaping the lead to a fine point. The process of sharpening one's drafting pencils is described also by Thomas French, Engineering Drawing of 1911. Mavrudis, De Chirico writes,
was the first to teach me how to sharpen pencils in a regular way, cutting round the wood with care and symmetry and not in the slovenly manner of many people, making the point of the pencil look like a big toe deformed by cold.
 And he continues: "If my master Mavrudis were in Rome today he could show the way to all our modernistic 'geniuses' and teach that before being imitators of Cezanne, Picasso, Soutine or Matisse... they would do better to learn how to sharpen their pencils properly".

On Giorgio De Chirico's first years of life in Greece, see Giorgio De Chirico: Trains and Childhood Images, Evaristo de Chirico, Volos and Childhood Images, on Suite101; Also John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing,  (first published by Smith, Elder & Co., London 1857), Dover Publications, 1971

Friday, 27 November 2009

Pen or Pencil? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Writing Inspiration

If one posed the question "pen or pencil" to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the celebrated author of Faustus would have replied "pencil". While others reached for the pen holder, the nib and the ink pot, Goethe (1749-1832), one of the key figures of German literature, had a noted preference for the humble pencil.
Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers or The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774, said to be the world's first bestseller.
Writing Inspiration

In his autobiography, Goethe acknowledges his "indwelling poetic gift" which flourished mostly in a spontaneous, even involuntary way. Writing inspiration often came during the night and the German author wished that he could be accustomed to writing in the dark "so as to be able to fix down at once all such unpremeditated effusions". When inspiration grabbed him he would rush to the desk and start writing the poem he had already composed in his head, from start to finish: "and as I could not spare time to adjust my paper, however, obliquely it might lie, the lines often crossed it diagonically".

Pen or Pencil

Why pencil over a pen? In his autobiography, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe explains that when writing inspiration got hold of him and he had to express onto paper the verses roaming in his head
I liked best to get hold of a lead pencil, because I could write most readily with it; whereas the scratching and spluttering of the pen would sometimes wake me from my somnambular poetizing, confuse me, and stifle a little conception in its birth. For the poems thus created I had a particular reverence.
The Faber Castell website suggests that pencil was none other than a Faber.

See The Autobiography of Goethe. Truth and Poetry: From my Own Life, trans. Rev.A.J.W Morrison, Bell & Daldy: London 1868.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Writing Supplies of Famous Authors: Rudyard Kipling, Stationery and Gadgets

Many writers are particular about their writing supplies and their choice of stationery and gadgets on the work table. The photo of Kipling's study in the Guardian's wonderful series "Writers Rooms", shows a large French walnut table filled with the famous author's writing supplies, stationery and gadgets of choice. "My work table", writes Kipling in his memoirs, "was ten feet long from North to South and badly congested".

Writing Supplies: Pen Holders

Kipling's pen holders had always a Waverley nib attached to them. While writing his Plain Tales the famous writer used a slim, octagonal, agate pen holder; when that broke, a "procession of impersonal hirelings each with a Waverley", next a disappointing silver pen holder with a quill-like curve. Finally, he abandoned pen holders and Waverley nibs for ballpoint and fountain pens.

A "slim, smooth, black treasure" of a pen he picked in Jerusalem he grew attached to in later years. But he did not like lead pencils, probably because he used them while working as a newspaper reporter. His large pewter ink pot he had bought from Villiers Street, where he rented rooms from 1889-1891.

Rudyard Kipling's Stationery and Gadgets

For paper Kipling used large, off-white, blue sheets of which he "was most wasteful". And he always kept certain "gadgets" on his work table. According to his memoirs, among the stationery and gadgets Kipling had on his desk was:
  • a lacquered canoe-shaped pen tray full of brushes and fountain pens
  • two boxes, one wooden one that held clips and bands and a tin one for pins
  • a paper weight "said to have been Warren Hasting's", the first governor of British India
  • a tiny, weighted fur seal and a leather crocodile that served as a paper weight
  • an inky foot rule
  • a pen-wiper, replaced with a new one every year by his housemaid
All these items of stationery and "gadgets" Kipling calls them in his memoirs, "little fetishes".  As for the way he treated books, the famous author admitted that although he possessed many penknives he used his forefinger to cut through the uncut pages of books. Some books were put in a locked case, the others "took their chances".

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Ink and Rudyard Kipling Writing

"There was one peculiarity of Kipling... namely the amount of ink which he used to throw about... He had a habit of dipping his pen, frequently and deep into the ink-pot, and as all his movements were abrupt, almost jerky, the ink used to fly", remembers Charles Cecil. Rudyard Kipling later developed into a "spruce, well-groomed little figure" but he was always particular about his writing supplies.

Rudyard Kipling and Ink

Kipling used black ink and liked India ink (or Indian ink) in particular. "The magic lies in the Brush and the Ink", he wrote. He had a noted  preference for the "blackest" of inks and could not abide with any "blue-blacks", and as for vermilion he "never found a bottled vermilion fit to rubricate initials when one hung in the wind waiting". India ink (or Chinese ink, for this ink has a Chinese origin) was a mixture of glue, tar, pitch and bone black pigment and often came in solid forms (Chinese sticks). When living with his parents Kipling kept an ink-boy to grind him Indian ink.

Rudyard Kipling Writing

To use the ground, dry Indian ink, a wet brush was required to make a liquid mixture. "Bottled ink is not to compare with the ground Chinese stick", wrote Kipling. And such an ink was essential to the process of his writing and editing his stories. Kipling used "well-ground Indian ink" and a "camel-hair brush" to edit his writing: "The shorter the tale, the longer the brushwork... The magic lies in the Brush and Ink". Read your final draft, consider faithfully every paragraph, sentence and word, blacking out the parts that would not do: "when thou has done, repent none".

Luxury Conway Stewart Pen, The Kipling, available from The Writing Desk

Judging from his being described as "well-groomed", Kipling's writing and editing techniques using brush and ink must have improved for in the early years of his writing career he went around spotted with ink "like a Dalmatian dog".

Monday, 23 November 2009

Rudyard Kipling: His Penholders and Waverley

Around 20 years after Duncan Waverley Cameron invented the Waverley nib, the nib with the narrow waist and upturned point found its way to the hands of the author who was meant to be the youngest (to this day) English writing recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature: Rudyard Kipling. His love of writing was paired with his love of penholders.

Kipling was very particular with his writing equipment and ink supplies: he has "always been choice, not to say coquettish" with his writing instruments. Already as the young editor of The Friend in the 1880s, his cotton trousers and thin vest were spotted with ink and he “had a habit of dipping his pen, frequently and deep into the ink pot”, remembers Charles Cecil. As Rikki-tikkit-tavi, the young mongoose in the Jungle Book would dip his nose into an ink pot in the popular short story from the Jungle Book (1894).

In his Plain Tales from Hills (1888), Kipling would use a “slim, octagonal-sided, agate penholder with a Waverley nib”. Waverley was a nib he enjoyed at that time and probably abode by the MacNiven & Cameron well-known pitch: They come as Boon and a Blessing to Men: The Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverley Pen.

Distraught about his agate penholder snapping, Kipling tried a succession of penholders, each with a Waverley. Until the day came when he “abandoned hand-dipped Waverleys – a nib [he] never changed – and for years wallowed in the pin-pointed “stylo” and its successor the “fountain” which for [him] meant geyser-pens”.

Conway Stewart has produced a Special Edition pen, the Kipling. It is a rich jet black resin pen with solid 18 carat gold trim and an 18 carat gold nib available in seven grades. The Kipling pen is engraved with two famous Kipling poems, If  and The Elephant Child.

See Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself, Wordsworth Editions 2008; Charles Cecil, Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1936, J.Hewetson & Son: London.

Post Scriptum: Object at Inklinks on February 1, 2012: Macniven & Cameron Waverley Pen tin box.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Charles Dickens, Black Ink, Blue Ink

Once he found that there was a "certain make of blue ink" that dried almost instantly after it left the pen, Charles Dickens stopped using blank ink and started using blue thereafter - "thus began the fashion of blue ink among London journalists", writes John Hotten in his Charles Dickens, The Story of his Life in 1870. By abandoning black ink Dickens did the world of literature a service.

Dickens' inkstand. Photo L. Apostolakou. 
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum, London

Until 1843, Dickens used iron gall ink, an ink made of tannine, iron sulphate and gum. The Victorian author was very particular about his writing instruments and supplies and he must have undoubtedly enjoyed the rich black tones that iron sulphate gave to this type of ink. In fact, some of the most important manuscripts in the world have been written in iron gall ink, including the U.S. constitution. Leonardo Da Vinci used it, Mozart composed in it, Goethe wrote with it; the Western World cultural heritage is written in iron gall ink.

But that same black ink was a time bomb. Conservationists around the world sounded the alarm. What was used to write the world's masterpieces was set to destroy them. The iron sulphate reacted with the surface of the manuscript and caused it to go brittle. In early manuscripts of Dickens the black ink has turned to blackish-brown or brown. The ink corrosion was not severe in most instances but one can safely say it was good that Dickens switched to blue ink (and took the London journalists with him).

Charles Dickens manuscripts are part of the Forster Collection held in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. See Annette Low, “Conservation of Charles Dickens’ manuscripts”, V&A Conservation Journal , no. 9 (Oct. 1993). Also Charles Dickens Manuscript Collection on Suite101.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

How to Write Like Proust

The writer of the greatest novel of the 20th century, In Search of Lost Time, did not care about writing instruments. Mont Blanc have named one of their limited edition fountain pens after him and a fine pen it is. Yet the 925 sterling silver Marcel Proust pen with its rich decorations, 18-karat gold nib and the writer's engraved signature, though a work of art, is a far cry from the writing instruments Proust actually used. He said:
Some people need a beautiful pen to write with, but all I need is ink and paper. If I didn't have a pen holder I would manage with a stick.
The French novelist used Sergent-Major nibs, "plain and pointed" as Marcel's housekeeper, Celeste, describes them, "with a little hollow underneath to hold the ink". He bought stocks of them, several boxes at a time, and attached them to penholders which were nothing more than "little bits of wood with a metal holder for the nib - the ordinary kind used in schools". Nothing like Mont Blanc.

 Involved intimately in the process of writing, a writing instrument ceases to be an object but becomes a conduit for ideas, Mike Sharples writes in his How We Write: Steinbeck looked for the perfect pencil for years; Rudyard Kipling used only the blackest of ink believing that a pencil is only good for reporting. Perhaps the disposable nibs and the humble penholders of Proust represented his aversion to sensory distractions from the outside world.

How to write like Proust? Start with eliminating all sensory distractions. The self-effacing wooden penholders and modest nibs of Proust evoked no sensation, no tactile pleasure, no visual delight - left the creative process uncluttered by their material existence. Secluded in his bedroom, Proust, like Descartes, thought that the "only way to achieve thought is to numb sensation".

Celeste Albaret, Monsieur Proust (as told to George Belmont), trans. Barbara Gray, Collins & Harvill Press, 1974; Mike Sharples, How We Write: Writing as a Creative Design, Routledge, 1998.