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.





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