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The Best Pencil in the World

I’m often asked how I write — do I use a computer, when do I write, do I have an office, and so on. These are natural questions, actually, since they concern the mysterious alchemy of the creative process. And truth is, most writers I know ask each other the same sorts of questions.

Of course I wrote on a computer (a Mac, naturally — a G5 tower with an immense flat-screen monitor, and a Macbook Air at home). But it surprises a lot of people to hear that certain scenes (the more meditative ones) I write with a pencil. And I almost always edit pages, in hard copy, with a pencil.

So the right pencil is important to me. Years ago, at a stationery store in Harvard Square called Bob Slate’s, I discovered the best pencil ever. It was called the Blackwing 602, made by Eberhard Faber. It was perfectly designed, hexagonal so it wouldn’t roll off your desk, with lead that was creamy soft but not too soft. A great oblong eraser you could pull out to extend its use. Its embossed motto: “Half the pressure, twice the speed.” (Who wouldn’t want half the pressure and twice the speed?) In a world of yellow pencils it was silvery gray. Several times a year I’d stop into Bob Slate’s to buy a box.

Turned out there was a whole underground fraternity of Blackwing-obsessives. Stephen Sondheim told the New York Times he’d use nothing else: “They wear down quickly, so I feel like I’m getting a lot done.” Writers like Thomas Wolfe and Archibald MacLeish loved them. The late John Steinbeck, ever in search of the perfect pencil,thought the Blackwing “floated over the paper just wonderfully.”

Then one day I went into Slate’s and learned, to my horror, that the Blackwing 602 was no more. It had been discontinued. Frantic, I launched into action. I enlisted my assistant to call every stationery distributor, every mom-and-pop stationery store in the country, and buy up as many boxes of Blackwings as we could find. In time we’dd amassed a closet full of them.

When the terrible news spread throughout the Blackwing Underground, my fellow obsessives began buying them up too. Writer friends of mine who learned of my stockpile — Andre Gregory (of “My Dinner With Andre”) and Roger Rosenblatt — began calling me to ask if I could spare one . . . or a box. Soon, Blackwings began popping up on eBay for $20 each. In fact, I just checked eBay and found one for $38.99 — for a single pencil.

Still, I won’t sell mine, and I only give them away to my closest friends who will make good use of them. I figure that as long as I have them around, I’ll keep writing my novels with half the pressure and twice the speed.

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