The creative process: John Steinbeck’s obsession with pencils

By Dennis Mellersh

John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and other American literary classics, wrote in longhand with pencils. He had great difficulty writing without a good supply of sharpened pencils on hand.

And he took particular delight in delight in sharpening them.

Steinbeck was very particular about the brands and characteristics of the pencils he could work with in his writing. For example, he liked his pencils when they were new and long, but didn’t like writing with them as they grew shorter with use. He even used pencils of different hardness/softness depending on how aggressively he was attacking the writing process.

In his Journal of a Novel, which is comprised of letters he wrote to his editor Pascal Covici during the writing of East of Eden, Steinbeck noted:

“You know, it is about time for me to throw out a flock of pencils. They are getting short, and I detest short pencils, I think I will discard the short ones today as I finish with each one. I take them to Tom who uses them to draw with.”

“My pencils are all short now and I will celebrate by getting out 12 new pencils. Sometimes the just 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 F round…Well, here they are and I just sharpened them and oh! Lord I think my [electric] pencil sharpener is burning up. And if it is I’ll be sick.” (1)

He noted that he sharpened and used about 60 pencils a day, and preferred to sharpen them all at once with his electric pencil sharpener. When one pencil dulled, he would move on to the next already sharpened pencil, without having to take time in the midst of writing, to sharpen it. (2)

(1) & (2) John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel, William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1970

About Dennis Mellersh

Dennis Mellersh is an independent writer, journalist, editor, and editorial consultant.
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