Pencil and Paper - Thee Sim Ling

When was the last time you took up a pencil to write?


I wrote my first words with pencil and paper. Pressing the graphite tip against the blank sheet, I scribbled down the ideas floating in my mind. Lines morphed into letters. Letters shifted to words. Words grew into sentences. Sentences bloomed into stories. The pencil was a permanent presence in my pencil case.


Slowly, though, the pencil disappeared. As national examinations loomed in the horizon, teachers started pushing for a ban on all wooden logs of graphite and mechanical guzzlers of lead. Apparently, the pen was the superior writing tool. With the pencil banished from the classroom, the other half of the dynamic duo, the eraser, had to go. Like cigarettes, the pencil was banned at school, and you could only have a puff at certain places and at certain times, such as creating art. Even then, the pencil only appeared for a split second, as the faint grey lines were eventually run over by vibrant colours.


Then Covid-19 happened.


The pandemic forced everyone online. Chatting with friends? Hit the keyboard. Taking a test? Hit the keyboard. Writing your great novel of the 21st century? Hit the keyboard. Society dictated that typing should be the only writing, click-clack the soundtrack of our days and nights. As I attended school from my laptop, I pushed my notebooks aside. But I didn’t just use my laptop for school; my poetry and prose found a home in the virtual cloud too.


Taking writing online allowed me to discover a whole new world of the written craft. Because of my terrible motor skills, writing one piece of flash fiction by hand used to be torture, and it was equally tortuous for whoever else tried to decipher my handwriting. It would take hours to pen down pages of words and, at the end of it, I would rub my sore hand and groan. Also, I wanted to be able to continue my work-in-progress wherever I went, so I had resorted to hauling around a bulky file of paper that was not only inconvenient, but not exactly great for the environment either. And, I realised that of all the work I had published, all of them were typed directly onto my laptop as first drafts. Every. Single. One. None of my pencil-and-paper stories ever appeared on a publication’s page. Most young writers I know feel that way too, for reasons similar to those above.


But have we lost something by doing so?


Now when I write, I no longer feel the grip of wood against my fingers. I no longer hear the soothing scratch of pencil against paper. I no longer sense the magic accompanying one of humankind’s greatest inventions. The first pencil was invented by a French scientist serving in the army of Napoleon, Nicholas Jacques Conte, in 1795. I wonder whether he ever considered that, centuries later, the pencil would still be in use — and may become extinct.


With the inventions of the modern pen and computer, are pencils still relevant today? I was unsure of the answer, but I found it by flipping through the old notebooks I wrote my stories in. Looking back at my stories made me cringe terribly, as mistakes were in abundance. They were probably stories I did not want to ever see on a magazine’s pages under my name. And I guess that’s the point of pencilled stories. The pencil was invented to be erased. Pencil marks are not permanent, unlike the ink of a pen or the bytes on a computer. Pencils are for you to practice, for improving your craft, for you to make mistakes and learn from them. When you scribble words with a pencil, they will not be engraved in stone, but they allow you to let your piece grow and evolve into one that is worthy of others’ attention. Granted, many of them will never see the light of day. However, all these stories make you into a better writer.


This morning, to warm up my writing muscles for the day, I took out a notebook and wrote a paragraph by hand. After five minutes, I read the pencilled lines on the page. They were terrible, probably never publication-worthy, but I was satisfied.



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