03/21/2011 11:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Lowly Pencil

Pencil, from the Latin penicillus, meaning "little tail." Little tail?

Not everyone writes even occasionally with the old-fashioned yellow pencil with pink eraser top anymore. This astonishing fact came to my attention through a more newfangled way to communicate, the Facebook post. But the lowly pencil remains my writerly tool of choice. I use #2 lead, no doubt a holdover from my formative bubble-tests years. The lead isn't really lead, either, but rather graphite mixed with clay; I'm okay with that.

I'm not exactly monogamous in my writing tool relationships. I write my novels (and everything else I write for publication, for that matter) primarily at a keyboard. When I journal I often use a pen, blue or black ink, I don't much care. But there is nothing like the freedom of a pencil as I'm taking the muck that is a first draft and trying to make something of it. Not quite right the first time? Erase and try again!

I keep a yellow Ticonderoga in a white marble pen holder my uncle gave me many, many years ago, so that I always have one handy. I carry them around by the ten-to-a-box in my backpack. I have an electric sharpener, and a tiny little manual one, and I sharpen far more often than I floss.

Still, I wear out the erasers long before I use up the pencil lead.

Like many a pencil-user before me, I struggle with the dilemma whether to toss a shot-eraser pencil or not. Such a waste of fine pencil lead (or graphite with clay, as the case may be), but the alternative is to be forever cringing at the scrape of eraserless metal pencil top over manuscript page.

Perhaps I erase with too much enthusiasm?

It turns out I'm in good company on the eraser-thing. Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote and rewrote everything in pencil, had this to say on the subject: "My pencils outlast their erasures."

Great writers erase.

There is another downside to my pencil affection, or to my eraser addiction anyway: dirty pink pilly eraser detritus. On my manuscripts, my chair, my clothes, and sometimes even my dog. But I'm as okay with that as I am with the graphite and clay thing. All those pink pilly things filling up my world mean the writing is going well. That I'm open to change. That a few not-exactly-right words aren't the end of anything, but rather the beginning of something else.