Around this time last year a publishing house called Gestalten contacted me out of the blue about doing a book about pencils. A whole book about pencils! Totally daunting and really scary--who ever said I was an authority on pencils? I mean, I do own a shop dedicated them and have a lot of stories to tell, with histories supplemented by Henry Petroski's massively thorough The Pencil. I knew from the beginning that I could never complete with Petroski's work, mostly because of my incredibly short deadline and because he's basically covered it all, until 1990 when his book was published, at least. I set out to write something anecdotal, accessible, kind of fun and visually stimulating based on what I already knew, what I could dig up and what I'd learned from reading Petroski.
The next step was deciding how I was going to write this book. My deadlines were strict and with a more-than-full-time job it was going to prove challenging, so I purchased myself a Smythson padfolio on sale, thinking that having an ultra fancy version of a spiral-bound notebook would be extra motivating. Turns out I was wrong. Writing in the middle of the night is really hard regardless of how fancy your paper is. It's okay though, because having pencils to sharpen and organize is an excellent distraction when distraction is needed. That, and an occasional field trip to the 7 Eleven around the corner because that's the only place to get emergency coffee in the middle of the night and this non-coffee drinker keeps nothing but a broken, handed-down Nespresso machine in the house. For the record, 7 Eleven coffee is bad even to a desperate, non-coffee drinking person.
The whole process of writing a book like this made me feel like I was in college again. Except that I didn't go to a "normal" college and the end result wasn't a grade on a paper or a chance at being published in a journal but a design-y book with my name on it. It came and went like a tornado and besides being totally freaked out by finding myself as a reference on a Wikipedia page about something pencil-adjacent I survived the whole thing feeling really tired but relatively unscathed.
When the proof was finally e-mailed to me many months later, I was sitting in the shop alone with two customers. I was excited and opened up the PDF immediately to find a book completely different to what I expected. In front of the customers, I cried like I'd just found out some really bad news--except that the really bad news was that, like many first-time writers, the final result wasn't what I had imagined all of those late nights when my only encouragement was this--the final product. In one word, I was disappointed. And then I realized that I wasn't the only person who'd worked long hours on this project over the course of the past 8 months. I was working with a well-regarded publisher of beautiful books and I should let me feelings and opinions be known but also trust that they know something that I don't. As it turns out, they were right. The book is everything I could have ever imagined it to be and though I'm still really freaked out by my name being associated with the words "aficionado" or "expert" or "authority", I'll get over it. I just hope Mr. Petroski will forgive me.
Photo: One of my tattered, stained fancy notebooks and some very colorful drafts.