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Jason Gurley

By day, I'm a user experience designer; by evenings/weekends, I write novels from my home in Scappoose, Ore. My newest is Awake in the World, due February 2019 from Roaring Brook Press; my most recent, Eleanor, was published by Crown in 2016 and has since been translated into German, Portuguese, and Turkish.

The pencils of wrath

Felicia and I like to read to one another. We read The Time Traveler's Wife together when we began dating eleven years ago, and though we have less time for such things today, we still try. Now and then, however, Felicia just needs me to drone my way through a book she's uninterested in to help her fall asleep. This week, one such opportunity presented itself. 

"Just pick something you're already reading," she said, and I presented her with four choices: Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid (too narrative-driven); Letter to My Daughter, by Maya Angelou; The Way of the Writer, Charles Johnson; and Journal of a Novel, John Steinbeck. 

Felicia opted for Angelou's book, then proceeded to lie there, wide-eyed, listening to a chapter. When I finished, she shook her head. "Way too interesting. What else?" 

I held up Johnson's book and Steinbeck's book. 

"Dusty old white men definitely put me to sleep," she said, nodding toward the Steinbeck. 

I began to read:

Last night I read the Hamilton chapter and the transition b and c to Elaine and she said she liked them very well. I hope you will. They are odd and maybe a little indigestible maybe to some but it has to be that way. Just has to. And now, Pat, I am going into the fourth chapter.

So far, it was working.

Then I read, in the very next sentence:

You know, I just looked up and saw how different my handwriting is from day to day.

Felicia's eyes popped open, and she laughed. "Blah, blah, blah—squirrel!"

I continued: 

I think I am writing much faster today than I did yesterday. That gives a sharpness to the letter. And also I have found a new kind of pencil—the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too but it is black and soft but doesn't break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper. 

"Oh, my god," she said. "He's you." 

Which confirms, I think, that I've been a bit pencil-obsessed these last few months. 

The next few bits were fine—"He writes so ordinary, just like I write in my journal," she said, clearly not sleeping—and then:

For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is all right some days is no good another day. For example, yesterday, I used a special pencil soft and fine and it floated over the paper just wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper. So today I need a harder pencil at least for a while. I am using some that are numbered 2 3/8. I have my plastic tray you know and in it three kinds of pencils for hard writing days and soft writing days. Only sometimes it changes in the middle of the day, but at least I am equipped for it. I have also some super soft pencils which I do not use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them. And I am not often that way. But when I do have such moments I am prepared. It is always well to be prepared. Pencils are a great expense to me and I hope you know it. I buy them four dozen at a time. When in my normal writing position the metal of the pencil eraser touches my hand, I retire that pencil. Then Tom and Catbird get them. And they need pencils. They need lots of pencils. Then I have this kind of pencil and it is too soft. ★ Whenever you see a thing like that [He's referring to the ★ mark. — Jg], the point broke. I have fine prejudices, lazy ones and enjoyable ones. It occurs to me that everyone likes or wants to be an eccentric and this is my eccentricity, my pencil trifling. It isn't a very harmful one. Maybe I have others which are more. The electric pencil sharpener may seem a needless expense and yet I have never had anything that I used more and was more help to me. To sharpen the number of pencils I use every day, I don't know how many but at least sixty, by a hand sharpener would not only take too long but would tire my hand out. I like to sharpen them all at once and then I never have to do it again that day. 

Felicia could only watch in amazement as I read this part, laughing all the way. If you were to read my own journal, I told her, you'd probably find as many words about pencils as this, or more. 

When Steinbeck finally began to write about other things—the ins and outs of his day, his word counts, his distaste for amateur editors—Felicia began to snore. But I kept reading, and when I finished, I found my pencils, and I wrote a little more in the day's journal. 

Bald-headed stranger

Opening the books