Writer in Residence · 03/07/2012

The Sharpwriter

I love PaperMate Sharpwriter #2 pencils.

I have always been a doodler. From the time I could write, I have always sketched something. Little arrows and asterisks surround my to-do lists. Somehow I think that doodling around the thing that I’m actually supposed to be doing will help it get done.

For most of my life, I scribbled in pen, not pencil. Pencils were unstable. When I was stressed, I took it out on the pen, because a pencil lead would snap under my pressure, sending lead shrapnel flying. I also feared the graphite smudge on the page. So I wrote the pencil off in favor of the sturdier, consistent pen. I came to prefer the UniVision Roller Ball Pen Fine Black. It produced a steady liquid stream of ink, dried fast, and was dependable. It could handle my rapid doodling and sketching. It adapted to the various paper textures and colors of my frenetic note-taking system—a “system” that consisted of scribbles on random Post-its or loose sheets of paper. These important bits of information were then placed into a larger pile of organized chaos. Inevitably, each scrap of paper got lost in the mass, and the organized chaos just became chaos.

My new method is a notebook, and with a new method comes a new tool.

My first inkling of attraction to my new mate came during a lettering exercise during which the teachers professed their love for this pencil and this pencil alone. They even went so far as to provide the pencils to the class to ensure our new allegiance to the Papermate Sharpwriter. Sure enough, I fell hard for the little pencil and now can’t fathom ever leaving it behind.

As a designer (a title that sounds slightly more legitimate than professional doodler), I am often forced to think about what it is that I’m drawing and why I’m drawing it the way I am. The pencil helps me do this. The lead is the right consistency of hardness so that the point hardly ever breaks, and with use, it forms a perfect slant that corresponds to the angle of my hand and the surface below. I hear the physical connection between pencil and paper as the lead slowly chips and marks the page. I am forced to understand how it’s going to react to the writing surface and why it makes the marks it does based on the angle with which I’m holding it.

The Sharpwriter does have flaws. The barrel can’t be refilled, so once the lead is gone—or, god forbid, there’s a jam in the holder—that’s it. A new one has to come in and take its place. Despite the fact that it is completely unsustainable, I still love this pencil, and I faithfully replace each used pencil with one of the same. The two little hearts on the Papermate logo is the pencil’s way of telling me it loves me back.

I’m using the pencil to design a typeface. Sketching an A over and over again to refine the form isn’t so different from doodling asterisks and arrows. The tool that I use to draw has changed, and I guess I could say I’ve graduated from doodles to design. In a way, the Sharpwriter helped me get here.


Jessica Karle Heltzel is a designer, writer, and publisher. She is a graphic-design graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She wrote a longer version of this essay for a writing course with David Barringer. With Tim Hoover, she runs Kern and Burn (www.kernandburn.com), a new online and print publication about design entrepreneurship. See jkheltzel.com.


posted by David Barringer