Let’s start with a trivia question.
In the movie “Casablanca,” how does Humphrey Bogart make his entrance? And extra points for what he is specifically doing. The answer will be provided in due course.
Today’s title came from comedian Marty Feldman by the way, but no points for knowing that. It should, however, have provided a strong clue about our topic: the tools we use to write things down.
I rarely read anything without a sharp pencil in hand. Because I am a confirmed and constant underliner and margin scribbler. Those scribbles, in an admittedly horrible handwriting that usually only I can make any sense of, might be the title of a poem or a novel that a passage reminds me of, or maybe a memo to myself to look something up. Sometimes a well-turned phrase makes me envious, so I underline it and make myself a note in the margin to use it in my own writing.
Consequently the books on my shelves are filled with messy marginalia. Not so much because I might actually go back through them and do the things I told myself to, but more because putting my own pencil to those writers’ words somehow brings me closer to whatever truth or beauty they’ve expressed there.
There’s something about holding a pen or a pencil that provides a degree of comfort and, I think, security. I’ve watched many a student about to take a big life-altering test — like a college entrance exam — lay out their sharp #2s precisely, like surgical instruments.
Holding a pen or a pencil makes us feel smarter, I guess, and more capable of the task at hand. Sort of like holding a hammer makes us feel more like a real carpenter.
Pens can do the same thing.
I used to have an old-fashioned fountain pen, a pricey model with a bladder that had to be filled up from a little bottle of ink. I bought it to celebrate the publication of my first book, justifying the extravagance by figuring that if I was going to be a real writer I needed a real fountain pen. After all, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen would hardly have been expected to scratch out their stories with second rate quills, now would they?
Not too long after I got it I dropped the pen and broke the nib. So I ordered another one, which cost nearly as much as the pen itself, and promptly dropped it again and broke the second one. At which time I determined that the gods of writing seemed to be in agreement that I was no Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. So I put the broken pen in a drawer and have since made do with ball points and felt tips. And pencils. Nothing nudges me toward creativity like the sight and feel of a freshly sharpened pencil.
Notice, next time you watch a panel of political pundits on television on Sunday morning or a panel of pigskin pundits before the football games on Sunday afternoon, that most of the panelists are holding pens while they pontificate. They never actually use them, but I’ll bet if those pens were taken away those knowledgeable folks would come off as less knowledgeable. Because holding a pen or pencil doesn’t just help us write. It helps us think.
Now for the answer to the trivia question. The first we see of Mr. Bogart in “Casablanca” is his hand, emerging from the cuffs of a white dinner jacket, putting a cigarette in an ashtray and taking up a pencil to sign a voucher that has been handed to him by an employee in his nightclub. He scrawls “O.K. — Rick” on the paper. Then the camera lifts slowly up to give us the sad-faced Bogie, ready to take on Nazis, old lovers and various other foes.
I’ve always thought it fitting that one of the best movies ever made should begin with the leading character lifting up a writing instrument. After all, every good story more than likely began with someone taking out a pen or pencil and scribbling down a lonely idea, or maybe a fragment or two of description or dialogue.
I think I remember reading that Dickens jotted down “best of times — worst of times” on the back of a menu. Maybe not.
I’ll have to think about it. Let me grab a pencil.