Prof. William Allen Creates Documentary on Writing with Pencil

Apr 13, 2015

by Leah Schwarting | Student Life Reporter

Assistant Professor of Communication William Allen has pencils on the brain. Ask anyone, from his students who come to his office and see framed pictures of pencils on the wall to his children who bought him a stylus designed as a pencil for Christmas. Therefore, it makes sense that it is this fondness for the writing tool that inspired his documentary, No. 2: The Story of the Pencil.

Initially, Allen was not even thinking of filming a documentary. Instead Allen was creating an art show, honoring the pencil through photographs. It is those photographs that students stare at when they come into his office.

To Allen, the writing tool is where ideas begin: a “symbol of creativity.” Its unique role in history and communications, as well as its changing place in an advancing world, sparked his imagination.

“I was really fascinated with writing and the significance of writing and what that does for our thinking process, and then seeing the changes,” Allen said. “Do we even call it writing today as we type things compared to actually physically writing.”

The idea inspired Allen to put together a documentary chronicling how people write and think through the medium of the pencil. Florida Southern College encouraged the work, giving him a grant so that he could pursue the project. During the summer of 2014, Allen packed his car up with film equipment and, accompanied by his family, he took off on a road trip that spanned more than 2,800 miles and five states.

“I don’t want us to suppress technology. I don’t want us to be luddites, but rather to recognize the value of the pencil.”
~Prof. William Allen

Along the way, Allen found himself interviewing individuals from all walks of life with different views on the pencil’s value. Allen travelled to Beacon, NY to talk to David Rees, host of "Going Deep With David Rees" on National Geographic and author of “How to Sharpen Pencils,” a book in Allen’s office library.

Allen reached out to companies, too, including the Musgrave Pencil Company, one of the last American pencil manufacturers in Shelbyville, Tenn. The family-owned business, located in what was once the pencil capitol of America, is still churning out the traditional No. 2 pencil, familiar to most school children.

And it certainly would not be unfamiliar to students at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, a technology-free school located in Silicon Valley. Although the board of directors is populated by new-technology executives whose tech tools they create with the intention to make life easier, there is a concern among them that they may also stifle their children’s creativity. By not integrating technology in the classroom, they believe that they are allowing creativity reign freely.

“I don’t want us to suppress technology,” Allen said. “I don’t want us to be luddites, but rather to definitely recognize the value of the pencil. It does change the way we think.”

However, the way we are thinking is already changing. At present there are alternatives to the more traditional ways of writing, such as the use of applications within laptops and tablets. With such technology becoming more common, people are moving a little away from the pencil and more toward technology. It may spell a difficult road in the pencil’s future.

Pictured above is David Rees, host of “Going Deep With David Rees” on National Geographic and author of “How to Sharpen Pencils.”

“I don’t know if it’s going to diminish completely, but it’s going to change,” Allen said. “Just as calligraphy writing is now an art form where, before the printing press, you had whole systems and whole structures built around calligraphy writing.”

True to Allen’s word, at present some people are trying to change the traditional form of the pencil. A company called FiftyThree created a unique stylus that interacts with tablet screens the same way a pencil would, allowing users to erase their creations and smudge lines with the touch of a finger. This integration of modern technology and old techniques may be a harbinger of the future.

All of these thoughts went through Allen’s head as he returned home and began the long process of editing the film and transcribing the interviews. With all of those thoughts recorded and the documentary finished, the goal is for it to be screened at the Media Ecology Association Conference in Denver, Co. in June 2015. After that, Allen plans on taking it to film festivals.

Hopefully, like Allen, viewers will be able to see more than a tool that begins with a lead tip and ends with a pink eraser. Instead, they will be able to see a symbol of creativity and just maybe, they, too, will have pencils on the brain.