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Learning to Write

Gen X: rural mountain town, California, US

Graphite in My Arm

A piece of graphite is lodged in my upper left arm. Even at age fifty, the broken pencil tip remains visible. When you open a package of new pencils, the cedar smells like a lumber yard. Whenever we drive over the Sierra Mountains to visit my mother’s family near Hollister — a six hour trip of listening to Johny Cash, Tammy Wynette and the Beatles on 8-track tapes –, we pass by the lumber yard in Jackson. I inhale deeply the scent of pencils.

For a long time, I didn’t know I had graphite in my arm. I thought it was lead. When I learned to write, I made errors with the lead tip and erase them carefully with the eraser dark red like Dyntene gum. I don’t like Dyntene, but my mother chews it. I don’t eat my pencil eraser, but I recall classmates who’d bite them off.

Lead worried me. For years I watched the black spot on my arm, looking for signs of lead poisoning. I don’t recall where or when I learned about lead poisoning but I recall the fear gripping me. I didn’t want to have to explain to the adults why I wasn’t practicing my writing homework.

I was fiddling. My arm was the fiddle, my pencil the bow. With an enthusiastic thrust across the imaginary strings, I poke the pencil deep in my upper arm. It’s a wound I hid, a scar I’ve never revealed.

But it was my first true lesson in writing — it’s not the shape of the letters, but the depth one is willing to go to extract a story.

This is in response to Irene Water’s latest Times Past memoir prompt.  Join in at the comments here or on Irene’s post, giving your location at the time of your memory and your generation.


  1. Ha! I remember that worry of lead poisoning. Then somewhere getting that wonderful word, graphite.
    You’ve got graphite in your veins Boss. That is wonderful ending; funny and profound, deep like a pencil stab.
    That experience gave you rosin to write. So you stopped fiddling around and put that broken tipped pencil to paper, the writing bug under your skin. And this wonderful memoir to show for it, on your very own ranch.

    • Charli Mills says:

      That’s a great phrase — rosin up to write! Funny how we were misled on the lead. Much better knowing graphite courses through veins and across paper.

  2. calmkate says:

    lol love it, great msg!

  3. Susan Budig says:

    This is a toughie. I don’t remember learning to write or read. I learned to write, however, using the ITA system. (Initial Teaching Alphabet). It uses 44 letter-symbols for the alphabet. I’ve always complained that it hampered my spelling once I’d transferred over to using the Latin alphabet. In fact, my closest friends did not learn to read using this system and I’d always felt they were better readers and spellers than I was. My perspective might be accurate or not.

    • Charli Mills says:

      That’s interesting, Susan. I had never heard of that system before. I wonder if there are reasons it was discontinued. I can’t say how we really learn to read and write. Of course, I’m sure educators have a better understanding of the systems used. Thanks for sharing that insight!

    • Norah says:

      ITA came in between my schooling and my teaching. I did learn about it but could never see how it would make it easier for kids to learn when they’d just have to unlearn it and learn something else. There have been a few similar trends, one no more effective than another.

    • Annecdotist says:

      My sister had the ITA method inflicted upon her. She coped okay, but it always seems such a batty system. Kids often like to show off recognising words in the world around them. How confusing to find it didn’t speak the same language!

  4. Norah says:

    You’ve really got that graphite beneath your skin – an itch you just have to scratch, but you’ll never get it out, it runs too deep. I don’t really remember learning to write. I just remember writing – songs, plays, stories, poems – at home, but not at school. Memories of writing at school come much later. Compositions marked with red. Dad, who missed out on opportunities for education, loved to do our writing homework for us. I preferred to write my own! I agree with you about the fear of lead poisoning, and the smell of pencils – particularly new ones.

  5. willowdot21 says:

    I do love the way you have told us so much without really going into too many details, I clearly saw everything you spoke. Great post! 🤗

  6. Annecdotist says:

    Beautiful post, Charli. I remember that confusion over lead and the fear of poisoning when you stabbed yourself with a new pencil.
    I grew up within 20 miles of a pencil museum but have never visited. But it gets a mention in my WIP, so I’ll have to go and visit.

  7. Jules says:

    I recall having to write with number two pencils. But not the particulars.
    Funny how getting the perfect point was…well actually too sharp because it broke off with the slightest pressure. T

    I do remember the mechanical pencil sharpeners that were always somewhere screwed into the wall of a classroom and having to raise your hand for permission to sharpen your pencil and also having the ‘privilege’ of being he one to have to empty the shaving catcher. There are also the artist pencil sharpeners that have no catcher… you sharpen over the trash can and get graphite all over your fingers…

    Then too, offices had electric pencil sharpeners. You’d stick your pencil in for too long and end up with stubs that were fairly useless. I think the sound was hypnotizing.

    Thanks for sharing your bond with graphite 🙂 Write on!

    • Charli Mills says:

      Oh, Jules, I hadn’t thought of all the pencil sharpeners! Yes, I remember the hand-crank sharpeners mounted in classrooms and the need to ask permission. Those electric pencil-sharpeners ate pencils, didn’t they? Write on (lead-free)!

  8. I remember the paper with multiple lines to help you judge the height of the capital vs lower case letters. It was beige and fairly thin. When I made mistakes sometimes I’d erase a hole into the paper with pencil smudges surrounding it. There was no erasing that mistake! But my heart still skipped a beat when I approached a fresh sheet of paper with a sharp pencil point.

  9. Oh goodness me, Charli, I have very scared of lead poisoning so I would never have done this. I also joined in the challenge here:

    • Charli Mills says:

      I was not thinking of lead positions until after the fact. Many of my adventures began with such disregard. I enjoyed your post and the inclusion of a flash fiction.

  10. susansleggs says:

    As a baby-boomer in a rural central school in western New York state we learned to write cursive using fat green pencils with no eraser. The teacher would hand out a lined piece of paper with the letter on it and we were to make copies of it, but the lines were probably half an inch apart, two solid with a dotted in between to total an inch.. The lines were so we could form the letter with the correct size “heads and tails.” That means make the top of the h all the way up to the top line. It sounds good in theory, but trying to form the letters huge, didn’t translate to forming them the natural writing size once I learned the shapes. I never could make a perfect circle for an o and still don’t. My cursive is scrawly, uneven, and as we say, “Looks like a doctors signature.”
    I do remember one girl who always got A’s made her letters with all sorts of fancy add-ons. It used to infuriate me that she would get such good marks when to me her writing was just as bad as mine, just in a different way.
    I like to use the computer now even if I am writing a personal note that way I know the recipient will be able to read my thoughts.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Ah, Susan, I was remembering the paper with its wide-spread lines but not well enough to describe. You’ve captured its details, purpose, and frustrations perfectly. I laugh at your pondering why the student with the embellished letters got higher marks! And good call to use the computer. Whatever penmanship lesson I might have once learned has deserted me.

  11. ‘But it was my first true lesson in writing — it’s not the shape of the letters, but the depth one is willing to go to extract a story.’ And what depths you have since mined Charli! Love your memoir, and love reading about you and your early experiences. I relate so much to your fear of lead poisioning. I was one of those kids who chewed my pencils constantly – and yes, that included the eraser! – and then worried myself sick that I had poisioned myself. That little piece of graphite….ahhhh. What a reminder of your early writing passion and the little girl who played fiddle and danced through her imagination to find her tune and her story. A delightful memory – except for the ouch, of course! But you know, it’s funny, because as much as I loved your memoir about writing, it was your comment about Dentyne gum that had me jumping off my seat. You brought back such a strong memory for me of my years in CA. I used to chew it, it’s the dark red, cinnamon flavoured gum right? Very strong, I remember. Honestly, I had forgotten all about it, but now it’s as clear as your wonderful writing! <3

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