Writing in Pencil

A scene from one of my favorite movies, State Fair:

Mrs. Frake: “I’ve got my whole day planned out.”

Margie: “Don’t you know you can’t plan a whole day? There’s no such thing!” 

I love plans. I plan my outfits, my workouts, when I’m going to wash my hair, and what clothes I need for my girls each season. I’ve dedicated basically all my free time to the hobby of planning what books I’m going to read (and then reading them). I plan my errands and household tasks. I plan around Amy Jane’s eating schedule. I (very loosely) plan our meals. But, as Margie points out, planning your day (or week, or month) is optimistic at best and pointless at worst because there are so many things that are out of our control. (It physically pains me to write that and know it’s true.)

 Hello, puking toddler. 

Hello, flat tire/broken AC/dead battery/plethora of car troubles that have plagued us our entire marriage.  

Hello, hurricane season.

Hello, lost job opportunities. 

Hello, unexpected diagnosis. 


If this year has taught me anything, it’s that the white-knuckle grip I tend to have on my surroundings is a waste of my energy. So many of the plans I’ve made, not just in 2020 but for a long time before that, have needed to be scratched out and rewritten. Backspaced, deleted, whited out. This could be why, although I love to plan, I’m not necessarily a “planner” person, as in one who sits with a physical calendar/planner and fills it out faithfully week to week or month to month. My inability to stick with that particular practice has finally come in handy this year in which lots of more organized people saw their planner-buying dollars go to waste when those plans were wiped out almost in one fell swoop. 

A few months ago, a phrase came to mind when I was thinking about this. Whether it’s for your career, parenthood, education, family, or anything else, I do think we need to make our plans and tell our stories and document our dreams. We can’t just throw in the towel and shake our fists in an ineffectual rage at the forces of the universe keeping us from following through. 

We can plan. We just have to write in pencil. 

I love this idea because you’re still doing the planning. You’re not giving up, giving in, checking out, or going under. You’re planning, dreaming, doing- but it’s not set in stone. It’s not written in pen, which is messy when you try to scribble over it or white it out. Writing in pencil means you have the option, whether by necessity or desire, to flip the pencil over and erase what was there. You know what? I wanted to be a teacher my entire life. Then I taught for three years, had a baby, and now I’m a writer(ish). That plan needed to be written in pencil so I could erase it and start over. 

People change. I showed my mom a picture of us from 2012 today and she said, “That feels like a lifetime ago. I feel like I was a completely different person then.” I stared at my 23-year-old self in the picture and felt the same way. My story of 10 years ago needed to be written in pencil, easily erased so that pieces of it could be changed, moved around, adapted, and upgraded for the person I am becoming. 

Also, the most obvious point to be made about this is that we write in pencil because ultimately we aren’t really holding the pencil or the eraser or the Lisa Frank notebook that these plans go in. God is driving the plot, shaping the narrative, and taking us in directions we never saw coming. Practically nothing about my life, with the exception of being married to Jonathan, is what I thought it would be when I was a young adult making plans for the future. And if I had a journal to look back over from the last 10-15 years, it would be filled with stuff I had to cross out and rewrite as it became clear that those plans were going to change. 

We believe lies about ourselves. We admire or even idolize people who let us down in ways that range from disappointing to devastating. We have imposter syndrome, decision fatigue, and, burn out. We grow and learn and change. We put away childish things and say goodbye to misbegotten dreams. The down-to-the-minute schedule that has us arriving right on time is derailed by a stubborn toddler or spilled coffee. And a lot of these—from the grief of a missed opportunity to a wrongheaded perspective—are written not in pencil but in a big black magic marker on our souls.

Writing in pencil lets us adapt. We don’t have to throw the entire day or month or life away. We erase and start over, dream again, change clothes, talk the toddler down from the meltdown. As Jon Acuff says, we “pivot, don’t panic.” We hold things loosely because what we know is not always what traffic will be like, how an interview will go, that a child will have a developmental delay, or that a gift begins to feel like a burden. 

What we know is this: the God of Heaven is in control. He is sovereign, kind, and always good. With his gentle guidance, I can write the story of my life and the plans for my days knowing that “the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord.” I can give myself grace when I need to erase and also trust that by being fully who I am and who He made me to be, the desires of my heart will lead me in the way He wants me to go because He put them there. I won’t toss my planner, give up on what seems lost, or wave my hand to *gestures vaguely* ALL OF THIS and say “what’s the point?” 

Honestly, I don't know the point right now. But despite the head-spinning changes, the angst, the outrage both sincere and performative, and the genuine confusion that is life in these days, I will write in pencil with strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, knowing that God is not the author of confusion and that the stories He tells are the best ones.

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