In Praise of Ink

Sleek, cool, sophisticated. The Cross fountain pen.

How long will it be until pens and ink are extinct? Writing paper is all but gone, as people abandon the romance of the written love letter for the cold brevity of emails or the semi-illiteracy of text messaging. Pens are surely on the endangered list.

These days, instead of selecting a proper pen with the right barrel size to best fit our hand and thus reduce fatigue, we exercise our thumbs on miniscule touchpads.

Now, back when I was a mere tadpole in the pond of aspiring writers, personal computers did not as yet exist. The highest state of technology writers had was the now-defunct typewriter. (Did you know the last typewriter manufacturer stopped production this year?) Instead of computer courses, my generation was offered high school typing and shorthand.

This little portable Royal typewriter belonged to my grandfather. Isn't it a cutie?

My parents wouldn’t let me play on the typewriter, despite my proclaimed intention of being a writer. They said I had to take typing class and learn properly. (Thanks, Mom and Dad! Today, I am one lean, mean touch-typing machine.)

So, for most of my youth, I had little option but to use pen and paper in composing my stories. Eventually, I purchased a manual portable Smith Corona typewriter, eschewing the electric model in case I wanted to write on a deserted island without electricity. But I found that such romantic notions are often inefficient ones. For college, I invested in an electric typewriter that proved too frail for the amount of typing I dished out. Unfortunately, I found I hated composing on the typewriter. It was too noisy, too clunky. The machine got in the way of my story sense.

So I continued to write stories by hand.

Thus, I came to know pens. Fountain pens that leaked blue ink on my fingers. Ballpoints that either glided or sputtered in skips and blobs. Felt tips that were too expensive but came in “wild” colors such as red or green. I learned that I loathed Bic stick pens and preferred PaperMates instead.

Later on, when gel ink came along, so many varieties skipped and stalled that I refused to write with them for a long time.  Even now, in gels I’ll use only the Pilot G-2, Sarasa, or Parker gel ink refills. There are such exotic colors! For cheap ballpoints, I favor the Bic Velocity.

For years, I scribbled my novels on ruled notebook paper or blank sheets of typing paper. Yes, I wrote the entire first draft by hand. If I had the whole chapter planned ahead of time, I could write a 10-page scene in about three hours.

Then, fingers cramped and elbow aching, I would stop. The middle finger on my right hand developed a knot at the first knuckle from the way I held my pen. I told myself that the ink stains on my skin connected me to great writers of the past, like Samuel Johnson and Edgar Allen Poe.

Once the rough draft–in however many versions it took–was completed, I would laboriously type the whole manuscript, edit and polish it, and type it again for submission.

Fortunately, when computers became affordable, I found that I could compose on them. But I didn’t lose my love of pens.

Presently there are far too many scattered around the house. When I moved last year, it was a shock to pull all the pens and boxes of pens from my office supply closet and realize I needed an entire cardboard box to pack them in.

I like green gel-ink pens for editing. In a second run through, I’ll switch to hot pink.

I use a lapis-blue Tornado pen for my journal and a brushed silver one for personal correspondance. Last Christmas, I received a Tornado covered with embossed lavender leather–very pretty!

Here's my beloved blue Tornado pen. The silver one is temporarily misplaced. The lavender one would NOT photograph.

And then there’s the fountain pen collection. Several years ago, I succumbed to temptation and bought a real fountain pen instead of those cheap, leaky ones available in discount stores.

This is the Shaeffer with the extra fine nib. Such a small nib means the ink can't flow well, so writing with it is scratchy. That can feel authentically old-fashioned.

There’s the Shaeffer with the extra-fine nib that squeaks as I write spidery-thin notes in Christmas cards. There’s also the elegant Waterman with a hard-working steel nib.

Who knew that loading this pen with ink could be so challenging? But it writes like a dream. Smooth, smooth, smooth.

And there’s the Parker (shown above), a handsome pen indeed that required several months of layaway payments. It has a gold nib that’s supposed to conform to the way I write–how much pressure I use in bearing down on the paper, etc. I confess that I’m a little intimidated by such a regal pen and seldom use it.

There’s the cleaning of the nib, for one thing. Then I face the ritual of filling the pen with ink from a bottle–something I’ve never quite mastered. (No drop-in cartridge on this baby! It has an internal bladder and by practice and magic you siphon the ink up into the barrel.) And of course, there’s the fear that this pen will get lost, knocked off my desk by accident, or carried off by someone who hasn’t a clue of what it cost.

The Parker pen.

So the magnificent Parker resides in the fire safe, where it’s of no use–let alone inspiration–at all. That’s no way to treat a good pen.

Someday, once the desk is properly cleared and I invest in an elegant desk set, then perhaps I’ll take the Parker out and use it.

A thriller novelist named Robert L. Duncan was one of my writing teachers, also the coach who helped me get my first literary agent. Bob usually wrote his novels on index cards with a Flair felt-tip pen. He told me of how, one Christmas, his wife gave him a beautiful pen and said, “This pen contains your next book.”

How charming is that? And what could be more inspiring?


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2 responses to “In Praise of Ink

  1. CD

    I use a fountain pen for work (usually a Pelikan because it has a large internal ink supply), and when I get a chance to use one on fiction or poetry it’s a real pleasure.

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