It may not look like it, but every post I write for this blog begins its life as ink on paper. There’s something in the act of pouring your thoughts out on actual paper, the scritch-scratch of my fountain pen and the romantic green ink that covers the page that serves as a lubricant for my mind. Even now, the cross-hatch of a correction I just made feels infinitely more satisfying than the down-pressing of the Delete key in a word processor.
Strangely enough, the fountain pen is making a stand against the onslaught of modern technology and social media. In Virginia, as in other states, there is a Pen expo every year that celebrates the fine art of penmanship, from calligraphy classes to pen-and-ink wholesales and merchandise. A Fountain Pen Network and its aficionados meet up to enjoy each others pen collections and to try out new pens, inks, and paper. Why would this be so? Is it the wish to rediscover the talents of ages-old tradition? Quaint nostalgia for a less complicated method of communication? An act to preserve what may be lost with increased industrialization and mechanization?
The appeal of writing with a beautiful pen in beautiful ink on good quality paper is not lost on modern people. A unique quality and personality comes through with the individuals’ handwriting. It is easy to be moved when looking at Thomas Jefferson’s elegant signature, the ostentatious nature of John Hancock’s, or the carefully controlled strokes of Handel on the score of his Messiah, which may be viewed in the British Library along with other preserved examples of handwritten masterpieces from Beowulf to the lyrics of “Yesterday” or “In My Life”. Even John Lennon made a few corrections now and again.
Many authors prefer to commit their finest works to paper first than computer (J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, who famously scribbled the first lines to the Hobbit on the back of a student’s paper that he was in the process of grading, and Neil Gaiman to name a few). I hate to use this term, but there is something decidedly organic in the inscribing of words that inspires us over a blinking cursor on a blank screen (which attempts to mimic the white, blank page but doesn’t quite succeed). Perhaps the environment itself seems less sterile than the contained world of the word processor, our handwriting serving as our own personal and completely distinctive font. Furthermore, a well-made leather-bound or engraved journal is a joy to behold and carry around, patiently awaiting droplets of inspiration.
As I mentioned before, the act of writing itself is cathartic. It requires hard work, this struggle to communicate and wrestle with ideas and score through them if they displease us. We become party to an ancient conflict: the writer setting out to do battle with the sheet on the desk, alone and weary in the candlelight. One need only look to medieval monks and their illumination to understand that the heritage of writing is an act of preservation of history and storytelling as well as a visual work of art. Also, the intimate act of sitting down to write a letter to a friend, as opposed to the more casual gesture of sending an email, a text, or a tweet, transforms the act of communication into a more thoughtful and meticulous enterprise. We become more careful about our speech and our approach to the conversation or message and in return, the recipient finds themselves engaged in a different matter than they would with an electronic communication. Emails get overlooked and deleted without much thought, but the letter itself has power and demonstrates the care, love, effort, and time it took for the composer to create it.
For those who would like to try their hand at the more physical process of writing and penmanship, or even pen-collecting, here are some tips for transitioning toward a fountain (or other) pen:
- First off, start with a good pen. Try stationary stores or websites (such as Papier Plume or the Fountain Pen Hospital) to explore a variety of writing instruments, including fountain and ball point pens. They don’t have to be expensive. Here are some of the pens that famed writer Neil Gaiman prefers and is currently using. Research and experiment with nib sizes to see what works best for you and your style. I write with a Mont Blanc with a Fine (F) nib, which was a gift from my husband a few years ago, and am currently enjoying their gorgeous Irish Green ink. (I have an ink fetish; it’s a real problem.)
- Training yourself to use a fountain pen can be difficult; be patient and watch videos on calligraphy or ask for assistance from a shopkeeper on how to properly hold the pen before you begin to use it. There’s definitely a learning curve but don’t despair! It’s worth it in the end.
- Work on reforming your own handwriting; form letters carefully and with greater attention to uniformity of look, shape, and height. Practice writing silly sentences or random words and develop a new sense of your own handwriting style.
- Begin using it regularly and for less formal uses than serious writing. My husband takes his pen to work and uses it for meeting notes or basic scribbles. Once you fall in love with your pen, give it some practice! Enjoy the feel of it, even if it’s for something as simple as a grocery list.
- Further notes: if you plan to take your pen with you, be sure to acquire some kind of carrying case or holder to protect it (and your clothes!) in case of any accidents.
Above all, write, write, and write some more. A beautiful instrument and empty canvas means nothing without the imagination and the hard work of the creator.