ODE TO THE FOUNTAIN PEN
How soon we forget. How quickly we adapt to our newfangled machines and abandon all that has come before. It has only been a generation or so that writers have been able to make use of a technology that allows (or encourages) one to vomit words onto the screen—whacking away at nearly the speed of thought—knowing that the editing process will be as simple as clicking a button or dragging entire paragraphs across the screen. And yet we write as if it has always been that way. Filtering through the first draft and then tweaking and re-tweaking without the mess of loose papers, inkpots or correction fluid makes the entire process almost enjoyable.
The vast majority of writers today sit hunkered over keyboards at home, in the office, or in cafés because the convenience and speed of computer input outweighs any other option. I admit that I, too, do most of my writing on my MacBook while listening to music and sipping strong black coffee in the morning. But occasionally, when I need to work out something creatively, I step away from the keyboard and reach for my fountain pen.
There is something about the process of putting ink on paper that changes the way we think. Writing on paper—especially rough handmade paper—forces the writer to slow down. It invites play: cross-outs and line breaks and little doodles. Some psychologists have suggested there might be a link between using two hands on a keyboard and the one needed when writing longhand.
Most of my poetry is hashed out on the page. When I write with my fountain pen, I allow my subconscious the time it needs to say something and even though those first words on the page may not be the best, they are important—critical even. Though I may eventually scratch through them, they still exist on paper and they hint at some other force at work.
Cynics will dismiss using a fountain pen as a fun bit of retro nostalgia that serves no real purpose. But I disagree. A good fountain pen is a piece of precision engineering and design, and purchasing one is about making a deliberate choice to use something repeatedly rather than just once or twice before mindlessly misplacing it.
Neil Gaiman has spoken publicly about his fondness for writing with a fountain pen: “I found myself enjoying writing more slowly and liked the way I had to think through sentences differently. I discovered I loved the fact that handwriting forces you to do a second draft, rather than just tidying up and deleting bits on a computer. I also discovered I enjoy the tactile buzz of the ritual involved in filling the pens with ink.”
Graham Greene once wrote: “My two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain. My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen, of course. Ball-point pen are only good for filling out forms on a plane.”
I believe that my pen chose me, rather than the other way around. Like Harry Potter as he stood awkwardly at Ollivander’s, I, too, found myself in a small shop filled with mysterious forces I couldn’t quite comprehend. I don’t remember much about the process, but twenty minutes later I walked out into the fresh air with a Visconti Homo Sapiens Bronze Age fountain pen. It is handcrafted from hardened basaltic lava sourced from the Mount Etna volcano in Italy, with a trim made of solid bronze. The lava is virtually unbreakable, comfortable and warm to the touch—and slightly hygroscopic, absorbing moisture from the hand. The pen cap uses a revolutionary capping system and the pen’s vacuum filler is made of titanium to resist ink corrosion. It also features a two-tone 23kt palladium extra-fine nib. It was ridiculously expensive, but it’ll be the only pen I’ll ever need.
While I use my laptop as my primary writing tool, I use my fountain pen every day to write, edit, or just brainstorm ideas. Three years on, I still find it a joy to use as the pen glides effortlessly over the surface of the page. I appreciate the way it fits perfectly in my hand, and I am constantly reminded how using it is a luxurious and expressive writing experience. While my laptop may last another year or two before I have to replace it, my fountain pen will last for my entire life (and perhaps beyond). And there is something oddly comforting in that.