Retrograde Motion: Fountain Pen Dept.

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So there I was on Facebook, ranting about how Ms. User Error and the Mac collaborated to disappear the current version of a chapter in draft. The ensuing comments elicited a conversation with one of the group members who reminisced about the bygone joys of writing with a fountain pen.

Entertained, I wondered what became of my old fountain pens, long since relegated to hiding places where they would be saved for posterity. For “saved,” read “lost”… 🙂

Well, after a little shoofing around, what should I find but this lovely old Waterman pen, purchased lo! these many years ago. And I even found a bottle of ink that was still liquid. And two bottles of ink whose contents had petrified.

Pen Fountain Pen

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It really is a lovely pen: smooth writing and elegant.

There’s something to be said for drafting fiction longhand (and, I suppose, for drafting nonfiction with actual ink). The computer has melded itself into my fingers, and as a result, it’s difficult for me to write with a pen anymore. I type as fast as most people can speak — not well, but it gets the words down. And I spend so many hours of my days at the computer, I hardly ever practice real physical writing at all.

Writing with a pen forces you to slow down and think about what you’re putting in front of the reader. It also brings to your attention — startlingly, in my case — how much you revise as you’re writing. A page of handwritten copy hereabouts is a page of cross-outs, re-cross-outs, crossed-out cross-outs, paragraphs circled and pointed with inked arrows to new places in the narrative, question marks, misspellings, doodles in the margins…on and on. A word processor allows you to fix all those things as you go along, so that by the time you reach the end of the document, you don’t even remember all the changes you made in the process of writing.

Back in the day, when I first started life as a journalist, we still used typewriters. It was several years before personal computers came into our lives.

I hate typewriters. Did then, do now. We were expected to compose our stories at the typewriter, but I found I simply could not manage that. Reason: my neurotic perfectionism. I make a lot of mistakes when I type. Even on the word processor, where I type a lot better, my copy is full of typos and bĂŞtises. Under the best of conditions, it takes several drafts and endless proofreading for me to get a piece of copy right.

It was so frustrating to have to pull out and discard a whole sheet of paper for ONE STUPID MISTAKE, for ONE slip of the finger, that every error would distract from my train of thought — to the extent that it was impossible to think through and compose a paragraph, to say nothing of a 1,000- to 2,500-word story.

So I would draft my assignments in longhand (unbeknownst to my editors) and then transcribe the result into typescript. This was far more efficient and even faster (believe it or not) than wrestling with error after error on the typewriter.

Hence, an appreciation for writing instruments.

And few writing instruments surpass a good fountain pen. Even a cheap fountain pen vastly improves over a ball-point or roller-ball pen. I used to use those Shaeffer cartridge pens — remember those? Found a few of them in the hiding place, but as it develops the things were part of a calligraphy set…fun, but not much use for trying to write 80,000 words of fiction.

But this Waterman…ahhh. What fun to write a scene in actual ink, on actual paper!

This, vs...

This, vs…

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…this

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6 thoughts on “Retrograde Motion: Fountain Pen Dept.

  1. SherryH

    My sister and I got those Shaeffer calligraphy sets for Christmas one year. Good times!

    I used to compose stories in pencil on lined notebook paper. Instead of revising, I’d start over. And start over. And start over…

    A few years back (well, maybe more than a few now!) I got really into sending letters and postcards. I favored purple ink or slick gel pens. I still like writing by hand, though I can’t go back over it and I’m no longer certain of the results. But there’s definitely something to be said for the physical act of writing!

    1. Victoria Hay

      LOL! Calligraphy is like graphic arts + literary arts!

      Yes…I used to do the same thing!!! One time I decided to test whether it was TRUE that revising and rewriting really made for a better creative result. So when I was down at the bus station writing imaginary profiles of passengers sitting around the terminal (don’t ask!), I wrote one and then turned the page and wrote it over and then wrote it over and then…. And yeah! the third or fourth iteration WAS better than the first . A lot better.

      Can you collaborate with your hubby or a friend in going over handwritten copy? It’s amazing that you can write by hand…how cool would it be if you could find a way to make it work?

      I wonder if there’s a tablet that you could write on and either have the program read it aloud or convert it to word and make a program read it? Cumbersome…but hey! Life is cumbersome…

  2. David

    So much to write, so little time. But then don’t all the gurus say that one should slow down, we move too fast? We’ve got to make the morning last…
    I think what we have here is a brain problem. No make that challenge. No make that opportunity. Whatever Latin-named section of the brain is used to keep our thinking out of typing is in my experience at least, a separate goddie from the one which helps our muse fuse communicative with creative.
    I type fast, too, learned with six fingers (pinkies are decorative and a class statement) plus one spacebarthumb, on a manual typewriter you had to treat like a finger whack-a-mole. Depth mattered. After a while of this happy bashing I found that I could speak-spell words as fast my mouth kept up and entirely without a thought for the correct spelling. Sentences even. The best party trick/torment.
    A few decades later when keyboards came along, I was a word pianist. Also a journalist, we kept our Olympia upended on it’s butt to make room on the desk for the actual note taking, sorting and pre-writing writing. Which was quotes and the tricky to word stuff.
    Then one weird day I met a prolific writer/journalist/author/broadcaster in his office and noticed he dictated *everything*. So of course emulated, transcribing myself due to lack of administrative masochists.
    Trouble was, gobbedligook. Streaming consciousness verbally was not at all like typing my thoughts. Which although my in signature butterfly style, were entirely more cohesive, considered even. Back to being the word pianist, Mr creativity by dexterity. Back of mind though, I knew I wasn’t considering my words, careful.
    So proved it to myself when writing an incredibly important letter to try and patch things up with my (grown) estranged daughter. I simply didn’t trust my digits to be compassionate and thoughtful enough. So on a day long train ride, many many pages later with nary a cross-out I even sent it.
    To me the beauty of the pen is mostly that calming, slowing factor – enough to savour and pre-edit with caution and consideration. Mistakes or re-thinking becomes too icky, requiring whole pages to be re-done.
    Being a great believer in postcards, thanks to our conversation Victoria I have given my new fountain pen the VIP’est job. Writer Of The Postcards. Although too rare, an important task and responsibility to really connect, I mean in a tactile sense and the through beauty of considered composition, keep my afar family and friends literally, literally in touch.
    PS: What’s shoofing? Anything to do with Imelda Marcos?

  3. Victoria Hay

    Shoofing…Arabic word (or American colonist’s hearing of Arabic word) meaning “searching” or “looking.”

    That’s interesting. I find, now that I can type on a computer keyboard without frustration, that I think through my fingers. If I need to parse out some problem, it helps a lot to write out the issues and write down thoughts on how to deal with them. Dictating or talking them through doesn’t help.

    I have great admiration for blind and dyslexic people who can dictate a coherent piece of writing. That is amazing! We were never on such tight deadlines that we had call in a story. I never worked on staff for a daily (though did write on a freelance basis for one). I did work a lot for a weekly business paper, a hole in the ground into which to pour copy. But assignments usually came in with at least a few days’ lead time.

  4. David

    Ah, ta.
    Being dyslexic I can also attest to the value of typing without thinking. My fingers articulate and spell quite well right up to the point I try and notice the output – then it’s all spoonerisms and spelling mashups. I think writing a lot helped a lot. On a typewriter, coz dyslexic normal handwriting is like a GP’s. Which is why slowing down and calligraphying a bit is a difficult but rewarding experience.
    Pretty sure writing employs a different RAM section of the brain than reading, which honestly feels as uncomfortable/unbearable for long as washing dishes with too hot water. Focus is kinda like ADD after coffee. Or anyone these days with a phone.

    The Aussie definition of shoof might be best described as “shuffle” – the expression “shoof off” is quite a mild way of saying “run along”.

  5. funny Post author

    Seriously, one of my two all-time favorite students was a woman who had been a federal agent for something like 20 years, during which time she managed, amazingly, to hide her severe dyslexia. She was an amazing woman…and the truth of the matter was, she struggled to get the words and knowledge in her head down on paper.

    We finally came up with a scheme, which we ran past the departmental chair and got approved: she DICTATED a whole, full-length research paper! Then she emailed it to me by iPhone and I assessed the spoken “copy” (as it were). It was excellent, right down to getting the punctuation right in the notes and bi bibliography!

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