Last year I was carrying around a couple of gift cards for the University of Washington Bookstore I’d received after doing authorly engagements there. Instead of adding to the pile of books in my study that constantly threatens to swallow me whole, I decided to do something I’d always wanted to do: take myself down to their “fine writing instruments” counter, and choose a fountain pen. I selected a nice basic pen, a Parker Sonnet, because it fit my small hand, my aesthetic taste, and my $100 budget. At first I used it just for “correspondence”–thank yous and cards, little letters, and other pretty things. But I do lots of longhand writing in my life: a diary, “morning pages,” first drafts for book chapters, daily notes in Claire’s school lunch, notes to myself, a planning calendar, grocery lists…Why, when I loved writing with my beautiful, flowing new fountain pen, wasn’t I using it for everything?
Now I do, and I am not exaggerating when I say it is one of my favorite life-changes that I have ever made. One evening, while making notes for a new chapter, I remarked to Tom across the room, “I LOVE my fountain pen! Why aren’t we all using them?” “Um,” he answered, “Because we’re not all nerds.” Tom is a cutie-pie, but I have come to believe that using a fountain pen for everyday writing is something that should not just be for pen enthusiasts, or for special occasions, but for all of us, everyday. Using a refillable pen, with bottled ink, should be normal. Here’s why:
1. Fountain pens create far less waste than standard pens. Think of the river of disposable pens that follows all of us through the whole of our lives, and their cardboard/plastic packaging. And their import packaging and travel. Refills for pens are also overpackaged tubes of plastic destined for the landfill. A good pen will last a lifetime, and is elegantly refillable from a recyclable glass bottle of ink.
2. Ink for fountain pens leaves a glistening flow across the page that is beautiful and inspiring, and it comes in every gorgeous color you can imagine. Like many, I am partial to Noodler’s Inks, created in the USA by a wonderfully eccentric ink-maker named Nathan. Start with one of Noodler’s many standard colors with the catfish on the bottle, as some of their other formulations are a bit fussy. My personal color has become Noodler’s Sequoia Green, but I also love their Nightshade, and in my sketching diary I use their standard Brown. Noodler’s ink comes in 3 ounce bottles that are filled to the brim (I can’t imagine ever getting to the bottom of one) and cost about $12.
3. Writing with a fountain pen makes our writing look more beautiful. I find myself adding little flourishes at the ends of words, and sketches in the corners of pages, almost without my willing it.
4. You won’t lose your fountain pen. Trust me.
5. Using and filling a fountain pen is easy. The first time or two I filled mine, it seemed like a major undertaking, and my fingers were covered with blobs of green ink. Now it is nothing–takes seconds, no mess, hardly a thought. I very much enjoy it, actually–uncapping the pretty, shining ink bottle, a little moment of meditation in the middle of my day.
6. The flow of ink helps us think. OK, this one is a little woo-woo, and I don’t know exactly how it works, but the smooth flow of ink from a fountain somehow links to my brain, and I find myself writing more, and possibly even better thoughts and words.
7. It’s fun. Having a fountain pen and ink bottle just makes me happy, bringing more delight and beauty to my everyday life.
A couple thoughts on pen acquisition:
Economics: In this economy, it is difficult to recommend dropping $100 or more on a pen. You can shop for vintage pens, often at a very good price, comb the drawers of your grandparents for old pens, and just generally keep your eyes out. That said, it is absolutely true that a nicely priced pen will pay for itself rather early in its lifetime, and spending some time trying the many pens at a shop will insure that you find a pen and nib that fits your unique hand and needs. There are also some “budget” pens that work tolerably well. Noodler’s makes a serviceable, basic pen with a built-in piston-fill mechanism for under $20; and people swear by their Lamy Safaris, under $35 (designed by a German architect, they are a bit industrial for my tastes, but work great…if you get one, make sure to get the converter also, which will make it refillable–sold seperately, about $5). These pens do not offer the satisfying heft, or extra-smooth writing experience of a better pen, but they write well enough, can introduce us to the joy of “real” inks, and make a nice scritchy sound on the page, very much like Charlotte Bronte’s quill nib as she penned Villette.
Pens as Gifts: A fountain pen makes a wonderful, symbolic gift. But because pens are so personal–the feel in the hand, the width of the nib, the way a pen writes on a person’s favorite paper–I highly recommend giving a gift card to the pen shop, or a handmade “Outing for Lunch and Trip to the Fine Writing Counter” coupon, so your loved one can choose the pen that best suits her.
Make sure your pen either comes with a converter for refilling with liquid inks, or that one is available for it. Some cheaper pens will only take disposable cartridges, which to my mind defeats the whole purpose.
Less waste, more joy in daily life, more beauty in the world. There is very little reason to use a “normal” pen, almost ever. Let’s switch. Find a pen that feels right, fall in love with an ink color, make it yours. I hope you’ll join me in this writing revolution, and carry your friends and loved ones along.