Stylocycle’s Blog

On the physicality of writing
May 2, 2009, 3:15 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I have been laid up for a few days with some kind of virus that has sapped all my strength, so I can’t enjoy the weather on my cycle. Therefore, I address today the stylo/writing aspect of the blog.

As much as I adore what the arrival of the personal computer did to augment the ability of people to produce writing for others without having to go through the formal route of corporate publishing, and adore what Apple in particular did to make my life of writing easier, I have a weakness for the fountain pen.

I avoid writing with ball-point pens or any of their disposable counter parts. I can’t stand them. They make us claw at the barrel and press vengefully into paper, produce callused fingers and chicken scratch writing. They also add to the heaps of disposable plastic crap in our landfill. (Hello bic razors and bic pens, I’m looking at *you*. Of course, bic is by no means the only culprit).*

I developed my love for the fountain pen as a child when many of my summers were spent at my aunt’s house in Michigan. Every morning, my aunt Mimi would settle into a chair in the den, draw her magnifying lamp toward her, pull out her cocoa coloured Parker 51 and settle into her crossword. No pencil and eraser for her crosswords. Usually, I would be doing a needle-point that she had given me to work on while she would do the crossword, and we would spend about an hour in the quiet, but together. In the weeks when she had me in the golf club swimming programme, including competitive swimming (though I was never fast enough to get beyond club-level competitions) our shared time in the den with needle-point and crosswords would wait for the evening. I cherished that quiet time with her, and I deeply admired her ability to do those crosswords with a pen — and a fountain pen no less!

As a child, people always remarked on what nice penmanship I had, and I had in my possession until some move in my early adulthood, papers from my early childhood, from before the time that I could actually read, in which I had created pages and pages of joined loops that looked like the bottom of a ‘j’ and the top of an ‘f’. I adored the flow of those linked forms and could not wait to learn how to write in longhand. My third grade teacher was a particularly hateful woman and for whatever reason decided that I ought to be the last child in class to receive a pen with which to write. I recall that my mother went into the school and reamed that teacher out, but to no avail. The hurdle was likely that I had not completed enough volume of hand-writing booklets to be entitled to a pen, but I hated using pencil! Oh! How they dulled the glory of each line, beginning sharply enough on the first letter but becoming blurred and fat by the end of a single line. Oh HB#2, you suck for writing!

Anyway, I did finally receive a pen, and it arrived in a barrel shaped like a quill pen, but was ultimately just a ball point. Nonetheless, outside of the pens on chains at the bank, my third grade pen was the nicest I had ever seen until I saw my Aunt Mimi’s pen. I was not allowed to touch her pen, but I admired so much the lovely lines that she could produce with it, and I felt safe in her quiet company. So it was that when she died in 1986 (far too young, just a few days after her 65th birthday), I requested only two things from her estate: the portrait of her done in the 1950’s, and her Parker 51. I was heartbroken when, only a year or so later, a roommate stole that fountain pen in a fit of spiteful jealousy over god-only-knows-what.

Many years later, E-Bay would return to me a cocoa coloured Parker 51 with the mother of pearl cap jewel and gold-cap. It’s not Mimi’s pen, of course, but I love it anyway, and keep it safely on my writing desk. That means that I have to have a fountain pen that I take out and about with me. For that purpose I have a Visconti Van Gogh series. I also love the Visconti pen. It has the nicest nib that I’ve ever worked with, Parker 51 aside.

So here’s my list of things I love about fountain pens:

You only need one, maybe two, at the most.

A fountain pen will last not only for your lifetime, but for at least another after that.

Fountain pens do not require disposable parts. Mine can be refilled, again and again and again.

A fountain pen nib angles over time to the specifics of your own hand (which is why they should not be shared).

A fountain pen is unlikely to be interchangeable with anyone else’s pen. For this reason, they are a bit like jewelry.

The penmanship a fountain pen encourages is truly one’s own, not the interchangeable, disposable scrawl produced by a shoddy tool.

On the left: Visconti, Van Gogh, circa 2007; on the right: Parker 51, circa 1954

On the left: Visconti, Van Gogh, circa 2007; on the right: Parker 51, circa 1954

Riding a bike, and writing with a fountain pen, it seems to me, share a similar ethos.

* Indeed, were I a dude, I’d probably learn to use a straight razor instead of a disposable.

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Well, I do like fountain pens, but I also like good refillable ballpoint pens (not talking about Bic of course). I just recently learned about the difference between good and bad ballpoint pens – apparently it’s the ball itself, which in good pens is made out of tungsten carbide. But it’s still a different way of writing – I use fountain pens and ballpoint pens for completely different things.

Comment by anna

Hi Anna;
In a pinch I’ve found some refillable b-p pens to be reasonably OK, but fo me they just aren’t ‘right’ in my hand. The most disappointing refillable ball-point I’ve ever had was a Lamy that I picked up in the EU; and the nicest have been, IMO, Parkers that I’ve used in other people’s offices. Scheaffer and Cross are supposed to make pretty good refill chambers/balls too, but I haven’t used them much. I did have a Cross pen when I was quite a bit younger but I can’t comment on it really as I hadn’t yet built a sense of what I needed in a pen. My brother-in-law has the Waterman Carene in a b-p version but I don’t like it as much as the Carene fountain pen I received when I finished my dissertation. (The downside of the Carene fountain pen, by the way, is its delicate nib, so that’s why I don’t consider it a favourite even though it really is a gorgeous pen).

Comment by stylocycle

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