This book was written with the world’s finest word processor, a Waterman cartridge fountain pen. To write the first draft of such a long book by hand put me in touch with the language as I haven’t been for years.I even wrote one night (during a power outage) by candlelight. One rarely finds such opportunities in the twenty-first century, and they are to be savored.
–Stephen King, author’s note to Dreamcatcher.
I was thrilled when I read this statement by Stephen King, one of the world’s most popular storytellers, just as I was excited when I learned that Neal Stephenson, author of the brilliant SF novel Cryptonomicon, is writing his next novel in longhand with a fountain pen. Why did these revelations excite me so? Because I write all of my own fiction first drafts with a fountain pen, as well as occasional notes for my longer posts to Byzantium’s Shores. Of course, this is no superstition on my part; my decision a few years ago to write with a fountain pen was not borne of some desire to be like the Big Boys who also use them. I have very real and (to me) practical reasons for using a fountain pen.
Parker Duofold Fountain Pen
I recently took an online typing test and discovered that I type at around 70-80 words per minute. This, apparently, is a decent rate — although I do generate a fairly large number of typographical errors; luckily, I am also a fairly decent proofreader, so these errors are almost always fixed. So why not just type my first drafts on the computer? Well, there is the general factor of comfort. After sitting in front of a computer screen at a day job for eight hours, I find it very hard to summon the desire to do the same at home. Writing longhand allows for the “change of scenery” that is so often needed. Plus, it allows a level of portability that is unavailable to anyone not lucky enough to own a laptop (and a fountain pen’s ink reservoir makes writing possible for far, far longer than the standard laptop battery). I can pack up my pages and my pens — I always have two of them filled with ink — and go, say, to the library or to a restaurant or even to a park to sit and write. This flexibility is wonderful.
My other main reason for writing longhand is connected to that typing speed test I spoke of above. While my fingers can type at that speed, I find that except in very rare cases my brain cannot keep up with my fingers. Lines of dialogue do not come fast enough; adjectives and descriptors tend to be pedestrian; and in the worst cases I can stall completely on a crucial plot point. I find that typing speeds up my process to a degree that my muse simply cannot meet, and thus writing by keyboard suffers. Writing longhand seems to slow down the physical process enough that my brain can keep up.
I also have an aesthetic reason for writing longhand: because a few years back I became fascinated with fountain pens. A fountain pen is an elegant tool, pleasurable in the hand and also in the way the pen interacts with the paper. A good fountain pen almost feels like a paint brush when writing, and it is fun to watch the line of wet ink left behind by the pen dry and become permanent. Fountain pens also adapt to the hand of their owner over time; the tip wears a certain way, owing to the amount of pressure applied and the angle of the pen utilized by the user. After a long enough period, a fountain pen becomes truly its user’s pen; another person picking up the same pen might find it scratchy and barely usable, because the pen has adapted to its user’s hand.
Fountain pens are also lovely objects in themselves, some of the finest ones available being art objects in their own right. Witness this stunning Omas pen, hand-carved in a 30-pen limited edition for the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America:
Absolutely beautiful. Of course, I don’t own a single pen of this sheer beauty, but as with wine one does not need to sample the highest end products to take pleasure in them. Even the cheaper fountain pens — a good, “introductory” pen will run between $25.00 and $35.00 — may seem ridiculously expensive at first, but one is very unlikely to lose a fountain pen, and with proper care a fountain pen will last for many, many years. If you’re looking for some small antidote to the “disposable society”, a fountain pen is a fine place to start.
Here are a couple of links to fountain pen sites:
:: Levenger is a catalog company that deals in a lot of high-end office supplies. If you want a portfolio in soft-grain leather, for instance, this is the place to go. They also carry a large selection of writing instruments, including some of their own make. Their True Writers are beautiful pens, but my favorite is still my Gotham fountain pen with its art-deco styling.
:: Swisher Pens does nothing but pens, and they do them extremely well. A very fine site.
:: The Fountain Pen Page is precisely that. This is a good source of general information about fountain pens and pen collecting, with suggestions on good pens for beginners, advice on pen selection and care, and a comprehensive set of links to pen-related sites.