Friday, August 09, 2013

The Fount of Penmanship

from Jacqueline

I love fountain pens.  In fact, I am pretty much almost as much a pen-a-holic as I am a book-a-holic, and I’m very partial to lovely notebooks too.  My favorite games when I was a child were “Offices,” and “Schools,” along with my daily “let’s pretend” that I was a writer. I still feel like the latter most of the time, actually.  And before I leave this paragraph, can you imagine my brother’s chagrin, as a four-year-old whose favorite game was “play in the mud and see how dirty you can get” when he was steamrollered into sitting on a chair and being told to listen while I wrote sentences for him to copy from my toy blackboard.  Mind you, something stuck, because who did he come to years later, every time his resume needed updating, eh?  Best fiction I ever wrote, that.

 But I digress.  This story is about my love of fountain pens, especially.  I love a really good fountain pen, a writing instrument with some heft to it, but not too much weight that it makes my hand ache or interferes with the flow of ink.  I prefer to fill my own fountain pens, though let’s face it; cartridges have been the way to go for decades now.  I have about six fountain pens, and it’s getting close to the time when I should buy one of those special boxes to store my pens in – the ones that look like cutlery boxes, but display your pens instead.

I was in a pen store a few weeks ago, and had stopped to look at a dipping pen with a set of nibs.  You know the sort of thing. 

 The assistant came up and asked me if I would like to try, and I had to tell her that I knew all about using one of those pens, because when I was a kid, we wielded a pencil until we were eight years old, then we graduated to dipping pen, and only when the dipping pen was mastered were we allowed to bring our own fountain pen to school to use.  Here’s what I remember:  I remember dreading being the ink monitor – we all had to be the ink monitor for one day a month, though with 32 kids in the class, someone always got away with it and I hoped it would be me.  There was a big enamel jug filled with ink, and in the morning if you were the ink monitor you had to go round filling all the inkwells. The desks were of the Victorian variety – had been there since the school was built – and each desk had a hole for an inkwell and a china receptacle for the actual ink.  That jug was heavy for a child, and woe-betide you if you splashed it everywhere.

I still have a ridge against the middle finger of my right hand where the dipping pen nib pressed into my skin as I wrote, leaving a round blue-black stain that didn’t come out until I went to secondary school and was allowed to use a ballpoint (well, I think we were allowed to use ballpoint by the time we were 15 – I may be mistaken).  So, it was with some glee that as a nine-year-old I skipped along to Sykes, the town stationers, when Mr. Croft finally curled his finger at me in class, and I was told that if I wished I could bring my first fountain pen to school - finally, I had graduated from dipping that nib in the ink.  Hallelujah!  I had been keeping a precious half-crown in my pocket to buy that Platignum pen for weeks, and went straight into Sykes on my way home. 

I know we have so many tools with which to write - you can write a whole novel on your cellphone, if you like – but I am a great believer in the power of writing with traditional tools.  I write straight to the laptop, Microsoft Word is my first tool, whatever I am creating on the page, however, when it comes to revision, my fountain pens are at the ready.  I can sit and work a paragraph using pen and ink – it slows me down, brings my attention to each word, and the fact that I want to create a good page of work is in every stroke of the pen.  I am sure it opens a different place in my mind, brings my attention to the scene in a different way, and it works for me.

I think, too, that using a pen, especially a fountain pen, is good discipline.  Even if kids abandon them as soon as they can after school, there is something about the pen that gives one a deeper opportunity to explore each word, to make sure it’s right, to spell it correctly, so that meaning is not lost.  I am sure people are encouraged to be more adventurous with vocabulary when they’re not abbreviating on a cellphone.  I hate abbreviations in emails and text messaging – it feels so sloppy to me.  And it’s not just me being old fashioned – that’s me seeing words go down the drain and wondering how people will ever understand each other in the future.  Oh yes, perhaps they’re not understanding each other.

Finally, before I leave this treatise – and I can see I could write a book on this subject already – let me tell you about the pen that, for me, was a “sign” that I could be a published author, one day.  I was already publishing articles in very specific educational journals, and so wanted to break into something different, more mainstream.  There’s a British publication I would sometimes have my mother send me, and the “star prize” on the letters page was a Parker Duofold Fountain Pen.  Well, I finally wrote a letter to that magazine, and lo and behold, it was chosen as the star prize - almost twenty years ago now.  That blue and black marbled Parker Duofold sits on my desk, always, ready to be pulled into service – when a thank-you card has to be written, or an important letter signed. And soon, when I get back from England next week, it will be my revision pen, galvanizing me, bringing a sense of discipline as I turn from being the storyteller to the technician of the word, an advocate for the reader embarking upon the revision of another novel.

Have a lovely weekend, all ….


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about fountain pens. Do they still sell fountain pens in the shops or do you have to order them by mail?

    Your comment about the cellphones reminded me of a cartoon joke which I read the other day about a young child growing up with computers and laptops ~ this kid asked an adult what a pen was because this kid had never seen a pen! I wonder what scribes many centuries ago used to write their words. Perhaps I will google "writing instruments in medieval times".

    Always enjoy reading your essays on Fridays.

  2. I've been trying ti comment via cell phone. Not working. This is a test. Grrrr. Patty

  3. Ok. Now I have it figured out. I have that same Parker in maroon with a calligraphy nib. Also a Waterman and a couple of Mont Blancs, including an Agatha Christie limited addition. Love them all. Beautiful post, as. Always. Patty

  4. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, Diana and Patty. Diana, scribes years ago used various methods of laying down words, but on paper it was often the sharpened feather, ideally from a bird of prey - hence the "quill." Amazing when you consider the beautiful script on those old manuscripts. Patty, sounds like you need a pen box too!

  5. Cornelia Read8/09/2013 1:39 PM

    You're making me want to buy a fountain pen, Our J. And I probably shouldn't be trusted with even a dip pen at this point, much less a pitcher of ink! How wonderful this post is... thank you!

  6. Well said and written with fountain pen. I believe there is a certain frame of mind that comes with use of a fountain pen. I love them.

  7. My reason for loving fountain pens is a bit different. They produce subtleties in script that other pens don't. They speak a handwriting analyst's language.

  8. No doubt your site is amazing and I really like it. Nice writing, you are doing great effort, your way of writing is unique. Love this site.

  9. I LOVE fountain pens, and still use them. They slow down my thoughts, and slow down the rush of the day, so I can write well, what I want to say. I do not mind the time to write with my pens! When my son was in 1,2 3 grades, his teachers had me gather duck feathers, and hawk feathers, from our land, and then hubby would go in and show the kids how to cut the quill, and use it! I showed them how to make their inks.They loved it! Parents comments were along the line of-oh, so nice you are teaching them old and forgotten arts..and I was like...Huh?! We could'nt educate the parents, but quite a few kids kept up with their pens!!