The Pen, Mightier

February 24, 2011 | 37 11 min read

In grade school it is not uncommon for an English teacher, attempting to instill an appreciation for the glories of description, to say, “Get out a pen and paper and describe what I have placed here without naming it.” For example, a banana, a poster of a Cézanne forest, a Bunsen burner.

To honor bygone writing exercises, I offer the following:

It is about three and a half inches long and mostly black. It has a cap that, when removed, reveals a small silver point, out of the end of which comes black ink. There is a window of clear plastic on the body of the object through which you can monitor how quickly said ink disappears. The general shape is cylindrical. Its diameter is less than one centimeter and fits nicely between the fingers of a woman who is 5’4” tall with slightly oversized hands for her height. The decorative elements are minimal, but there are some advertorial ones. These read: “Pilot. Precise V5. Rolling Ball. Extra Fine.”

coverPens are often considered a fetish item of neurotics with disposable income, but a Mont Blanc sensibility is not my point. Despite being reliably cash-poor, writer-types are often as particular about their pens as they are about their fonts. (When Helvetica—the trend, the font, the film, the MoMA exhibition—was the rage, Slate published a piece asking writers about their favorite fonts and those queried had cultivated preferences at the ready; Courier, mostly, since those writers who may not fetishize the pen fetishize the typewriter instead.) We care about what our words look like because we somewhere believe that this says something about who we are beyond font or scrawl. We think we can detect gender and personality, childhood traumas, future ambitions deep-seated hang-ups, sophistication and intelligence from the way a person’s hand puts ink to paper. “Real typeface is rhythm; it’s contrast; it comes from handwriting,” says Erik Speikermann in Helvetica, the film. “Poets don’t draw,” Jean Cocteau said. “They unravel their handwriting and then tie it up again, but differently.”

The starting point of handwriting is no doubt neurological, but pens have been, historically speaking, what has gotten us from capital letter to full stop. Hence, the fabled image of writer bent over desk, pen to paper, deep thoughts flowing like wine down the esophagus. The pen’s place in a writer’s self-image is somewhat sacred. For better or worse, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to venture that some are as likely to pony up for pens as for health insurance.

The Pilot Precise V5 with an extra fine rolling ball and black ink is my pen. I grew up with it. My handwriting developed with it. With it, I perfected the signature that appears on the title page of the book I have written in my daydreams and anxiety-induced nightmares. Friends have tried to convert me with pens that have finer points or a perhaps less prosaic shape, ones that are reusable and more earth friendly, or that can survive a change of cabin pressure when flying. Yet I remain firm in my attachment.

I enjoy the simplicity of the Pilot’s shape and decoration. The angles are right angles and the color palette is basic: black and white with a subtle grey belt. Uncapping it to begin writing, the separation of the two pieces of plastic makes a satisfying snap. The pen is smooth, firm, and room temperature between my fore and middle fingers, which are just far enough apart from one another thanks to the heft of it, to feel as though they are not hanging on to just themselves, but to something real. My handwriting arrives in tall, loose, right-leaning lines (everything, ironically, I am not in person, either physically or politically) and the ink takes up residence on the page as if it belonged there, not as if it had been pressed there against its will, as with ballpoints.

Like my preferred working font (Garamond) I imagine that, to others, my pen preference indicates some unflattering personal traits. Pretentiousness, perhaps. Or boringness. Or rigidity. Or snobbishness. I, of course, prefer to believe it is evidence of more flattering qualities. An appreciation of simplicity, for example. Or elegance. Or understatement.

There’s no small amount of vanity wrapped up in handwriting. We place value on the handwritten word even as it dissolves. The old-fashioned letter is now a novelty item that seems romantic, cool, twee, or pointless, depending on your perspective. We look at the inscriptions of secondhand books and at the notes in their margins, wondering why some person who owned the book before us circled the words, “Made love” twice and wrote “light-skinned boy” in the margins. If you’ve ever made a foray into the land of special collections, you know what it means to hold the correspondence of Joe Hill and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn as Hill sat in prison, waiting around to die. You think those letters would feel different if they were typed. You think the intimacy would be lost, not just between Hill and Flynn, but among the three of you and across the years. You think of Edith Wharton writing in bed and tossing the pages of her manuscripts to the floor as she finished them for a maid to collect and order. You think of Lish’s marks through Carver’s stories.

Handwriting isn’t business. It’s personal and it’s a fact: Penmanship is dying. Those schoolbooks filled with your grandmother’s tidy, feminine script resemble terrariums nursing strange and delicate plants. One day will they be more akin to drawers lined with lost insects pinned to linen and labeled alphabetically by their Latin names?

Although its gradual disappearance is a possibility and one we must consider as a time becomes foreseeable when formal thank you notes and credit card receipts are rendered obsolete, we still notice the handwritten word, value it and judge it. I’m no different and won’t lie. If I like your handwriting, I like you better. If I don’t, there is a small part of me who likes you less. For example, I do not like handwriting in odd colors or with a disregard for lines, the hard geometry of the alphabet. This I would have known about you promptly when I was fifteen, whereas now it might take months, even years, to learn. Either way, I cannot name a close friend who commits either sin. This may make me old-fashioned. It may also make me peculiar or obnoxious or a jerk. It may also make me like you.

I was not paid to write this by Pilot Corporate: I come by my enthusiasm honestly, from having picked up other, lesser pens, put them down and left them there. As usual, there was no shortage of experiments on the road to discovery. Pens were everywhere growing up. They were by the telephone and bedside tables. They were on my parents’ desks, as well as on my own and my sister’s. Pens were in my father’s pockets, my mother’s purse, my sister’s hair, at the bottom of my backpack. They were left on the floor and chewed by the dog and they were put away uncapped to leave a stain on the left breast. We are a family of bleeding hearts and I distinctly remember those hearts bleeding ink. Our pens were picked up and put back again even when tapped out. They were discovered later and complained about to whoever would listen because, “Jesus. Where have all the working pens gone?”

They were everywhere because they were with what we wrote. We wrote thank-you letters and notes to one another about who had called or where we had gone and when we would be back. We wrote copious telephone lists and filled in our address books and calendars. My older sister and I composed homework assignments and diary entries and little stories and poems and drawings of horses and dogs. My parents wrote to-do lists and grocery lists and checks. A surface wasn’t a surface if it didn’t boast a Post-It somewhere with a reminder of something our lives required in order to carry on. “Does anyone have a pen?” was not a relevant question. Everyone had a pen because functionality depended on it.

The heavy fountain pen my father kept hidden in the breast pocket of his blazer was the first of the pens I recall with any specificity. With this, the precise, strong-lined print he was taught in architecture school became heavier and more authoritative than under the spill of ink from less substantial pens. It would appear and disappear on his person as mysteriously as a quarter between a street magician’s thumb and forefinger. Occasionally, I would ask to borrow it for a duel of tic-tac-toe, and he would hand it over eyeing it all along, saying I had a knack for losing things already. Sometimes he would withhold it from me for fun, saying I wasn’t prepared for the kind of responsibilities a pen in hand implied. Lucky for him, I had opinions about pens even then and I didn’t like this one: the ink flow was unpredictable, arriving too quickly one minute and not at all the next. He tried to tell me the trick was in the angle, but I didn’t have patience for eccentric pens; if it required a course in “how to,” I was over it.

My mother kept a variety of brands at her disposal, and it was culling through her collection that my education in the common pen began: Bic, Caliber, Papermate, Uni-Ball, Pentel, and Pilot. I learned the pros and cons of each in turn. Bics encouraged my unfortunate fondness for chewing on cheap plastic and were left mutilated in my wake to likely give me cancer in forty years. Uni-Balls were almost what I was looking for but fell slightly on the wrong side of flimsy. I thought Pentels were just plain ugly and that Calibers looked like they were designed for engineers. Not the look I was going for. Papermates seemed alternately sophomoric and reminiscent of the pen handed to you at the drugstore when you need to charge a late night box of emergency tampons.

The Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine was The One because those were the ones I was always saddest to lose. Its virtues were revealed over time: it said, “classy but not rich,” the weight was satisfying without being overwhelming, the ink flow was solid without being sloppy, and the plastic did not awaken my oral fixation. By college, it was my pen.

I remember learning to write, Mrs. Ozbey standing over me, forcing my recalcitrant fingers into position around the six sides of a number 2 pencil. I would grasp that rod of wood and graphite so intently that when I released the thing my middle finger would be red and dented and my hand would need to shake it out. We were given large sheets of lined paper, the lines of which were extra wide with a dotted line down the center indicating the boundary above which lower case letters were not supposed to wander.

Cursive was introduced two years later. Master this complicated new art, they said, and it would save us untold time in the future. Print wasted precious seconds; cursive was the way of writing we would take with us into adulthood. Even then the idea seemed dated and by the time I was in sixth grade our teachers had stopped trying to make us write in cursive, trying instead to teach us to type. There was a new physical position we were supposed to learn that had nothing to do with holding something in our hands. Our hands should now live this way and over a keyboard. Use all your fingers on both your hands. Yes, even your pinkies. Don’t look down; look straight ahead. This was when screens were black and words were green and those of us being taught to type didn’t understand what was happening.

It wasn’t until college that I accepted my keyboard, not my hand, as my primary writing tool. Only then and almost without noticing, did I switch out the printed word for the typed one. Except, that is, when the process was creative. Then, I kept the partnership of hand and pen intact. I wrote poems in college and I wrote those poems by hand, crossing out and rewriting, switching out words, finally typing up the stanzas, only to continue writing and revising by hand. That was not a relationship or a process (which is it?) I was ready to upend. As if doing so would be akin to cutting in on Fred Astaire when he’s dancing a waltz with Ginger Rogers, the cameras rolling.

I teach writing to college freshman. One of the first things I tell them as I attempt to instill the virtues of the essay is that “Writing is thinking.” This is not lip service, but something I believe: that the more you write and rewrite, the further you push your ideas on the page, the further you push them in your mind and the more deeply you comprehend and understand your thoughts and feelings about the world and your place in it. My freshmen are more than ten years younger than I am and they write—compose and think—exclusively on their computers. Watching toddlers with iPhones, I suspect it’s the only way they’ve ever really known.

With computers, the physicality of the writing process has largely been eliminated. You think a string of words and they appear in front of you; the relationship of brain to hand to keyboard to screen is almost effortless. So many laments and odes have been written about how the new ways we are reading affect us for better or worse, that I sometimes consider how the ways we write have changed and whether this matters. Even our vocabulary reflects this: we don’t technically write any more, but “word process.” The tap of the keyboard is a white noise nearly as familiar as a breath entering my own body and the feeling of a key succumbing to the pressure of my fingers is almost as natural as a spoken sound. Almost. That said, I don’t wish for the time when I thought of writing in terms of the cramping in my hand and the annoyance of running out of ink at the wrong moment. The vague and constant fear that my computer will crash and I will lose everything is something I am willing to live with if it means I have a tool that allows my body to keep up with my mind.

I’m as reliant now on the machine as the next person. There remains, however, an ineffable peculiarity about that duo of hand and pen that I cannot come between. Or don’t want to. I somehow believe that because it was with a pen between my fingers that I learned to write that this is the way I do that best and always will. Fred and I switch off with Ginger these days. He cuts in, then I cut in on him. I type first drafts, then edit by hand, type in the edits, then edit the edits by hand. Of course, it’s difficult to know whether this is a simple cause and effect relationship, since writing by hand keeps me focused and safe from the internet, or whether there is some connection between my brain and my hand that only a pen can access.

As for the Pilot Precise in particular, maybe my thoughts are indeed more confident and clear when a piece of paper is at the mercy of its point. Maybe, too, it is just my idea of a lucky penny. In this way I keep it in my coat pocket. I fiddle with it there throughout the day, taking the cap on and off, clutching it, feeling it between my fingers, pulling it out sometimes to show it the light of day.

An edited history my family’s handwriting lies packed away in the attic. If I went through the bins long enough I could trace two childhoods via a timeline assembled with marks my sister and I once made on paper. Sometimes I even stumble across evidence of our parents’ early days as living, thinking, writing human beings: a short story in my mother’s small script, a handmade book of dog breeds (illustrated and alphabetized) from my father’s Boy Scout days.

If I ever cobble together a family of my own, we won’t have this history of our handwritten words. I remain uncertain how I feel about that. I know I am prone to fits of nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses, and I know too that this is not a habit to coddle, but rather one to hold, examine, accept as part of myself, but then to move past because to do otherwise would be counterproductive. These days I know enough writers, but I don’t know anyone who composes anything by hand more than a note stuck under a glass that says “Rent’s due!” The image of writer bent over desk with pen and paper has been supplanted by the image of writer at coffee shop with laptop and latte. The alternative seems precious. Now when someone looks up and asks, “Does anyone have a pen?” the answer is not so simple. There is a rush to check pockets and bags and, seven times out of ten, it seems, the answer is, “No, sorry…”

I fall at the tail end of Generation X, on the cusp of Generation Y. As it is with cusps of astrological signs, those of us on this generational cusp exhibit characteristics of both X and Y which can sometimes confuse us as to where we fall in the larger cultural picture. This sense of rose-tinted glasses worn with an awareness of the fashion’s irrelevance is part of this cusp, of relating to both the before and after when it comes to the computer age.

Yet the similarities that those of us who were born in the ’79, ’80, ’81 range share with the Gen Xers sometimes seem more profound. We remember the Challenger explosion and the fall of the Berlin Wall in a way that those born in ’83, ’84, and ’85 do not. We also remember a time when computers were not part and parcel of our lives, the way we thought, wrote, communicated. We are savvy with technology and to most we appear self-assured with it, prone to internet addiction and a knack for communicating more effectively over email than in conversation. But not a few of us, I imagine, are quite as fluent as our friends born just after us. In some ways we were outdated before we hit puberty. For this group of us there remains a lingering sense of “this newfangled thing in this brave new world” that we felt the first time when we were six or eight or ten and staring at the black screen with the green cursor blinking at us, as if into oblivion. Though we’ve spent the rest of our lives trying to prove otherwise, the strangeness of this second language persists even as our accents may remain imperceptible to anyone’s ears but our own.

(Image: In reply to @rockbandit, this is my favorite pen. A Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine. from brandonpapworth’s photostream; Image 2 courtesy the author.)

essays have appeared on The Rumpus and The Morning News and in the essay collection The Rumpus Women, Vol. 1. She lives in Brooklyn and has a website: