We open this week with a creative spotlight – in more ways than one. What’s so special about writing with old-fashioned pen and ink? In a short personal essay, Julia Truten (’19) shares with us her expertise in fountain pens, inks, and the English language.
Even though I have never run out of things to say about fountain pens in my life, when I sat down to write this, I hesitated. My fingers on the keyboard fluttered fruitlessly and my mechanical pencil may as well have been a gibbon. But of course, when your writing flow is blocked, what could possibly help more than an instrument that literally writes by flowing? My name is Julia, and I’m a sophomore English major living the fountain pen lifestyle. My dad, a former English professor, passed the mighty nib down to me when I was about sixteen. His dad, a coal miner and a poet in Scotland, brought us the hi-jinx of word-monkery; in our family, a word is worth a thousand pictures.
I was a regular but casual pen-wielder until the summer of 2015 when I attended the largest pen show in the world, the DC Fountain Pen Supershow, with my dad, and again this past summer with my dad, his sensational friend Jason, and my sublime roommate, Clara “C-Money” Finkelstein. The show boasts more than two ballrooms of pen vendors, pengineers, and nibmeisters from all over the world, as well as an ink-testing table with several hundred bottles and dip pens galore. I personally have about a hundred inks, about half of which are in bottles and half in samples. I have a “swatch-buckler” for easy browsing. My favorite, and my dad’s, is Pilot Iroshizuku Syo-Ro, which translates to “dew on a pine tree.” It lays down teal, dries sedge, and sheens red.
You may be asking: “Why are you messing around with fountain pens? It’s 2016. The world is ending…eventually.” I’m glad you asked, gentle reader. We’ve all heard the unfounded and embarrassing superstition that English majors are no longer needed, and that the study of literature is nearly obsolete. I ask you this: What are we doing to combat this hurtful stereotype if we write all our papers, poetry, and pleasantries the same way we tweet ill-researched insults or Google “my foot hurts do i have the plague”? We all know that the English major isn’t just for book addicts; it’s the study of the human experience and the human soul. Pixels on a screen sent out into a drifting technological universe have no concrete relationship to human beings. Something handwritten, whether it’s a letter, a manuscript, or a to-do list, carries with it a weight and a permanence that nowadays-English majors desperately need. There’s a reason why an event like finding a scrap of writing from ages ago in an old library book or discovering your grandma’s stash of letters carries with it such mysterious pixie dust. Someone somewhere picked out a pen, ink, and paper that resonated with them at that moment, and then etched into the paper a window into their minds, if not their hearts. You can see moments of intense feeling or duress where the line thickens from the pressure; you can see blurts of ink from where their writing speed was frantic and purposeful; you can see the moments that stuck out to them where the consistent loops of their handwriting change their posture, growing alert.
In some cases, and even in Shakespeare, a person’s handwriting can represent their whole identity and be a revelation. In Pericles, when Thaisa is stranded at Ephesus after mistakenly thought dead and tossed into the sea, her only context for her new situation comes from her husband’s letter found in her coffin. Cerimon says, “Madam, this letter…/Lay with you in your coffer…/ Know you the character?” (III.iv.1-3) Even after a tempest, childbirth, and would-be death, Thaisa immediately replies, “It is my lord’s.” (III.iv.4) The newlyweds have known each other only nine months; this certainty must then mean that handwritten materials have been an important part of their relationship and their knowledge of one another. Now I may just be an English major who can’t write anything without bringing some textual evidence to the table, but listen, if the Bard’s on board, then so am I.
Can you really read that much into a person based on their fountain pen creations? I suppose I can understand your hesitancy, goodly reader. But the answer is absolutely yes. I currently have thirty-one fountain pens, all of which I keep in ship-shape by conscientious cleaning, intentional ink selections, and fastidious fettling. My nib collection ranges from an Eastern fine to my recent acquisition of a double broad, with a special shoutout to stubs. Stubs, by the way, are the answer to the claim that you can’t write with fountain pens because your handwriting is too terrible. This nib is the flattering Instagram filter you’ve been missing out on all this time, as if stunning inks weren’t enough of a distraction. For example, try having unimpressive handwriting when using J. Herbin Emerald of Chivor, which has a gushy teal base, a brilliant red sheen, and flashy gold sparkles. I affectionately call this ink “Dragon Snot.” Anyway, the different nib sizes matter. Maybe I’m writing you with a fine nib on thin paper; you’re basically getting an inscribed flower petal. It means I want you to handle my words gently and that I middle-key want to pretend I’m a faerie. Maybe I’m writing you with a double broad on heavy paper; I want you to know that I really mean what I’m saying, that I don’t want you to forget it. It could also be interpreted as a play for dominance; there’s a good chance I’m subconsciously challenging you to a (written) duel. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword. If you get some decorative stationery decked out with an italic nib, that means that you’re automatically playing along with my fantasy of medieval princesses waxing literary in their castle bowers. But I guess my point is, if I write you a letter on Tomoe River paper with my Pilot Falcon sporting Conway Stewart St. Blazey ink, you’ve got a piece of my soul right there.
But how is this applicable to Carleton specifically? Another fantastic question, most congenial, neighborly reader. First of all, fountain pens will triple the value of your class notes, for the purposes of both retention and aesthetic. Then, there’s the old mailbox move. Friday Flowers, Shmiday Flowers. Poems written out to your friends and nemeses are more personal and less expensive. For all my fellow anxiety-sufferers out there, which I believe is almost the entire student body here at Carleton, the care and keeping of fountain pens is an amazing tool for relaxing and grounding yourself. It’s like gardening for people under the age of two hundred. Finally, and most importantly, writing with fountain pens is the best way to respect your own words. When you’re that intimately connected with what comes out of your pen, you pick your words more precisely, powerfully, and passionately. Your ideas shouldn’t be backspaced; we’re here at this incredible college to find our voices, and your voice feels a lot more permanent when it’s not the same clicking on a keyboard as everyone else’s. Plus, there are literal “bulletproof” permanent inks, if you want some extra symbolism. You take more responsibility for your words when you inscribe them yourself, and you face the consequences of your ideas. Visiting professor Kao Kalia Yang said in a guest lecture in my Intro to Anthropology class that “Education is supposed to give you courage.” It’s a courageous thing to take ownership of your ideas. In other words, I triple dog dare you.
I hope that this article helped you, my effervescent readers, to understand why I think fountain pens are so important and wonderful. If anyone is interested in learning more, please email me at email@example.com. I have a standing offer of access to my ink collection for fountain pen users, and I have more inks than I could possibly use up in this lifetime, with every intention of getting more. So please, take me up on this. I need to justify getting Franklin-Christoph Midnight Emerald somehow. Thank you so much for reading this, and thank you Carleton, for being such an amazing school that encourages this level of quirkiness.