A writer’s tools

Once upon a time, the mother of a couple of young children decided she wanted to write a book, or three. But because she was, well, the mother of a couple of young children, she spent a fair amount of her time doing parental things like sitting and watching her son at soccer practice, and sitting outside the house of the music teacher during lessons, and sitting…
And because this was the late 1980s, and computers were large clunky boxes firmly attached to desks (insert word processing disk; eject; insert blank disk; type; eject…) the choices for mobile writing were either a portable typewriter, or a pen:

My first pen (on the left) was a simple Waterman bought in Oxford on the high street pen shop (still there—it’s called Pens Plus.) With it I wrote The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and most of A Monstrous Regiment of Women. I used buff colored paper clipped to an oversized artist’s clipboard (as in the photo), comfortable whether I was at home, or sitting behind the wheel of the Volvo while the kids were kicking a soccer ball or tormenting the music teacher’s piano.
A pen is a personal, highly tactile way to write. A fountain pen has the definite advantage of being gentle on the hands and wrist, since unlike pencils or a ball point, there’s no pressure involved, just directing the ink’s flow. I could write for hours and hours, which is how I wrote then, and I never got cramps or carpal tunnel syndrome or even so much as a callus.
And that was the only way I wrote. Even letters, I would draft by hand first, then transfer onto the computer. For a while, I would buy myself a new pen for a new book—the wooden one (bought in France) is the one that wrote Folly. (Folly being about a woodworker…) But then I found the Namiki (which seems to have gone walkabout at the moment, so I didn’t add that one to the photo—no doubt it’s off attending some writing conference.)  The Namiki became my favorite, with its rare combination of a fine nib and an easy ink flow (Japanese characters, I imagine, requiring both) and I used that exclusively for a few years. All in all, I wrote nearly a dozen books in ink, until computers became small enough I could rest one on that same oversized clipboard and fool my brain into thinking it was still producing words with a pen.
I don’t tend to write first drafts with pens now, since the business of the rewrite and edit became just too cumbersome. I even cajoled my brain into writing letters on the machine, although I still need to see words on a page for any complex kind of edit. But I do use the pens still, when words are coming slowly, when I need to think things out in, well, a personal and tactile fashion.
When I need to think in pen and ink.

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  1. TheMadLibrarian on August 23, 2010 at 9:31 am

    A good pen is a delight. For my industrial design courses, they recommended I buy an ArtPen, which is a fancy cartridge ink pen geared to artists and, yes, designers. It did lend itself very well to pen and ink drawing, although it had a bit more trouble with extended amounts of writing which the nib didn’t like. I used it on and off for years, then passed it along to a fellow artist.

  2. LIsa on August 23, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Fountain pens are all I use to write. I love the richness of the ink, as well as how it feels in the hand and the flow of the ink. I mostly use Waterman pens, but maybe I’ll look into Namiki pens one day.

  3. Erin on August 23, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    I used to have a fountain pen that I’d use for special occasion letter writing…but I had to concentrate too hard on not smearing what I wrote (they don’t seem to be designed for left-handed writing) for it to be a good everyday kind of writing tool for me.

    I love the look of handwriting, but I really think keyboarding/typing was an awesome evolution for writing. My fingers are much better than my writing hand at keeping up with my thoughts.

  4. Zoe on August 23, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    I love writing by hand. I only write short stories, so the edit process isn’t so cumbersome, but I have a hardcover notebook (unlined – very important! I need to be able to add comments between the lines, and it also has the advantage of allowing you to change the size of your writing depending on whether or not you’re on-board a moving vehicle) and I write everything out by hand first. I love the way it looks, and I love the edit process when transferring from paper to computer. Prefer ballpoint to fountain, the kind with really narrow points, though; I tend to tap the pen against the paper, which leaves unfortunate marks on the paper with a fountain.

  5. Lauren L. on August 23, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    I use fountain pens too! I have two Waterman Hemispheres (one blue and one red…I’m an editor). The next pen I get will be a green one…again, for editing.

    I love the weight, the feel, the substance. Fountain pens are just delightful. Thanks for this post!

  6. jtb1951 on August 23, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    I have a Mont Blanc (which I think is your pen in the middle) that I cherish and still use for handwritten notes.


  7. Teresa on August 24, 2010 at 4:28 am

    I loved reading this, and am glad to know about your pen and ink habits. It is the only way to keep your writing legible, I’ve found. Mine has deteriorated over the years of computer writing and composing onscreen, so that every once in awhile I take out one of my fountain pens and write a few letters. Just to keep my words in shape. Recently a friend brought me one back from her year in Japan, which must be dipped into the ink periodically. I love using it, messy as it was at first. It’s like a little ceremony each time I write a letter to a friend, and that feels just right.


  8. Ruth Redfern on August 24, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    I can so relate to Erin’s entry. I have a love hate relationship with fountain pens. I think I have one of every type of pen made with nearly every nib possible. However, being left handed, it, like so many things in this world, is very difficult to actually use them!

    Love your books and always look forward to the “mass marketing” version. They take up less bookcase space! Haven’t taken to the computer reading equipment. I like the look, feel and smell of books.

  9. Laurie King on August 24, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Sorry, I don’t think they’re going to do any more mass market versions of the books, they are shifting over to the trade size. Not sure why, but it’s not my decision!

  10. Nancy Gordon on August 25, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    This came after reading a short debate in the Costco magazine between two teachers re the merits of teaching cursive to kids in grade school. And it came after I’d spent about 30 minutes writing (by hand with uniball pen–not a fountain pen, but does have ink flowing on paper) in my journal. I find writing by hand is centering in a way that writing on the computer isn’t and is the way I discover what’s true and important.

  11. Ruth Redfern on August 26, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    Wonderful, trade size is also excellent! Actually, when I think about it, they may be better in that they are taller and narrower! Please continue with your wonderful talent. Thank you.

  12. RussellHolmes on August 26, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    Great to hear again from you Laurie! 🙂

  13. Jane Steen on August 29, 2010 at 7:32 am

    I write in my journal by hand, but otherwise I’m too fast a keyboarder to want to write books that way. Although I did write a large part of my master’s thesis longhand – I didn’t have a laptop at that point, and ended up writing on a sticky table at a rink where my youngest was skating. I find that having to put what I’ve written into the computer is a useful part of the editing process.

    I read somewhere that mass market paperbacks are predicted to be the first victims of the rise of e-books. Shame, really. When I used to commute to London I always had a paperback in my pocket!

  14. Anna on August 29, 2010 at 8:53 am

    I love this post for so many reasons! I have an unhealthy pen obsession … I just keep looking for one that will write even better, bleed even less, and glide along the page even more. While I don’t write (as in “writer-ly” things), I do keep a journal, and love to pen-doodle. I worked briefly at an office supply store while going to school part-time, and amassed quite a stock of pens. I still find superb pleasure in finding new pens in different colors and different styles. My favorite right now is the “uni-ball Signo Micro” … nothing has beat this one yet!

    Also, I love that you can’t properly edit without hardcopy — it’s just different on a computer screen, I’ve always felt. I’m 26, in a generation of ‘supposed-to-be-gaga-over-every-technological-advancement’ and I still want to copyedit hardcopy manuscripts, but it seems I’ve missed my time . In short, pen and ink ARE personal, artistic, tactile, and so many other things, that I just couldn’t discard the method altogether.

  15. La Donna on August 29, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    My fountain pen was a membership gift for joining Amnesty International … years and years ago. I used to use it to sign all of my letters to my poor suffering elected officials — now I use e-mail to plague them. But the pen still does duty on birthday cards and sympathy cards (and all those personal correspondence events in between) and all those things that simply *must* be signed and sent through the mail!! It has made at least two trips across the ocean … always remember to empty it first … for use with the travel journal. Now, if my daughter would just quit liberating the ink bottle to use for her calligraphy!!

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