The Pen is Mightier

James Scott Bell

Last weekend I was at the Central Ohio Fiction Writers conference, where I met up with TKZ regular Steve Hooley. Steve handed me a package which had, inside, a most remarkable fountain pen.

Remarkable because Steve made it himself. Not only that, he made it out of Irish bog wood, which he ordered special, in celebration of my Irish ancestors. He lathed the wood and polished it, then put together the other components. It’s the kind of pen that would run a few hundred bucks if you bought it at a Waterman store. 

He even put green ink in it, another nod to the Emerald Isle.  

I hold this fine instrument in my hand with trepidation. I don’t wish to befoul a virgin sheet of paper with the indecipherable scrawl that is my cursive writing. Ever since I first learned handwriting, I have never been able to get it to look like anything other than a secret code made up on the spot by a drunken Croatian spy. Steve’s pen deserves to have beautiful writing at the end of its nib, which is why entrusting it to me is like placing a twelfth-century illuminated manuscript in the jaws of a pit bull for safekeeping.

However, I have determined that it must be used. Otherwise, it would be like having a solid gold Cadillac in the garage, covered in a tarp and never taken out for a spin.

Now, it just so happens I have a completely blank Moleskine notebook sitting on my shelf. 

All this calls to mind (mine, at least) the Paris of the 1920s. I should be like Hemingway or Fitzgerald and find a cafe with outdoor tables, and make notes on the passing scene, or try to write “one true sentence.” I should be jotting my thoughts about writing and the writing life so this notebook can be discovered by my heirs after I shuffle off this mortal coil, and be published with great fanfare (or some kind of fare, even if it’s just cab fare). 

Maybe it should be a diary of my deep, dark secrets, such as: I actually like Hamburger Helper. I think Bruce Springsteen is overrated. I have a secret longing to return to this life someday as Sam Elliott’s voice. 

Frankly, I don’t know what to do. Should I journal? Doodle? Try to write a story? What is the best use of my beautiful pen and immaculate notebook?

I will entertain suggestions from the TKZ community.

I thank you.

What about you? Are you a pen person? Do you like the feel of it? Or are you a dedicated typer?

And what will happen to our culture as cursive writing slides into oblivion?

51 thoughts on “The Pen is Mightier

  1. I don’t get why everyone thinks cursive writing will go away. Sure, we type more and more, but we still have to write sometimes, and writing in cursive is still way faster than printing your letters. Are we going to start sealing contracts with a handshake and nothing more?

    I love handwriting things but often don’t because then you have to transcribe it and I don’t have the time. Though I still most often take notes by hand during class.

    What has saved me is Dragon NaturallySpeaking. That is some seriously smart software and even without a specialized version, knows a lot of medical terminology, for example, without me having to train it.

    The exception is the word “adduction”. No matter how I try, the Dragon can’t get a handle on that one.

    As to the pen (looks very nice, Steve!) I’d probably save it for writing about the defining moments of life–the ones that mean the most. Enjoy!

    • At the school my wife used to teach at, the entire student body, K-12, had to learn and exclusively use cursive. They had a speech/language specialist who said it was much better for learning English than printing. Something about how the process affects the acquisition of language. They were paying this specialist a lot, so they all followed her lead.
      As for me, I would write cursive all the time except I want someone to be able to read it. As a reporter, if I don’t transcribe my notes within 12 hours or so even I can’t read them. There’s nothing colder than cold notes, they are the frozen lasagna of writing.
      Springsteen overrated? Nah. If I told you who *I* think is overrated, you’d want to burn me at the stake.

    • The Beatles. There, I said it. They were a very good pop band, then they got weird and did a bunch of “arty” stuff that no one would listen to today. Then they sort of redeemed themselves with “Hey Jude.”
      For my money the Rolling Stones are the greatest rock band ever. Even their oldest hits – Honky Tonk Woman, Brown Sugar, Can’t Always Get What You Want – sound as raw and fresh as if they had been released just last week. The Who are second, but it’s not very close.

    • I remember those days, the Beatles being “safe” and the Stones “bad.” That was good counter marketing. And neither band would have made it without actual talent.

  2. People tell me I have “neat” handwriting, when in fact it’s really just poor lettering (the draftsman’s term for printing)~ my scribbling cursive is illegible even to me many times (and truly deserving of the name CURSE-ive).

    I am constantly looking for the “right” writing instrument~ I do like the way a fountain pen flows, as well as the way a felt-tip let’s me change line weight/thickness, and some “gel-inks” come in some great colors of blue not found in the other tools.

    And I understand the wanting to save the new pen and notebooks for efforts worthy of their newness~ but have found that once “despoiled” by my scrawl, they become more valuable with use. Like my guitar, they may look good unused, but they look loved if used lovingly.

  3. Jim, I completely agree–Bruce Springsteen is overrated.

    I have not written in cursive in so long that I would be hard pressed to do so even if my life depended on it. I print everything. My problem is not my handwriting, it’s my spelling. But I do love pens, and have a small collection of Monte Blancs. I don’t know what to do with them but I like holding them.

  4. Jim, I am humbled that you like the pen enough to talk about it. I always envisioned you using it to autograph books, sharing your Irish culture with your readers.

    A critique partner, Mark Rhyne, actually inspired the idea. His heritage is Irish, and he writes thrillers based on ancient Gaelic legends. So after our next critique session he will be able to say, “I have an Irish bog oak pen just like James Scott Bell’s.”

    As to cursive, the decision makers in the education realm probably looked at my chicken scratches and decided they had wasted their time “trying” to teach cursive. They may as well put the time to better use.

    Anyway, hopefully an attorney can learn to write cursive better than a physician. We practice writing “code” daily, as fast as we can, and as ugly as we can. And Joe, when we can’t spell, we scribble so poorly no one can read it, or (a favorite) just end the word with a straight line. That’s very fast.

    Enjoy the pen, Jim. I hope the next time I see you at a conference I can talk you into autographing another book with your pen.

    • We’ll have to work on that. You mentioned Fitzgerald. There’s actually a pen kit called “The Gatsby.” It’s not nearly as elegant, but it’s a good working pen.

      I’ll trade you pens for autographs until all of your books are signed. Deal?

  5. Carry pen and moleskine with you always. Write the date you start on the front cover. When you encounter something you’d like to make note of, do that. Don’t waste time deciding what it will be when it’s done; you won’t know that until it’s done. When that moleskine is finished, don’t review or edit or even look at it again for at least a year. Just write the date you finish that moleskine on the back cover and move on to the next moleskine.

    Let us know how it works for you.

  6. Steve, I love the pen! Very elegant and obviously made with care and talent. I remember a second grade teacher who taught cursive and would walk around the room with a ruler and had the nerve to smack our little fingers when the letters did not come out to her liking. How on earth did I ever become a writer after that? Wish I could have made it to the conference but it was not to be, maybe the next time around. Jim, I think the idea of using that beauty at book signings is a great one. Love the green ink too. My favorite is affordable and comfy in my hands, The Write Dudes. You guys will probably want to find a different color scheme but I bet the gals will love them. 🙂

    Steve, you should join forces with me this year for NaNoWriMo. You can find me at 111BronteGirl. 🙂 I’m trying my hand at mystery this year. There’s another use for that pen, Jim. Prep work for NaNo, but you might want to print so you can read what you’ve written. Write on mighty TKZ scribes.

    • Thanks for the invite. I checked out the Write Dudes pens on Amazon. I noticed they have “training grips” for the Write Dudes. Is that like training wheels? Will they actually help those of us who are cursively (?cursedly?) challenged learn to write. I may have to try them out.

    • Hey Steve, I’m sure those training grips were made to help us hang on to our pens when tempted to let go during NaNo. 🙂

      And believe it or not, Jim, I attended elementary school in a small farming district in Greensburg, Pa. No nuns.

      Adam, what is it about pens that make our hearts beat wildly? I think it’s the smooth feel as it races across paper.

  7. Lovely amazing gift. Wow, Steve.

    Interesting questions, Jim. I’m a visual learner. Taking good notes in college helped me study & commit concepts to memory more easily. When I’m conjuring a new plot, or even working through my WIP, I like doddling with notes, like brainstorming ideas. The writing helps trigger a creative part of my brain that works for me & has become part of my process.

    Hard to imagine a future without cursive writing, but I suppose it’s a possibility. Have a good Sunday, Jim.

  8. What a lovely gift! Not sure I would let it out of my house, given my penchant for leaving pens, sunglasses, umbrellas all over the world.

    I love ink pens. (I actually collect antique ink wells). But being left-handed, it’s hard to use one because we south-paws tend to drag our mitts across the page as we advance. (I once got a C in an art class because of this).

    But I was trained in cursive writing and, when asked, I can still replicate its beauty. I can also write cursive backwards. Which is useful only as a stupid human trick.

    As for Springsteen, I think he’s is one of our best short story writers. So there.

  9. Blinded by the light, 10th ave freeze out, Rosalita are good tunes. Recently saw a shirtless pic of him, that dudes cut like a twenty year old

  10. What a thoughtful, meaningful gift! Kudos to you, Steve, and to James for inspiring your creativity and hard work!

    People have given me little bound blank books over the years but I always find them intimidating to start. What could I write that’s worthy of a bound book? Thankfully, when I type my books on the computer, I can go back and revise as many times as I like! And I find typing is easier on my hands.

    Enjoy your very special gift, James! And perhaps you’ll share with us later some of what you wrote in your book in green with this beautiful handmade pen!

  11. What a beautiful pen, Steve!

    You could really play up the Hemingway/Fitzgerald angle and grow a tiny mustache. And wear a beret. And sip cappuccino in a tiny cup, whilst scribbling your deepest thoughts…

    I’m in the journal camp, since if you make it for one specific book your time with the notebook will come to an end. But if you use it for thoughts and “boys in the basement” time, you can carry it around for a long time!

    • I’m leaning in that direction, Elizabeth. I mean, the thoughts thing, not the tiny mustache thing. If I grow a stache I want it to look like Tom Selleck’s.

  12. Hello JSB! I think my prior comment was eaten by something in ‘the cloud’. I just wanted to thank you on behalf of the conference planning committee for coming to our event and inspiring so many. Thanks also for listening to me blather on about my publisher troubles. I regret not having a chance to pick your brain about film noir though! As far as your cool notebook and pen go, keep it handy to jot down potential character names. I keep a notebook by my chair so when I watch movie credits, I can record interesting names.

    • As Dutch said, it’s the best financial return per word, isn’t it?

      But the cops will very easily trace that green ink, me being to public about it. I think I’ll stick to journaling.

  13. Gorgeous pen and awesome gift.

    Sadly, my cursive hand writing has declined to the point that a couple years ago I tried to take notes in cursive during a meeting and could not remember some of the letters. It ended up being a mix of print and script.

    Last year though I had a chance to write a sentence with an ink pen that, if I could own one, would drive me to want to write all my novels long hand. It was perfectly balanced, and the most fluid motion I have ever experienced.

    But alas I will not ever own such a pen unless they significantly reduce the £5,250.00 price tag.

    yes…that equals over US$10,000.00

  14. I have a love affair with pen & paper, one this fine with a mole skin notebook should be cherished, I think I would write stories for my children and grandchildren of my parents and grandparents, a family history. I’m not much into genealogy but I love the old stories. Who were the people who came before us? How ever you use this pen, I know that it will be something amazing and wonderful. You have given so much to the writing and reading communities. Regardless of the prettiness of your calligraphy, the words will be all that really matters.

  15. Whoa! Lotta action from this post, Jim. Probably everyone trying to make up for “No-Post Saturday.” That was kinda like going down to your favorite pub for a pint of stout and finding the joint locked up tight. Now what? And you’re just standing there, all lonely with no place to go. But that’s okay. We’ll get over it…somehow.

    The PEN absolutely rocks. That’s what works for me. With paper, of course. (Aaa-heem) I like a nice little tablet to go along with my pen of choice. Right now my POC is the Wallgreens pen. It’s big and red. Are those “complimentary” pens at the pharmacy?

    I can kick back on my sunny deck in my rocking chair with a pint of stout, a nice long maduro cigar, headphones, Wallgreens pen and appropriate tablet and just first-draft my brains out.

    I picked up a nice 3-ring binder that folds all the way around, so you can balance it on your leg. That works great at home. However, my mobile, on-the-road, traveling equipment has changed from one of those huge leather hippie bags (with metal stars) to a more compact number from Tumi (my favorite store for leather accoutrements).

    My new bag fits my Kindle and my Galaxy 4 tablet. Now I need an appropriate notebook. Any suggestions?

  16. A use my fountain pen for most of my research jottings – makes me feel more inspired and in touch with the past:) My kids know if it’s been a productive day by the amount of ink stains I have on my fingers. I’m a messy. inky writer!

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