Posted in Writing

Writing letters with a fountain pen

This week has been one of those weeks that make one forget that there is a serious global pandemic of which there appears to be no end in sight; wildfires consuming the entire western half of the United States; widespread civil unrest; and, oh, the potential for further social and political upheaval in November.

In other words, work has been incredibly stressful, and every evening I’ve crawled into bed, my head throbbing, and I collapse into a deep coma for about 4 hours. If I’m lucky, I get 5. Don’t get me wrong, I feel very fortunate that I have a job, and a challenging and usually fulfilling one at that.

But this week I’ve spent so much time staring at the screen and clicking clicking clicking, pushing my creative and analytic abilities to their limits, that my brain feels like it’s just a soft pile of mush sloshing around my brain.

I know, lovely image.

Some people drink to excess. Some overeat. Some hit the malls for some retail therapy. And others insert quarter after quarter after quarter into a slot machine, an endless, mindless loop into mental lockdown.

I, on the other hand, look at pens. Specifically, fountain pens.

Look at this stunning beauty:

BENU Briolette Fountain Pen – Pacific Coast – Extra Fine Nib

Isn’t she beautiful? (For some reason I think of fountain pens as being either masculine or feminine, and this particular one seems very, well, womanly to me.) She’s a Limited Edition fountain pen available only at one of my favorite pen shops, JetPens.com, and while I was browsing the site last night, restocking my paper collection (yes, I also collect paper, bien sûr), my eyes fell on this item and I fell in love.

I hesitated for just a few minutes before adding it to my cart. It arrives in two weeks!

And just like that, I felt a hundred times better.

I bought my very first fountain pen about two years ago during a long trip in Minnesota. Maybe it was the three feet of snow outside, or the quiet charm of the tiny stationery store in which I found myself one afternoon, the feel of velvety carpet under my frozen feet. I was checking out the neat row of colorful fountain pens in the display cabinet when the saleswoman offered to show some of them to me.

There was no one else in the store at the time, so we spent more time than I realize one could spend talking only about pens. I met a fellow pen aficionado! I’ve always loved visiting stationery shops in Asia, where you can browse literally a dozen or so aisles (no mere single shelf for us Asian pen fanatics!) of pens, and at one time I think I had about two drawers full of various pens I’d picked up over the years: hotels, airlines, restaurants, medical clinics (pharma pens are some of the best and heftiest, although for some reason they won’t spring anything finer than a medium point).

I use them all. Even though I spend at least 10-12 hours per day on my computer, I still write pages and pages by hand: notes during meetings, notes during my “deep work” time, notes while I’m paying bills, and lots of letters. Real, handwritten letters that I send mostly to be best friend, but also birthday cards and thank-you cards. I’ve two shelves full of various cards in my home office closet, plus another shelf of just various letter kits and stationery boxes I’ve picked up over the years. During my trip to Singapore last February, I spent my last night buying armfuls of stationery kits from the Japanese variety store tucked in the basement of my hotel, and for good measure I also picked up a few more at Narita airport during my long layover in Tokyo.

So on that wintry afternoon in rural Minnesota, while the saleswoman and I talked about the joy of pens, I let myself be seduced into buying my very first fountain pen.

I’m certainly not rolling in money, so it wasn’t a Waterman. Instead it was a Kaweco, a German pen brand with both high-end and more practical, reasonably priced pens. At $35, my Kaweco Classic Sport was still the most I’d ever paid for a pen ever in my entire life, but I loved its lightness, the wide, ridged and short body that tucked nicely into my fingers. Replacing a fountain pen cartridge — I don’t feel confident enough to even think about trying a converter and bottled ink — is fairly straightforward, but I needed her to walk me through it at least twice just to make sure (even knowing that there were probably a thousand YouTube videos available that would show me the same thing).

I bought this one, plus a half dozen cartridge replacements in three different colors:

I bought a second one to give to my best friend for his birthday, too, even though it wouldn’t be for another 9 months. I knew I could probably buy it easily online anytime, but when does one ever get a chance to buy from a real pen expert in a real, old-fashioned stationery shop?

I’ve since bought another fountain pen, a popular Pilot with a silky dark purple barrel and which requires the lightest touch. I find myself writing even more letters, partly because I find the exercise of actually writing vs. typing to be elegant but also relaxing and grounding.

And now I’ll have one more to add to my collection. Again, it’s not that one ever needs more than one or two pens, and certainly not fussy, not-cheap fountain pens (I had to carefully rinse out and air-dry my Kaweco for three days a few months ago after I had let it sit too long without using it), but in a world where you can get just about anything in the world delivered to your door in mere weeks, if not days; where I can go for months without ever getting a single personal phone call (although I get plenty of text messages and work-related Slack pings); and where birthday greetings mostly come in digital form, the simple act of writing a letter, a journal entry, or even just a quick note in my paper planner, feels like an act of deep creativity, even love.