Fountain of imagination and joy in the hand
There's one instrument a writer should not be without, Damon Young writes.
I often write in my local cafe. Not because I'm a trendy poseur, but because I work from home, and my two-year-old daughter is louder than Mount Etna erupting and just as volatile. I need a little silence.
But every now and then, my fellow patrons interrupt with questions. Are you a writer? Are you studying? A bit of light reading, hey? But by far the most common question is this: Why are you writing with a fountain pen? And it's usually followed by something like: "I've not seen one of those in 50 years."
It's true that fountain pens are anachronistic: relics of an age before television and radio, let alone internet and mobile phones. Moreover, they have acquired a certain status. For my parents' generation, they evoke ink-spills, exercise books and schoolroom whippings. Nowadays, they are a mark of wealth or style, particularly if they are topped by Mont Blanc's white snowflake. But my pen is not primarily a status symbol. It is a simple, useful tool - one of many manual devices enjoying a comeback: push mowers, cutthroat razors, analogue watches. "I need solitary hours at a desk with good paper and a fountain pen," Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk said, "like some people need a pill for their health." In an age when some American schools are phasing out cursive handwriting, why fountain pens? What is the value of this hand-held, analogue archaism, compared to todays slick automated pads and screens? Most obviously, it mitigates distraction. My laptop is an efficient word-processing machine. But it's also a portal to infinite amusement: inbox, web browsing, social media. I'm not on Facebook, but I receive my fair share of emails. And then there are the blogs, forums, news sites, and so on. The fountain pen leaves me alone with my thoughts, and the paper I inscribe them on. It's not only wireless, but wireless-less. And in this, it is focusing, rather than dissipating. It is also literally less painful to use. It delivers ink smoothly on to the page, without the cramping pressure of the rollerball, or the hunched pecking of the laptop. It sacrifices speed for comfort and ease-of-use, allowing for sustained writing without the tell-tale aches of the Biro or MacBook.
The fountain pen is also slow because I form each letter, whereas the computer or typewriter does this automatically. I also form the font and format. This requires several parts of the brain to work at once: visual, cognitive, motor. We have to know where our hand is on the page, how to write each letter, while simultaneously referring letters to words, and words to whats on our mind. Constant feedback from the paper, nib and hand keep the brain adjusting its angle, pressure and speed.
Researchers have concluded that handwriting helps children's cognitive development and letter recognition. But it is also important for adults. It exercises a little more of our brain, and impresses our unique style upon the page. It is not Steve Jobs proprietary font - it is my unique scrawl. That I can choose my own nib width and ink adds to this distinctiveness.
There is also a meditative character to this. Offline concentration combines with comfort and slowness to promote reverie, analysis or speculation. Rather than bashing out phrases on to the keyboard, the fountain pen's hovering nib encourages a certain patient consideration. Fountain pens also have a certain historical cachet. Even when modern, they evoke a vision of the early 20th century. My daily writer, made by the German company Pelikan, still has a family resemblance to its 1930s ancestors. And many writers were passionate about their pens, well into the age of typewriters and ballpoints. H.P. Lovecraft, for example, spent 45 minutes finding just the right black Waterman. Jean-Paul Sartre dotted Being and Nothingness with references to his fountain pen. "I have never kept anything for as long as 10 years," he said elsewhere, "except a pipe and a pen." He was addicted to nicotine and writing.
His compatriot, the novelist Colette, loved her Parker Duofold Junior. Nostalgic fantasy can adhere to any old thing, its true - but some things are stickier than others.
I have no plans to turf my laptop - for one thing, newspaper editors and publishers are unlikely to take handwritten manuscripts. And computers have their own genuine virtues: precision, instantaneity, distribution, to name a few. One need not be a Luddite to recognise the worth of an inky nib.
But in an era of 24/7 distraction, haste, throwaway plastic landfill and historical amnesia, the fountain pen exemplifies manual efficiency and elegance. Not trendy, but an enduring modern trend.