There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man
that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.
– William Makepeace Thackeray
You might be familiar with the phrase “Don’t fly faster than your guardian angels are able to.” I disagree and would like to think that the Creator of the universe was fully capable of forming angels who were up to the challenge and able to keep pace with me. Admittedly, that is no small task.
Full confession —there are many things that don’t keep up with me. I walk too fast for automatic doors. I cannot count the times that I have walked into a glass door because my steps didn’t match its programmed response time. Moving walkways and escalators are too slow for my taste, and I’ve been scolded by more than one guard at the National Gallery of Art for improper use of them both. Technology slows me down.
Ironically, I love old things from a more thoughtful time that model a peaceful pace. A few years ago, I taught a high school course on great literature. One of my students discovered the wonders of the fountain pen. (after all, we were reading books first written in fountain pen by the authors). He used it for note taking and several of his assignments. Oftentimes, he would show me nibs and inks and future pens he wished to buy. To my delight, he gifted me with my very own fountain pen at the end of the term. The pen barrel was a lovely orange and my name was engraved on the cap. Glorious! Writing with the pen took some practice in order to avoid scratching a hole in the paper or blotting globs of ink on my fingers, desk, or letters.
I never mastered it. Then I ran out of ink and set the pen aside.
Recently, I was watching Malcolm Guite’s enchanting YouTube editions titled, “Spell in the Library – On the Pleasure of Taking Up One’s Pen,” featuring the writing of Hilaire Belloc. In Belloc’s essay of the same title, he extols on the virtues of his own fountain pen, speaking to it directly and saying, “God bless you, pen of work, pen of drudgery, pen of letters, pen of posings, pen rabid, pen ridiculous, pen glorified.” Oh, yes. His words spoke of wonderful hours spent with old journals and notebooks, writing on inside covers and margins of time-worn novels by Austen and books of poetry by Wordsworth. Oh, to write a real letter on 100% cotton stationery with charcoal black and cobalt blue inks, a more thoughtful way of correspondence.
Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found out long ago.
— C.S. Lewis
Then I remembered my own Pilot pen tucked away in a space on my desk, next to The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton and Our Manners and Social Customs from 1891. It was keeping good company with an old bottle of Skrip ink and my dad’s Parker pen nested in its original box. I have been too busy and distracted to notice the common thread connecting my writing with my Dad, a man born in a time of handwritten letters on watermarked paper.
Wrapped in nostalgia, I pulled the pen apart to soak out the old ink and start fresh, then ordered a box of new ink cartridges. Writing notes with my pen promised such fun and perhaps Zoom lectures would be that much more delightful! The new ink soon arrived and after an extensive cleaning, the pen was ready.
During my next group Zoom meeting, I uncapped the pen and began to write. Well, I wrote, but the ink didn’t flow. I tapped the nib, dipped it in water, shook it, attempted to draw the ink out with a tissue, and then called it something indecorous. Fresh paper was pulled out and I set to work on drawing hearts over and over again, assuming that the rhythm of a repeated shape would coax out the ink. Hearts slowly appeared, light-ish grey, then finally black. Of course, by this time I had missed fifteen minutes of the meeting, so I tried to catch up with my note taking. The pen said no, it shall not be bossed or cajoled into rapid writing, but would fully cooperate if I just slowed down.
Belloc wrote that he had “the pleasure of taking up one’s pen.” I, however, had the experience of taking up my pen and having it address me. Sometimes holy guidance will be slipped into the most unlikely circumstances, with the Lord catching us at just the right moment to learn. I received this little sermon — how our character and habits are reflected in the idiosyncrasies of a fountain pen.
Imagination — If you don’t use it every day, even a little bit, it dries up.
Rest — Don’t write faster than the ink can keep up.
Patience — Slow and steady so you won’t blot.
Perseverance — If you force the process to finish quickly, you’ll put a hole through the paper.
Focus — Concentrate on what you are writing presently and keep that rhythm.
Humility — There is no eraser for ink, but there is no shame in starting over.
Creative rut — If you get stuck searching for the right word, just swirl the pen nib around in lovely doodles. Hearts are an especially nice shape.
Mistakes — Have a backup plan and find a new sheet of paper.
Mindfulness — Pay attention to how lovely the nib feels on the paper, how the ink flows from the pen point.
Hard work — Sometimes you will have to take the pen apart and give it a good soak.
Acknowledge the bigger picture — See the beauty in the process.
Fortunately, the Zoom meeting was recorded and I was able to watch it again and take proper notes. More importantly, I awakened to the present moment, heeding the quiet lessons that arise from something as simple as a fountain pen.
Among the sadder and smaller pleasures of this world I count this pleasure: the pleasure of taking up one’s pen. — Hilaire Belloc, who wrote with a Waterman’s Ideal fountain pen.
Annie Nardone, author of this essay, writes with a Pilot MR Retro Pop fountain pen, black ink. She hopes that her musings have awakened the reader to return to the winsome pleasures of writing with a fountain pen.
Hilaire Belloc’s delightful essay “On the Pleasure of Taking Up One’s Pen can be found here.
Annie Nardone is a flannel-clad, cowboy boot-shod adventurer who seldom travels with a map because joy and surprise are discovered in the journey! Her sincere passion is the reintegration of the arts and humanities with theology and the Christian imagination. She holds a Masters Degree in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University and writes for Literary Life and the quarterly magazine, An Unexpected Journal. Annie resides in Virginia with her Middle Earth/Narnia/Hogwarts-loving family, and an assemblage of sphynx cats and feline foundlings who read with her daily. In a poll taken among friends, six things that characterize her include: books, C.S. Lewis, spontaneous adventure, Shakespeare, caffeine, and cats.