Sunday, December 22, 2013

Pencils and Pens... My Favorite Writing Tools

fountain pen
fountain pen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Mechanical pencils and fountain pens are my two favorite writing technologies. At one time, they were cutting-edge technologies, too, as I recently discussed with several writing instructors. Consider how amazing it is that pens don't leak everywhere. Okay, some cheap pens do leak, but not a good fountain pen. They are marvelous. Looking through the glass display case at Nordstom's or another upscale store at the pens and watches, awestruck by tools that are works of art, I want them, like a child wants candy. (Not that I also don't want candy, but that's off-topic.)

Why do I write with pencils and pens? What is special about these quaint, simple tools with no "undo" or "spellcheck" features? Why do I believe they produce better writing in some situations than any word processor? And why don't I have the same desire to use a typewriter?

Typewriters are great, especially the classic portables. I owned a Smith Corona manual and a Brother electric typewriter. I liked them, and I wouldn't mind having a typewriter in my office as a work of art… but pencils and pens still win out when I want to write.

I write most of my poetry and many of my script drafts in pencil. I use a classic Pentel mechanical pencil. My wife bought extras because I'm so attached to the design of the Pentel Quicker Clicker model ( and you know a good design will be discontinued. Thankfully, they remain a popular model. It's just a great pencil (0.5mm HB lead).

My journals, collections of short poems and prose, are in pencil. The initial drafts are jotted down on orange-yellow unlined paper that is several decades old now. I write the poems on these sheets, letting them gather until I am ready to sit down and recopy the poems into the lined pages of ruled notebooks. When I do copy the poems, it is a slow process. I write in cursive, slowly and carefully, erasing my mistakes and rewriting as necessary. I want to lettering to be as perfect as possible.

The journals are not meant to be revised and edited. The only editing occurs during the copying process, from the unlined sheet to the lined college-ruled notebook. I fix minor errors and sometimes try to improve the poetry a little. The journals cover my life, from elementary school (fourth grade or so) through the present. The college years were the most active, those years of "angst" and self-absorption. I toss the drafts once I rewrite the poems. Those drafts have never meant as much to me as the final journals.

The journals capture moments in time. They capture my experiences. They are not meant to be revised forever, updated and tweaked by my improved "skills" as a writer. Perfection of form or craft is not the point of a journal. The journals are exercises, yes, but they are memories captured for later reflection.

I need to return to the journals to make up for years of neglect — something I vow to do from time to time over the last six years, and yet I still neglect the notebooks. I hereby vow that 2014 will be different. I will get back to all forms of creative writing, now that we are settled into our new home.

My scripts drafts are in pencil, too. I write on legal pads, numbering the pages. I transcribe the pages from the legal pads into the computer, usually every few scenes. I still have stacks of pads I have yet to migrate to digital form, sadly. Again, I need to focus on my creative writing with my "spare" time. When I type the pages, I keep the legal pad pages. The draft pages of a script are mine, while the final production of a play or film is never going to be the same as the first draft. There's something special about the legal pad pages and the pencil scribblings.

When I have time to think and ponder, I write slowly with a pen. Ideally, a good (not great) fountain pen. The scratching of the pen as it crosses the page, leaving ink on the page, is a great sensation. It is as if I can feel the words being created, taking form on the page. It's not like the sensation of a pencil. But, a pen is less than ideal for drafts and I lack the confidence to use a pen for my journals — I hate sloppy mistakes and would panic if I made an error in ink.

A fountain pen is best for letters and other artifacts we wish to share with others. You do not write a letter in pencil! No, a good, personal letter is in pen. A letter, a note, written in pen has more personality than an email or a post shared online. To me, the fountain pen also represents one of the greatest teachers I knew, a man who favored a Parker Sonnet Ciselé ( He critiqued my stories and poems with that pen, and graded countless thousands of student assignments.

Computers are wonderful for writing. They have made editing and revising easy, changing how we write. I can rewrite and rewrite endlessly. Sadly, I do just that. With my journals or with a letter, once I am satisfied with the page, that's it. You can't erase forever with a pencil — and you can't cut-copy-paste — and you can revise even less with a pen. Writing slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully is the result of the technology I select as a writer.

And yet, these are digital words… about which I should write a journal entry!

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