January 23 National Handwriting Day

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Tuesday January 23 is National Handwriting Day (and, not coincidentally, John Hancock’s birthday). This day of celebration and outreach and engagement with handwriting was founded in 1977 by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association. Their motive was, understandably, to promote the use of pens, pencils and paper for writing, and hence their bottom line, but there’s more to it than that. As they put it:

Handwriting allows us to be artists and individuals during a time when we often use computers, faxes and e-mail to communicate. Fonts are the same no matter what computer you use or how you use it and they lack a personal touch. Handwriting can add intimacy to a letter and reveal details about the writer’s personality. Throughout history, handwritten documents have sparked love affairs, started wars, established peace, freed slaves, created movements and declared independence.

Handwriting is part of the writing process for a lot of writers. One of the virtues of writing by hand is that you can write without needing anything other than paper and a pen or pencil. Handwriting also engages different parts of our brains than keyboarding does, helping us to “think differently.” There’s also a distinct pleasure in having our own unique style, whether we print or use cursive. There’s also both physical and aesthetic delight in writing with beautifully made, easy to use pens, pencils and paper.

In celebration of National Handwriting Day, take a minute and send a card or letter to someone you’ve been thinking about, or a thank you note to a friend or a writer you admire. Taking the time to write something personal by hand says that you’re going beyond the rudiments of courtesy.

Are you celebrating National Handwriting Day? Or are you one of those who write by hand regularly? Come tell us in the new Analog Tools subform on Absolute Write.

Happy Fountain Pen Day

A notebook with ruled pages, cursive, and a fountain pen
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.com

Inspired by National Fountain Pen day, we’ve created a new forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler. Analog Tools is about those non-digital, non-computer tools we writers love to use, including fountain pen, other pens, pencils, paper, and typewriters. 

Today is the sixth annual Fountain Pen Day, celebrated every year on the first Friday of November. It’s a great time to try writing with a fountain pen.

Five years ago I returned to writing by hand as a way to take breaks from the keyboard (and pain from carpal tunnel). I made a (to me) startling discovery. Fountain pens are hands-down easier to write with than a ballpoint pen, or even a gel pen (my previous pen of choice). This isn’t just me; this has to do with the basic design of the ballpoint or roller point pen. Ball point pen ink is deliberately thickened to make it less likely to leak. Moreover, the ball that gives the ball point pen its name must be physically propelled with some force across the paper in order to coat the ball with ink and transfer it to paper. The extra force required to propel the pen across paper, and coat it with ink, results in increased tension in a writer’s hand and arm.

Writing with a fountain pen did take some getting used to. But writing has been much less stressful on my hands and arms. I’m not fighting the ink. I’m also not gripping the pen tightly in an effort to physically push the pen across paper while bearing down in order to coat the “ball” with ink, and write. Fountain pen ink wants to spread. If you’re even a little bit curious, I encourage you to try a personal experiment in terms of drafting your writing with a fountain pen, or using a fountain pen for personal correspondence or journals and similar kinds of writing. NaNoWriMo offers a great opportunity to see if writing by hand helps your creativity. It does for some. Switching from my keyboard to writing by hand has helped me when staring at my laptop screen is frustrating rather than fruitful.

Your First Pen

You don’t have to spend much for a perfectly good pen. If you’re brand-new to fountain pens and aren’t sure they’re for you, consider trying a “throwaway” Pilot Varsity (it’s available in several colors) or the refillable Platinum Preppy; both pens are under $5.00. The Varsity is not meant to be re-filled; the Platinum Preppy is, and uses cartridges and can be refilled indefinitely (the Preppy is available in several colors). This is an affordable-no-real investment way to try writing with a fountain pen, and both pens are more than adequate for most writing. Consider using a fountain pen during NaNoWriMo, as a way to jumpstart your creativity.

If you are sure you want to write with a fountain pen, consider one of the highly respected quality “starter pens” under $30.00. These include the Pilot Metropolitan (around $15.00, with several colors of pen and Pilot ink available), the Lamy Vista (around $25.00), and the Lamy Safari (around $30.00), among others. I’ve used and really love all three of these. I’d suggest starting with either a Fine or Medium nib (the nib is the pointy part of the pen that contacts the paper).

Ink

When you first start, you’ll likely want to use pre-filled ink cartridges. Cartridges are sold in packs, they’re portable, and they’re easy to use. You will need to buy cartridges made for your pen; it’s not one-size-fits-all. Ink also comes in bottles, and it’s more economical to use bottled ink instead of buying cartridges (or refills). You need to have a fountain pen converter in order to use bottled ink, and like cartridges, converters are designed for a specific pen. Some pens will come with a converter, others require you to buy one for $5.00 bucks or so.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of ink colors. There are also several kinds of ink; inks that are water soluble (not for use on checks or anything that you want to keep), water resistant inks, archive quality inks, inks meant to feather less and thus perform better on poorer quality paper, and specialty inks that change color, glitter, or are invisible. Most people start with a medium or dark blue, a blue-black, or a black ink. But color can be fun, as well as useful, for for editing or for distinguishing one version from another (draft in blue, edit in red, new draft in purple, etc.).

Paper

You want paper that encourages the pen to glide smoothly, with little application of force, but which will display the ink without blots, or clogging the nib, or feathering.

There are numerous sites suggesting the Best Possible Paper for writing with a fountain pen. People often have very decided opinions about paper. The general rule of thumb is that the heaver weight the paper is, from about 70gsm up to say 100 gsm, the better it is for using a fountain pen. You’ll see people debating the virtues of Moleskine vs Leuchtturm 1917, or Rhodia vs Claire Fontaine, etc., but honestly, preferences are personal. Look for paper that is at least 70gsm; less will bleed or feather or otherwise fail.

If you’re writing rough drafts or person notes that aren’t to be kept indefinitely, HP 32lb Premium Paper (you can print your own lines if you want), I’ve found Mead Composition books made in Vietnam, or Mead Five Star notebooks with a Fine or Medium nib fountain pen are usable (if not viable for the long term) with most pens and inks, especially if I only use one side of a page. Amped Docket Gold pads or  Red ’n Black Notebooks usually work well.

The Nib

The nib is the metal part of the pen that contacts the paper when you write. People have pronounced preferences about nibs, but for your first pen, you’ll probably want a fountain pen with a Fine or Medium nib.1)Fountain pens made in Asia tend to have finer nibs because many Asian writing systems work better with a Fine nib; a Platinum Preppy or Pilot M is close to a European F.

TIPS:

  • Use decent paper
  • Don’t grip the pen too hard or use force to propel it across a page, or bear down on the nib. Let the ink do the work for you; gently guide the pen.
  • Practice writing or even scribbling first; try your signature, try a couple of test sentences.
  • Most problems with fountain pens can be resolved by cleaning them; if it’s a refillable pen, clean or rinse it every time you refill it, if possible.

References   [ + ]

1. Fountain pens made in Asia tend to have finer nibs because many Asian writing systems work better with a Fine nib; a Platinum Preppy or Pilot M is close to a European F.

Handwriting: Is it Part of Your Process?

I still like writing by hand. Normally I do a first draft using pen and paper, and then do my first edit when I type it onto my computer. For some reason, I much prefer writing with a black pen than a blue one, and in a perfect world I’d always use “narrow feint” writing paper. — J. K. Rowling 

Image credit: Petar Milošević

I prefer to take notes by hand because I’m actively listening when I write, in ways that I’m not when I’m typing. Sometimes I choose to handwrite because being able to write with paper and a pen or pencil and a convenient light source makes it possible to write in places where even a Chromebook or iPad are cumbersome.

The primary reason I choose to write by hand that my brain works differently with pen (or pencil) and paper. I’m less distracted by aesthetics (typography, for instance, is not an issue). I often turn to pen and paper (or pencil) when I get stuck, particularly on when I’m writing books, or lengthy research articles. Often, I’ll draft in long hand, then edit in longhand, then keyboard it and edit again before I submit.

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of other writers also choosing to write in longhand, or print, even when they could use a keyboard. I was surprised by how many of my favorite novelists are prefer pens and paper for drafts.

When you’re writing with pen and paper, you’re working in the same direct mode you use to tell a story to children, and for a first draft, that’s maybe not a bad thing. — Joe Hill  

J. K. Rowling deliberately chooses to write by hand, though as she notes, she prefers narrow-ruled paper and black pens. Neal Stephenson, in a now defunct interview for Barnes and Noble (quoted here) notes that he started writing his novels with a fountain pen with Quicksilver, the first volume of his Baroque Cycle. Stephenson said

What I was noticing was that I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all. With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it.

I think that’s true. I noticed that the amount of time it takes for me to formulate a thought into a sentence, because it’s slower to read the paper than the screen, often means that I realize that it’s not something I want to write, that the idea or sentence isn’t ready for committing to paper. ItÆ’s less a matter of the internal editor interfering, than one of my “inner ear” noticing that those aren’t quite the words I want, In the time it takes to hesitate before committing the words to paper, my brain supplies other, better words. In other words, there’s less to edit or delete. Stephenson comments on that too, observing that the process of editing is often easier with pen and paper:

Editing, strangely enough, is quicker and easier with a pen. Because drawing a line through a word is just faster than any sequence of grabbing your mouse and highlighting the word and hitting the eject key. That act of editing leaves behind a visible trace of the word that you decided to change, and sometimes that’s useful; you may want to go back and change your mind about that. Finally, I find that writing with a pen is a physically healthier activity. There’s actually more range of movement involved with it than there is sitting with your fingers on the keys for hours at a time. So I just physically felt better when I was using the pen rather than typing.

Jonathan Carroll, famous for his contemporary fantasy and slipstream novels, notes that:

Handwriting anything makes me think hard about what I really want to keep or throw out. Because the process is generally slow, I’m thinking all the time while my hand moves across the page. While using any kind of keyboard device, my fingers are whizzing much faster than my mind can think and that is a dangerous thing if you want to write it right.

I find that the experiences of novelists in terms of their writing process, is true of my much less interesting process as well, when I’m writing scholarly or academic pieces or even when I’m writing pieces that I know are destined for Web publications; I think differently, and write differently with a pen in hand. As Joe Hill says:

Finally, in a notebook, you’re stuck with yourself. You’re cut off from your games, the internet, Twitter, Facebook. The only thing you have to entertain you is your own imagination.

What about you? Do you write by hand? Have you ever tried switching to pen-and-paper (or a pencil!) when you’re stuck? Is handwriting part of your process? If not, consider trying it.

How to Start a Novel: The Willingness to be the Best and the Worst

By Albyn Leah Hall

Writing fiction is like allowing yourself to be the ugliest person in the room and the most beautiful person at the same time. The “beautiful” you swans into the party, garnering admiration, presuming that everyone else will be interested in what you have to say—about anything. The “ugly” you would prefer to cower in the kitchen, scoffing leftovers in the dark.

It’s a schizoid existence. The part of you that is dying to be heard is chronically at odds with the part of you that fears exposure, rejection, or being just plain bad, which brings me to my next point. In order to write a novel, you must be willing to be bad. This is especially true in the first draft; it is, arguably, what the first draft is for. (Or, in keeping with the analogy, in order to be beautiful, you must be ugly first.)

There is no easy way to do this. Every writer has his or her own way of wrestling with the demons, and I can’t tell you how to wrestle with yours. However, I can suggest some techniques that I use when starting a novel; simple strategies that help to free me from my inhibitions and create a space for the work to emerge.

1) When you begin a novel, rather than thinking you must write for, say, a minimum of four to six hours a day, try to write for only one hour maximum.
This means you may write for no more than one hour! Most of us harbor an image of the tortured writer; the pacing, hair-pulling novelist locked up in a chicken shed while the world spins without him. And yet, while writing inevitably entails some pain and struggle, the stereotype of the suffering, workaholic writer is your enemy. The first draft is when you must pull something out of nothing: words from the ether, or from your unconscious. If you impose a tough regime upon your draft before it has had a chance to breathe, you will stifle it. If, rather, you write in bite-sized pieces, tantalizing yourself with just a little each day, then eventually you will want to write more, and take delicious pleasure in breaking your own rule. (However, while you don’t have to write much each day, it is important to write every day, including Sunday; even if that means just a quick scribble before brushing your teeth—you’ve still observed the rule.)

Lest you think this sounds frivolous—a hobbyist approach to writing—I must confess that there was a time when I thought the same thing. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t write for hours, or even, sometimes, minutes; why I spent most of my time staring at my computer screen longing to be anywhere but there. It was a severe blow to my sense of identity; I was a writer who could not write! When a friend suggested the hour max rule, I tried it with reluctance. A year later, I had written my first novel.

In later drafts, you will probably want to write for longer. This is great, so long as you bear in mind that good writing doesn’t always come from abundance. I can think of many days in which I have produced far more inspired writing after one hour than on other days when I wrote for six.

2) Write your first draft in longhand.

This doesn’t mean you have to write the entire draft this way, but write each chapter or section by hand before transferring it to the computer. The computer tends to make us feel that we must be excellent immediately. We are daunted by the pristine white space before us, which we think we must fill with something polished and literary. Writing by hand, ideally in some tatty old notebook, gives you permission to be messy and primitive. (The notebook is also far more portable. If you’re sick of your four walls, shake up your routine; write in cafes, parks, trains. Occasionally, the noise of the natural world can help rather than hinder, a welcome relief from the more punitive voices of your own head.)

It isn’t until my second or maybe third draft that I do what I tastefully call “mining the vomit for gold,” transferring the work to computer, and in the process, honing the quality of the writing itself. But for now, it’s a mess, and if it isn’t, it should be. Scrawl and scribble; spew it out. This is as true for work that is autobiographical as it is for work that isn’t remotely autobiographical; as true for comedy as an epic period novel. Like good dreams and bad dreams, it all comes from the same place. If you give yourself time to dwell there, “literature” will follow when it is good and ready.

3) Stay away from the phone, Internet, and email until you have written for the day.

In keeping with this, it is a good idea to write early, not only because you will be less distracted by the clutter of the day, but because you will be closer to your unconscious mind and dream state. Even if you write for only fifteen minutes, the quality of your attention will be much, much better if you have not yet filled your head with other people and the many things you have to do. Even something as prosaic as shopping for lunch or having the car fixed can throw you off completely. You’ll be amazed by how difficult it feels at first, removed from your social “fixes.” This is a sobering reminder of just how addicted we are to these things, and how often we use them to procrastinate! (Yet it is also a liberating, if humbling, experience to realize that our friends, colleagues, and household chores can usually hang on without us for a little longer.)

4) When you start a novel, do not worry about having a great story.

The search for the “great story” is, in my view, overrated. I speak only partly in jest when I say that there are roughly half a dozen stories in the world and most books are variations upon them. The story is only as interesting as the person who is telling it. If you have a strong voice, the reader will follow it through anything. You can write a wonderful book which, on the surface, simply describes a party (think of Mrs. Dalloway, or The Dead) or a dreadful book about a prison break or espionage.

Cover of Albyn Leah Hall's novel The Rhythem of the RoadWhen people ask how I worked out the story for my latest novel, The Rhythm of the Road, I reply that I didn’t, to start with. I found Josephine, my young heroine, and she told me the story. How did I find Josephine? One night, I was watching a documentary about a middle-aged housewife who stalks a young priest, convinced that he shares her obsession. I wondered what it would take for a person to become so delusional that she is driven to behave this way. Josephine, a teenage truck driver’s daughter, has little in common with this woman, but the first glimmer was ignited on that evening, by my own curiosity. Like giving birth, I conceived her, but she seemed to develop in her own right. She did so partly through my research (I’m a great believer in research, which will also help to develop the story), but also from a place within myself, a place that could empathize with a young girl so lonely that she must conjure a fantasy relationship to fill the void. In the end, it seemed to be she who was introducing me to her lonely Irish father, to the hitchhiker who becomes the object of her attention, and so on.

When I could finally see how the book was unraveling, I did sit down and work out an outline for the entire story. But I could not do this until I had Josephine’s voice. So remember that a story can begin in all sorts of ways, no matter how prosaic: with a question, with the way a piece of music makes you feel, with a joke, a dream, a memory, a three minute conversation you overhear in a bus. You can find an entire universe in a single moment.

Of course, I am only one writer and this is only one set of tools. Yet whether or not they work for you, I believe that the underlying philosophy applies to all writers of fiction; to write anything good, you must first be willing to take the ugly, messy, chaotic self out into the light, take it for a run, let it tell you where to go. One of the greatest compliments ever paid to me as a writer was “you must feel pretty good about yourself to let yourself feel this bad.” And yet, the funny thing is that once I do allow myself to feel “this bad,” it doesn’t feel too bad at all. At the very least, I’ve gotten a novel or two out of it.

Copyright © 2006 Albyn Leah Hall

Albyn Leah Hall is the author of two novels: The Rhythm of the Road (published by St. Martin’s Press, January 2007 and Deliria, (published by Serpent’s Tail, 1994.) She is also a screenwriter; her screenplay, The Rose of Tralee, is currently in development. Albyn’s childhood was divided between New York and Los Angeles, but she has spent most of her adult life in London, where she works as both a writer and a psychotherapist. Albyn Leah Hall has a Website.

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