Like most of the people I know, through most of my adult life I bought pens by the dozen and never gave it much thought. I confess that I did develop a short list of favourites and bought some brands over and over, but I never really gave it much thought.
And truly, the only real criteria that ever dropped a certain one from my short list was if the pen repeatedly skipped, leaked, smeared, spit gobs of ink, or scraped the paper. But beyond that, I never really gave it much thought.
When my aspirations as a writer started surfacing, surprisingly, my position on pens never really changed even though I started going through them like tissues. As long as they were well-behaved and got the job done, why should I give it more thought?
True enough, much of my writing is done with a computer these days anyway, but there are times when I still enjoy the tactile experience of feeling like the writing instrument is an extension of the human body. And some of my notes still get entered in journals so writing tools are still an essential.
I forget what I was randomly Googling one day, but one of the suggested links provided was “ballpoint pen reviews.”
“That’s a thing?” I asked myself. So ever curious about tools for my craft I clicked on one of the links and started reading. This let me to another link… and another…
What a revelation! There are some hard core pen users out there with specific evaluation criteria, a comprehensive scoring scheme, laboratory-grade tests and ranked lists for different categories and price points. They even had a full technical vocabulary for each individual part of the pen. Who knew?
Just for fun, I took note of one of the highly recommended, modestly priced pens (3 for the same price as the dozen I was buying previously) and strolled into my nearest office supply store. When I got home, I broke the new pens out of their packaging, grabbed an index card and started scribbling gibberish.
“Oh my God,” I thought to myself, “they ARE on to something!” These hard core pen lovers knew what they were talking about. The ink flowed magically and ever so smoothly, capturing perfectly every dot, every loop, every line and every curl.
When I apply myself and when I take my time, my penmanship is actually pretty clear and understandable. But by the end of just one index card, I impressed myself with the improvement. It was like my writing was in high definition! I will even admit that a few “oohs” and “aahs” were uttered.
I continued the experiment for a few days, using only these new pens, and loved the feeling of such sharp, crisp lettering with ink that flowed flawlessly.
But the game changer came along unexpectedly, when I absent-mindedly picked up one of my former pens to scribble a few things on my grocery list.
I immediately felt the difference. I came to the realization that while the cheaper pens I was using were indeed functional and did a decent job, the feeling while writing was completely different.
Plus it was in that moment (while I was having an arthritic flare up) that I realized I had to put more effort in writing with the old pens than with the new ones. I also recalled times when after a prolonged period of writing, my arm, hand or wrist (or all of the above) did get tired.
I would equate it to the difference between slicing something with a dull knife versus one that has just been sharpened. They still both do the job, but the latter just makes it easier.
I remembered that in my writing desk, I had a brand name boxed pen that someone offered me as a gift many years ago. I ran upstairs to give it a try in the name of literary science. It wrote beautifully and effortlessly as well.
And that was what sold me on the merits of paying a little more for pens, especially ones where refills are available rather than throwing out the whole pen.
A few days later I tried another premium pen gifted to me by a colleague several years ago, that was sitting in my office drawer. While the ink flowed beautifully in that one too, I found that one a little heavy for me, for writing for long periods of time. Just the same, I could appreciate the difference in the quality and could see how people could develop strong preferences.
Let’s face it, there is nothing wrong with pens sold by the dozen and I will continue to use the ones I have for everyday writing until they run out. They have served me well for nearly 50 years and probably could for another 50.
Maybe it took the first signs of arthritis to increase my sensitivity to the difference a pen can make to the complex network of bones, muscles and connective tissue contained in these aging hands and fingers. When the ink flows so smoothly with less manual effort or pressure, it is definitely something to consider for someone who is constantly writing.
We are most fortunate that there are so many great pens out there, it can be fun to switch it up and try different ones, for a different feeling and a different writing experience. If one pen is more comfortable to use than another, why not use it?
I don’t think a change in pen will make me a better writer, but if my energy is completely focused on putting words to paper, the lack of distractions probably lends itself to a more enjoyable writing process.
In retrospect, maybe I should have played with the various options a little more… and maybe I should have given my writing instruments a little more thought.
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