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Writers tools of the Trade: a love affair with pens

Updated: 12 hours ago

For me, writing starts with a pen.

A selection of pens resting on a notebook with a gray quilted background.

I like pens. I like writing long-handed. People are surprised when I say this because it sounds like a lot of work, but often I do not know what I want to say until I write it down on a piece of paper.

My mother loved a good pen, and she kept one in her oversized purse that only she was allowed to use. At our family store, my grandmother used cheap pens with the store name on them everywhere, and more than once I watched my mother throw one across the desk, call it garbage, and then locate the “good pen” that she purchased herself or pilfered from a doctor’s office. She always said, “Drug reps have the best pens.”

I didn’t think much about pens at the time because they were plentiful. Now if a place offers you a pen, they have two cups – a clean one and a “used” one.

I teach teenagers how to organize ideas into paragraphs on a STEM campus. My classroom is filled with the Backyardigans characters when they dressed up like Steampunk Scientists and shouted “Inventions are the way!” One of them told me last semester, “The future comes for us all!” when I suggested he use a piece of paper and a pen to draw out an outline of ideas. We compromised and he drew his out on powerpoint slides.

They love their technology. I’ve been shamed more than once for being so basic to love my Macbook while an hour later I had to calm down a raucous debate about iPhone versus Android phones. They use tablets and stylus to sketch before class. They lug around laptops the size of coffee tables. Or they go minimalist and take photos of my lecture slides and write down important dates and my feedback in the Notes app on their phone.

Ever the nonconformist – when someone tells me to zig, I always find a way to zag – I walk in to teach on day one and tell them we would be writing for ten minutes without technology. They are surprised. I have to instruct them to close their laptops. And then I ask them to produce what is to them the most ancient of relics – the pen.

And when I see one of my students produce a pen – or better yet, the few who have produced pen bags or the one student who unfurled a cloth organizer like a chef’s knife kit full of fountain pens – I make a mental note that I have identified my writer in the group. Writers love pens. Not that they are a budding novelist or English major, but that they don’t hate writing things down. In fact, dare I say, they love it.

The first time I was barked at for not keeping a pen on me at all times was when I was in college. I was a journalism major at the time working for my school newspaper. I lived a minimalist lifestyle, keeping in my pocket a pack of smokes, a good lighter, and my ID tucked in a keychain wallet. I was outside smoking with one of the journalism instructors and they said something that clicked with me and I remarked something like, “I’ll have to write that down later.” and they said, “Aren’t you a reporter? A reporter should always have a pen!”

I was being gently shamed, but when you’re that young and dumb, sometimes you need an older person to tell you to “Straighten up, Wise Ass!” After that, not only did I start keeping a pen on me, but I became particular about the pens that I used.

I am one of those people who likes the feeling of writing with a good pen.

I write things down. I journal. I take notes. I’ve tried to let “the future” come for me. I’ve had digital organizers and an Apple pencil, but I prefer to start all my stories with a legal pad and a pen.

When I was a reporter, I used whatever was in the office supply closet. When I worked at a newspaper that splurged on office supplies, I always had nice felt tipped pens. When I worked at the newspaper where the business manager kept the basic tan Post It Notes locked in their desk to be doled out once you have asked her permission, I used Bic Stick pens until I finally started purchasing my own Pilot Gel’s at Walmart.

When I gave all that up – or should I say ran out of that newsroom like my hair was on fire, I was so done with journalism – I pilfered pens from random places. If I signed a receipt and liked the pen, I would keep it. Doctor offices always had good pens. I was often called out or tracked down to “give me my pen back.” When I was selling advertising, someone had discarded a Staples brand ballpoint pen with an orange barrel and an ultra fine nib on my desk and I tucked that one into my purse, making it my number one pen until it fell apart. I searched many Staples stores for its equal, but came up with nothing.

When I came back to writing and was writing not as a journalist but as a novelist and grad student, I fell in love with the Acroball. The Acroball can be purchased at most stores like Target, Walmart, and Office Depot. For me, I like both how this pen feels in my hand and how it feels when the ink hits the paper. I felt like my handwriting became looser. And they were surprisingly long-lasting. After that, it became my go to, all the time pen. I also ordered refills so I don’t have to throw them out.

Eventually, I realized if I was so in love and going to buy refills to cut down on my waste, then I should consider cutting down on my plastic, too. I invested in a few solid refillable models which feel sturdier in the hand. Now I have a metal Acroball refillable pen that I keep in my planner. I also keep a metal Pilot ballpoint refillable pen in my journal. I keep a Jotter XL ballpoint refillable in my work binder. All of these were purchased at Jet Pens and none of them have even been lent to anyone for any reason.

Everywhere I go, I have a good pen.

Being accustomed to my STEM smarty pants students, I keep a bag of extra Acroballs with me at all times, and this includes when I host my workshops. I incorporate quick writing assignments into my sessions. Much like my other teaching gig, I pass out blank paper and tell them, “I have pens if you need one.” but before the words are out of my mouth, each attendee is already pulling out pen pouches or retrieving a classic Mont Blanc from their breast pocket, as if they too walked around the world just waiting for a reason to use it.

If you made it this far because you are fascinated with the tools of a writers trade, be on the lookout for my upcoming posts about my process. Or, sign up for my newsletter where I post once a month about all the things I am Currently Loving – eating, drinking, watching, reading, and loving.

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