So, this post is going to be a little different.  I was recently tasked with writing a piece for a creative non-fiction class.  We were allowed to write about anything we wanted, so long as it was good and we actually knew what we were talking about.

I decided to write about handwriting instruments, specifically pens.  The piece ended up being about 2300 words, nothing to sneeze at, a little shy of the length of a Susan Orleans piece for the New Yorker.  I turned in my piece and it went over relatively well.  There were definitely some flaws, with most comments revolving around two or three paragraphs that really threw off the pacing.  I’ll point those out in a later post.  Anyway, this series will run through the complete revision process, from beginning to end, from the first draft all the way to final submission to a literary magazine or contest.

So, without further ado, hit the jump to read my piece.

The Waterman.doc 10/29/12 12:10 PM

Mark D. Slabinski

“God, that is a sexy pen” is the first thought that pops into my head. whenever I look at the picture taped to the wall behind my desk, sandwiched between a print of Peter Brugel’s The Triumph of Death and a full size recreation the release poster of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.

I can’t say for sure if sexy is a word often used to describe pens, but I think this particular one has earned it. Sleek, elegant, brutally modern in its design aesthetic sensibilities, though not minimalist by any stretch of the imagination. There are elements of old world history mixed in with cutting edge technology.

The nib is made in a process similar to that used to create anodized aluminum, a technique commonly associated with the fabrication of Apple products. Oddly enough, Steve Jobs’ favorite writing tool was the simple calligraphic brush. He spent 18 months studying the art of composing beautiful lines, of appreciating aesthetic beauty how information is presented, which is really fascinating and not when you think about how rapidly typing is supplanting actual writing as the main method of recording information-

But I digress, back to the pen. Specifically, it’s a Waterman PGT 2009 model, quite possibly one of the finest writing instruments ever produced. Stephen King used one to write one of his later novels, I remember seeing on PBS when I was younger. Waterman pens might not actually be the finest writing instruments in the world, but that was the line King used and it just stuck.

It has a black enamel body with navy blue highlights on the grip, and a very light filigree inlay of silver, giving it the look of something you might find in a World War II admiral’s office, that old world charm I was telling you about. The nib is small and delicate, meant for smooth and controlled lines. This nib is stainless steel, a step down from the 14 carat gold they used to make nibs out of, but really just as effective, if not more so. The calligraphy example accompanying the pen is a modern hand, eschewing

florid, looping lines for a tighter, more legible script. The result is less John Hancock, more classed-up Hollywood autograph. It costs just under 500 dollars, not counting the accoutrements of ink cartridges in other colors, replacement nibs, or the option to splurge for more expensive additions like precious gems and the gold nib. This is a luxury item, first and foremost, a status symbol in its decadence.

I’d like to think that everyone has a preferred pen, or pencil, or brush, or whatever they fancy when the urge to put down characters strikes. It’s not an overt feeling, but simply that the hand is used to something and feels off when that something isn’t present. There’s a sense of trust between writer and implement. They know their tool won’t fail them. It’s an ancient, atavistic feeling of the faithful tool, the trusted sword, the shovel that just seems to attract treasure.

Maybe it’s the resistant scratch of the simple Bic pen, a rolling ball pen that starts off smooth and eventually forces you to press into the paper to get the last of the ink out. Rolling balls are the most popular pens in the world at the moment, so I think there’s some plausibility to this theory. Either that or the fact that you can get a pack of 20 for 3 dollars at Target.

Or maybe you fancy the V-series of pens, a free flowing ink pen that requires absolutely no pressure to draw a perfectly smooth, bleeding line across the page. I myself am partial to this particular model, the purple Pilot V5 Ultra-Fine. Simple, never scratches, and pretty cheap compared to pretty much every comparable alternative.

Gel pens are pretty popular as well, smooth as silk and come in every color on the RGB spectrum, but they tend to be a little too thick for my taste, and good luck getting a dry or locked gel tip to start flowing again. Still, they are a good choice for the fashion conscious who want the color of their signature to match their shoes. Pilot and Uni-Ball for you, my friend. Maybe these are too pedestrian for you, and you prefer a more upscale pen. Feel

like having a little bauhaus in your hand when you write? Get a Lamy, utterly gorgeous minimalist pens that would make the ghost of Dieter Rahms give the thumbs up. England’s Conway Stewart and Italy’s Montegrappa lean more towards opulence, but, like a nice Waterman, they will draw the eye. They still make these pens by hand,

Namiki is the go-to for finer japanese pens, though Sailor and Platinum give them a run for their money depending on your aesthetic predilections. Namikis are a little finicky, but a seeing a master working with one can be hypnotic.

Looking for something more ‘Merican, you can’t go wrong with Conklin. I think the last words of a dying Conklin sales rep would be “Our pens were used by Mark Twain…” before fading away.

Rotring and Pentel offer all kinds of weird and finicky pens for the specialist. Do you feel a burning desire to keep a working bristle calligraphy brush on hand at all times? The Pentel will be your baby, and about as messy as one if you don’t know what you’re doing. Rotrings are almost as bad, something not exactly helped by the fact that a single basic technical pen from their line will set you back at least 30 dollars. Still, that’s the price you pay for such damn clean lines.

And who could forget the noble Spacepen? Designed by NASA, only the Bic is more rugged, and nowhere near as enjoyable to write with.

And of course, this is largely ignoring the now defunct name brands and the smaller bespoke pen makers stationed all over the world, in addition to the various stationery makers, marker pen factories, and dedicated art supply makers. Marker pens have largely been ignored, and the subset of the population who avoid pens in favor of pencils have been entirely neglected. The subtleties of nibs, material used, the very science of how these pens work has also been set aside (though rest assured, gravity and capillary action are the two main forces in pulling that ink from the cartridge onto the paper). I’ve only ever held a Waterman once, while at the family doctor’s for a check-up.

He’s one of those old school kind of guys, pictures of himself smoking cigars and drinking whiskey with his Johns-Hopkins friends plastered on his office walls. A smiling caricature of himself drawn by a Disney artist sits next to a photo of a hundred identically sullen faced men in graduation robes. One wall was dedicated wholly to diplomas. The only things you couldn’t touch in his office were his instruments.

To be honest, there were two pens I remember from that day. The first was a custom piece made for him by a friend who owned an industrial design workshop in Spain. It was made of interwoven metal strands that bent and flexed like a chinese finger-trap, with a steel ballpoint tip. It was one of 50 models in the world, he told me, and used a special ink cartridge he had to order from his friend’s workshop. I wish I remembered it whether it was made of aluminum or steel. It was clean and reflective, and weighed heavily in my hand when I tried to write with.

The Waterman was delicate by comparison. It was still heavy, slick and made of resin compared to the textured metal body of the previous pen. It also wrote in a bright aquamarine, a distinctive and playful color. I loved that pen, wanted that pen, but it was always just beyond my grasp. Sure, you can get an entry level Waterman for under 50 bucks, under twenty bucks even, if you’re lucky, but why settle? They’ve been making pens for decades, pens fit for presidents, meant to be handed out as gifts, as signs of accomplishment. It’s a badge of distinction. You earned this pen, through labor and study, and now that accomplishment is evident in every mark you make.

These were the two pens that most justified, to that point in my life, the use of the word instrument to describe a pen. There was no doubt in mi mind that they were worthy of that distinction. The simple Bics and off-brand rolling ball pens were implements, utensils, on par with disposable knives and forks. You use them, bend them, toss them away when you’re done. Instrument implies a level of craftsmanship the way a Stradivarius is an instrument rather than a musical implement, why a beautiful Swiss watch can deserve the moniker of chronograph.

There are times where it can seem a little pointless to use a pen, especially when I have a laptop right in front of me. I have 3 dedicated writing applications, each suited to a different purpose (two for prose pieces, one for cover letters and resume, and one plain text editor for writing websites), along with about 5 note-taking applications I downloaded on a whim. I can send my notes to the cloud, access them anywhere, am guaranteed not to lose them, but I almost never use them. The notepad and moleskin next to my keyboard suit me just fine.

But there’s a freedom to a pen and paper you will never have on a computer. There’s nothing beyond the pen and paper, only what the imagination can bring to the table. There’s the leeway to be bored for a few precious seconds, all the mind really needs to get back on track and concentrating on the task at hand. A bit of blank space becomes a flower, becomes a dragon, becomes a weird mishmash of Tolkien influenced faux-elven scripts that I somehow still know from a high school phase.

The computer all too often becomes a rabbit hole from which there is no escape. One article leads to two more, then five more, then a Google search, and blossoms into a fractal pattern of links that has eaten away at two hours in addition to what was supposed to be my indulgence of a 15 minute break. Self-loathing follows shortly after.

This is not meant to be a neo-luddite statement of rebellion against PCs, decrying them as evil corrupters of our ability to concentrate or any such nonsense. Typing, especially in the digital medium, is the greatest boon to written content creation ever. The ability to play around with typeface might just be my favorite feature. The one I’m using for this piece is Sabon LTD, popular in the late 60s in Germany and perhaps now most recognizable as the typeface of choice for Stanford University and Esquire Magazine, but again, I digress. The leaps made in the editing process alone are worth the siren’s song of one more unread forum post.

You don’t really feel this when using a pen. Going back to analog from digital, there’s a brilliant sense of time being slowed down. Your hand can’t scratch out words fast enough to keep up with your mind, and if you tried, your hand would quite possibly wither and fall off. You are forced to be deliberate, to really think about every word you’re putting down. It can be maddeningly frustrating, especially in long form. A two thousand word piece becomes a slog, somehow draining in the extra bit of effort to draw a character compared to the quick burst of pressing keys. You begin doubting the words you just put down, because it required so much more effort than simply punching in a few keys. Did you just properly spell “Lavosier”? Hint: You probably didn’t. Are you even thinking of the right person? Was he the guy who invented the microscope, or the guy who invented chemistry? There’re no resources to immediately access, no powerful and infinite wellspring of knowledge to draw from beyond your own mind when writing by hand.

Concentration will be tested. A sentence that needs to be rewritten suddenly becomes an exercise that threatens to halt the momentum you’ve built up in your prose. “Screw it, I’ll fix it in the transcription” is a thought I think far too often when writing in longhand. It’s a boulder rolling downhill, I have neither the time nor the energy to really slow it down till its course is run.

Which, in turn, brings me back to the Waterman. Much as I want one, I know I can’t just jump into having one. I need to work up to that. It’s my Porsche, my Italian made supercar. They are objects designed to be lusted after without being able to immediately acquire them. There’s no fun in just getting it. Learning about it, studying it, mastering the art of actually using it and being able to distinguish what makes a Namiki so much better than a standard issue prismacolor felt-tip brush. That might just be the most immensely pretentious statement I’ve ever written.


Ugh, so that’s the piece.  I’m not too happy with it (for several reasons), but I’m mostly disappointed with  the beginning and the end.  Part 2 of this series will deal specifically with how I’m going to approach fixing the first paragraph and working on maximizing reader interest.

Part 3 will probably be looking at specific scenes (notably the doctor’s office and a few points where additional scenes would be good) as well as general pacing for the body and creating a subtext.

Part 4 will bring it all together, dealing specifically with the ending, and hopefully presenting a fully revised draft to be put through the grinder again.

That’s kind of the hope, but I’m not making any promises. I still have my Killzone breakdown as well as my Crusader Kings II play diary to get through, so working on another randoms series seems like the last thing I should be doing.

Still, I’m really going to try and get this one off the ground.  I think there’s some merit to this piece, and I really do enjoy pens, so I want to do more than just condemn it to the pile of rejected pieces.

Keep your eyes peeled for more.