On the Life and Death of my Pen


Every profession has ’em. Hammer, scalpel, ruler, drill. Depending on the profession, the tools become more or less important. A manufacturer or fabricator lives and dies by his tools; a

Me, I’m not particularly arsed about the tools of my writing. I have some tools that I like — Scrivener being the big one for work on my main project — but I’ve worked with other, less flashy processors in the past. And when it comes down to it, I could work on any clunky old laptop or desktop computer; hell, in my particularly motivated phases I’ve even typed project notes on my phone. Sometimes I’ll use a bluetooth keyboard for that, sometimes the dreaded touch screen. (Though typing anything of substance that’s more than a line or two on a touchscreen is enough to make me want to rip out what little remains of my hair.)

The writer’s tools, it seems, are largely digital these days, no?

I mean, there are typewriters, but I’ve given my thoughts on typewriters before: in short, if you think a typewriter is essential to your process in any significant way, you are fooling yourself and being pretentious besides. They’re not bad, not at all, but they’re impractical, and to use one is to needlessly draw attention to yourself just for the sake of using antiquated equipment.

So. Digital tools. Right?

Image result for well yes but actually no

Digital tools may be awesome and nigh indispensable, but to me, if you’re a writer, you can’t get away from the written word. The literally written word. You know: you learned to make them in grade school? You hated every minute of it? Your craft for creating it atrophied over time like a vestigial tail until now your written words look like the frenzied scratchings of a terrified animal on your back door?

Handwriting. There’s something almost magical about it, about putting words to paper directly using your hand and an implement designed to put marks on things. I do rather a lot of handwriting lately (and it’s more than a little bit of the reason I haven’t posted here as much in the last year or so — because what I would otherwise be blathering into the digital expanse I instead scrawl into my growing collection of Drivel notebooks) and I have strong feelings about it. A keyboard and computer (or, if you really, really insist, a typewriter… hnngggrrrrrh) is great for getting the words from your brain to the paper quickly — maybe maximally quickly (barring text-to-speech dictation programs but there I will grind my heels into the earth, fold my arms across my chest, and gruffly direct you to GET OFF MY LAWN). But maximally quickly is not always the best way to do a thing.

Handwriting, for me, forces me to slow down a little. Not a lot — I scribble pretty fast, and the crooked, haphazard stumble of my words on the page belies that — but I can’t write by hand as quickly as I type, not even close. When typing the words race out almost as quickly as I can conceive of them; when writing by hand, there are mental pauses as the hand catches up. Each next sentence gets to rest just for a moment, gets to simmer in the cognitive juices for a second or two before it goes on the page. I become more engaged with what I’m writing precisely because I have to slow down and I get the time to think about it.

So I take my writing by hand (but not my handwriting — because YEESH look at that picture up there) pretty seriously.

Then I went and did a dumb thing last year. I listened to a podcast featuring Neil Gaiman. There, Neil talks about process and experiences and all sorts of fascinating things (somehow everything Neil talks about seems to become fascinating to me, maybe that’s a character flaw) but along the way, he talked about his fountain pens. Something, I believe, about writing his first draft of American Gods in these stacks of notebooks using this series of fountain pens, and how he could retrospectively tell where he was and how he was feeling based on the ink and the color and all of that. Really singing the praises of his tools. (And of writing by hand, too, for that matter.)

And I thought, well, I’ve got to try it. This is a thing that a Real Writer does, I want to be a Real Writer, ergo, get out of my way while I plunk down some dollars to get me one of these things.

So I dithered a little bit before buying a fountain pen of my very own: A Pilot Metropolitan in purple, if you must know. I may have posted about it before. I certainly tweeted about it. (Twitter being the perfect place to boast about such trivialities.)

And I loved it! It wrote smoothly, but not just smoothly: like gliding across a frozen lake on skates made of butter. It was heavy and satisfying in the hand like a candlestick before you bash in Mr. Body’s skull, and the tip and the whole feel of writing with it was just so classy even though what I was using it for was so pedestrian and boring. It felt like putting on a dinner jacket to go to the grocery store.

It was my “Writer’s Pen,” the tool I not only wanted to use for my daily writing, but the one I needed, the one that made what I was doing feel special.

And then I broke it.

I mean on the one hand, the glib “this is why we can’t have nice things” quip is made for situations like this. On the other … I really liked my fancy pen.

I was preparing for my morning drivel session, perhaps holding a freshly steeping cup of tea in my other hand and my notebook and The Pen in the other, and it slipped through my fingers. Straight down, it dropped. Like a torpedo, or more accurately, like a Kamikaze pilot. Landed right on the nib (a horrible word for the business end of a pen like this, a word I never knew before I looked into fountain pens, a word that still makes me squeamish and giggly to use). You know when Elmer Fudd points his shotgun at Bugs Bunny, and Bugs sticks his finger in the barrel, and when Elmer pulls the trigger it goes off and blows the barrel out like a spent banana peel? That’s what the end of my pen looked like.

Well, looks like, because there’s no fixing it. These things — these nibs (squee!) — are machined and measured with meticulous precision to allow for air flow and capillary action with the ink and, well, there’s no repairing it. It was broken. Not only was it broken, but you can’t (to my knowledge) buy a replacement nib (tee hee!) for this pen — they’re just not expensive enough to justify it; you’re better off just buying a new pen.

And, sorry, I’m a teacher. Disposable income ain’t a thing I’m well acquainted with. I spent $12 on the thing the first time around, I wasn’t gonna spend another twelve bucks for a second one that I am surely equally likely to break given enough time (enough time, in this instance, being probably about three or four months seeing as that’s how long this one lasted me).

So I did my writing with a lesser pen, one of my old soldier Pilot G2’s. Until, a few days later, I misplaced that pen (having no particularly strong feelings for it) and had to do my drivel with a still lesser implement, a “Clik-Stik” out of a dollar store multipack.


But here’s the thing — as soon as I settled into a groove (which when writing by hand now only takes a few lines — a fraction of a minute) I wasn’t paying attention to the cheap pen in my hand and how it wasn’t my beloved fountain pen. I was paying attention to the words, to the process, to the writing. You know, I was paying attention to what mattered.

And then I rethought the whole thing. Having the fountain pen (and worse, relying on it) sort of flies in the face of my whole oeuvre: that brands don’t matter, money doesn’t matter, what matters is that you make the best out of what you’ve got, and who gives a Fargo if you’ve got the latest luxury sneakers on your feet or if you drive the fanciest car or if you have a full head of luxuriant hair? I’m a barefooted bald guy driving a twenty-year-old Camry, why am I mucking about with fancy pens?

Because I got distracted, that’s why.

I got delusions of grandeur. I got caught up in the tools of the craft instead of the craft itself and then I suffered this blow to my ego when I broke my tool. (Heh, heh.)

Which is easy to do. You don’t have to go looking for distractions: this is the 21st century on the internet, the distractions find you.

And you know? Sometimes a distraction can be a good thing. Sometimes it can be nice to try something new. Sometimes you want to break out the nice jacket for a quick run to the store. But at the end of the day, what matters is that you remember to bring home the eggs.

(Have I butchered that metaphor enough?)

All that is to say, I have been doing my morning pages for a few months since without a thought towards plunking down the cashola to replace my fountain pen, and my writing — and my thoughts about my writing — haven’t suffered a stitch.

(They’ve suffered for entirely different reasons.)

I haven’t thrown The Pen out. It seems too nice to do that, even though it’s now useless, to toss it aside like trash. It taught me a lesson, after all, and it was lots of fun while it lasted. But now, like the smashed-up drunk-driving car out front of the school during Prom week, it’s there to remind me of something.

To stay focused on what matters.

Write Anyway

Some days, the writing sucks.

Like today. The kids were up way too early. The sun hasn’t come out all day, so it’s like the world never really woke up. It’s literally obscured by smoke that has blown in across the country from wildfires in Alaska. The house is a wreck and I have no drive to clean it.

In short, I feel like crap, though there’s nothing physically wrong with me.

When I got the kids down for a nap, all I wanted was to close the light-filtering curtains, crank up the white noise machine to drown out the noise of the cats crashing around in their midday shenanigans, and join them in dreamland for a blissful hour or so. I was feeling completely exhausted, bone-crushingly uninspired, will-sappingly unmotivated, and in short like a total waste of space. (I won’t call it Writer’s Block, because I firmly believe that Writer’s Block is just a fancy way of saying that I am not responsible for my creative ability. Writer’s Block can last for years. It’s a crutch. It’s a way of hiding from the work you really want to be doing. Fargo Writer’s Block.)

But I wrote anyway.


And I felt better.

It damn sure wasn’t my best work, but upon reflection, it probably wasn’t my worst, either. And the house is still a mess, and my son is cranky because he peed the bed, and my daughter is clinging to me like a tick to the underside of a particularly furry dog because she fell asleep way too late. And there are dishes to do and toys to pick up, and the world still feels kinda sharknado-ey today.

But there are always these days. The kids are always going to find reasons to be cranky or jittery or whiny or loud or awful. The house is always going to be messy or in need of repair or stinky from last night’s dishes I didn’t wash or the trash I didn’t take out. There will always be days when the weather sucks, when my mood sucks, when the world itself seems to want you not to write. Or, you know, whatever your thing is. Life and the world will get in the way of your thing.

But today I wrote anyway, and I feel a little better.

Because I really want to be a writer. And if I’m not writing, then I’m not a writer.

Photo by Ramiro Ramirez @ Flickr.

Russell Wilson and Fifty Shades and Why Do I Bother

I don’t follow social media kerfuffles. For the most part, I don’t follow social media period. Mostly this is because I can’t stand people, and I doubly can’t stand the egocentric narcissism that too often goes hand in hand with extensive social media use (and yeah, I grok the irony of expressing such a sentiment on a blog — is there a more narcissistic endeavor? — but what can I say, this is my platform, big or small as it may be. In other words, I avoid social media as a rule. I check facebook once every couple of weeks; usually because my wife tells me to. I have a twitter that I’ve used only once; that, for a writing exercise (the result of which, if you care, is here).

But still, social media chases me down, even when I don’t want to use it. Theoretically, technology evolves to make our lives easier, but in a lot of ways, technology is evolving to take over our lives. That’s a post for another day. One sort-of social media thing I do use is Google+, not for networking and posting status updates, but for following certain topics, writing blogs, and other what-have-yous. Now, I’m a football fan (now that I coach soccer, I feel compelled to say “American football” fan despite it being a mouthful), and as such, in the past month, I’ve googled some American football topics. Super Bowl. Playoffs. You know. Well, Google is posed to become the real-world evil stepbrother of SkyNet, so it has started making assumptions about things I’m interested in, and as a result, this little gem appeared in my Google+ window today. In short, Russell Wilson (the quarterback of the not-back-to-back-Super-Bowl-Champion-Seattle-Seahawks) went to see the new film

Sorry. the cognitive disconnect knocked me out of my seat when I almost called Fifty Shades of Greyfilm. Anyway, Russell Wilson went to see this new skin flick for soccer moms and apparently people are pretty mad about it. Not because he wasted his time seeing a movie that was better left in the imaginations of its undeserved audience, but because Russell is a Christian.

There are two issues here, and they have alternately turned my blood to ichor and scorching mercury over the state of our country.

Thing Number the First: a grown man went to see a movie. This grown man happens to be the very well-paid face of a very successful football team. He also happens to have outwardly represented himself as a practitioner of a particular religious faith. Apparently, I missed a step in the middle there that enables perfect strangers to pass moral judgment on him and to condemn him as a hypocrite, but that’s not even what I’m upset about. Religious nutjobs are going to religiously nutjob all over any and everything; it’s their hobby, whereas normal people, you know, knit sweaters or keep bees or write blog posts about trivial sharknado that irritates them vaguely. No, the problem here came well before any religious element got involved in RW’s choice in Saturday night entertainment, and that problem is people who have no business sticking their noses into other people’s business sticking their noses into other people’s business. (The previous sentence is grammatically correct.) For the record, “people who have no business sticking their noses into other people’s business” is just a fancy way of saying “people”, because once you’re an adult and living on your own, the only people whose business your nose belongs in are the people living under your roof, and even then, there are limits. These idiots have decided that somehow the things a well-paid quarterback (whom they have never met in real life) does affects them in some abstract way — be it moral corruption, distaste, disappointment, whatever — and are now harassing him in a real way about it. I’ll grant that sending messages on Twitter might not count as actual real harassment, but I’ll also bet dollars to donuts that he’s received some similar messages in real life, whether via post or shouted on the street or scrawled on a brick on its way through his window.

What really happened? He went to see a movie. Somebody didn’t like it. Rather than eating their feelings or spouting philosophically high-and-mighty biblical aphorisms over a tense family dinner, these somebodies got all in his face about it. This is stupid. Russell Wilson’s business is Russell Wilson’s business. Taylor Swift’s business is Taylor Swift’s business. Even Lady Gaga (who I can’t stand) has business that is entirely her own and does not deserve idiots getting all up in it. The thought that I might have a moral imperative to call somebody on their bad behavior — or their behavior in general — is a concept that our society would do well to get shut of, sooner rather than later, if possible.

Thing Number the Second: Why is this a news story on any outlet, even one as lowest-common-denominator as Bleacher Report? It’d be one thing if it were an isolated incident, but it’s not at all uncommon to see “news stories” about this or that celebrity arguing with another on twitter, or this trashy thing that this politician said. What that means is that you have this one pocket of individuals who are involved in this little online “incident”. Other people “witness” this “incident” and tell other people about it, and like a fight in the schoolyard, suddenly every mouthbreather in shouting distance has gravitated to see one snot-nosed fool land a couple of punches on the next. And then what? It gets broken up, or the parties get bored and go home, and everybody at school blathers about it for a couple of days until the next set of chumps with nothing better to do dust off their dukes for their turn to go a few rounds.

Pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but there is actual news going on. There are atrocities in the world. People are murdering each other. Rights are being violated. Children are starving. Governments are rising and falling like the tides. But also, Russell Wilson went and saw a terrible movie that apparently, maybe, compromises his integrity as a Christian, and that’s apparently, maybe, worth more than a few idiots in their basements flipping their collective sharknado over.

And here’s Thing Number the Third, which occurred to me in the writing of this awful rant. I — me, personally — was dumb enough to click on the thing, stupid enough to read the thing, imbecilic enough to put myself into the dog-poo-encrusted shoes of the people involved to try to understand their thinking, and finally moronic enough to put this much effort into writing about how wasteful the whole thing was.

I think this is the part where I stop writing, and this entire post vanishes in a puff of self-aware irony.

99 Problems. Or 3. We’ll Call it 3.

In this first draft stage of my first novel, I am learning all kinds of things.  I’m like my toddler, learning to walk and to run and to chase the cats and to bang my chin off the driveway.  Some of these things are more fun than others, and some of them are things I won’t be doing in the future.  But you try them all out anyway, either on purpose or on accident, and you either learn from them or you don’t.  Reminds me of yet another Douglas Adams quote, which I recall almost daily.

You live and learn.  At any rate, you live.

I’m up against it now in the story.  At almost 75% finished, it’s down to the nitty-gritty, balls-to-the-wall, sharknado-or-get-off-the-pot bit where things have to be happening, everybody has to pull their weight,every event and every word most be working toward the same immense task of wrapping this bad boy up.  For a guy like me, who’s more verbose and relaxed than, I don’t know, brass-tacksy, it’s daunting.

Here are some problems I’m discovering as I work towards an ending.

Read More »

It’s Monday. Here Are Some Words.

I wish I had more to report today, but I don’t.  I could speak of the massive headaches and heartaches and the disgust with humanity and gnashing of teeth that comes with being a teacher — doubly so a teacher of high school seniors, some of whom have failed and will as a result not graduate — at the end of the year.  But I won’t.  Partially for reasons of confidentiality, partially because I’m a softie at heart, but mostly because if I spend another instant thinking about it today I might just have to kick one of my cats, and my cats don’t deserve it.  At least, not today.  Not that I’m aware of.

Disclaimer: I would never kick my cats.  Hard.

Instead, a reflection.  I’m at 70% complete on the Project.  Fascinating.  I’m far enough ahead of schedule that I could significantly scale back my daily goal and still finish ahead of my goal of early August, but of course that defeats the purpose of goals.  No, I will keep on pushing and finish probably in early July, which will be fantastic, assuming of course that things don’t fall into the wood chipper over the summer.

In other news, things may fall into the wood chipper over the summer. Read More »