Several years ago I read that the playwright Athol Fugard wrote his scripts with ink he made from berries that he grew in his backyard. According to the article, Fugard purchased a new fountain pen for each play. After writing a play, he’d retire the pen.
Recently, I sat on a panel with science fiction and fantasy author Gregory Frost at Rosemont College’s MFA in writing program. When we were discussing our approaches to writing, Frost mentioned that he wrote his first drafts with a pen because as a super-fast typist, writing by hand slowed him down so he could think more about the manuscript as he wrote. At the time, I was in the process of making notes, doing research and thinking about the novel on which I’m currently working. A month or so after the panel, I began writing the novel.
Coincidentally, around that time, I reconnected with a high school classmate, Alan Shaw, a master craftsman who designs and handcrafts – wait for it – pens! Impressed by Frost’s remarks about writing with a pen, reminded of Fugard’s low-tech ritual, and always on the lookout for ways to keep my writing process fresh, I made a proposal to Shaw: Fashion me a fountain pen with which I’ll write the first draft of my new novel, and Shaw Pens will be my “official sponsor.” Like the way Hormel Foods, a ham company, sponsors the U.S. Olympic triathlon team – except more rational.
Shaw asked me what colors I liked. I told him I preferred earth tones. A month or so later, I received my new pen in the mail. Shaw included instructions for how to use it, how to “break it in” and how to care for it. I purchased several packets of black ink cartridges, loaded up my new pen, opened a spiral-bound notebook and began to write.
My aim was to write 1,000 words each morning. (As a freelance writer and editor, I like to do my creative work in the morning, and then, as the day progresses, I move on to the more mundane tasks of editing, organizing and research.) At that pace, I figured I could knock out a first draft in about four months. Sure enough, by early summer I’d filled six 100-page notebooks with my scrawl.
Writing with a fountain pen opened doors for me and enhanced my creativity. Like Gregory Frost, I found that writing longhand slowed me down and encouraged me to think about what I was putting on the page. Immediately, I loved the idea that in my hand was a container of ink, transformed by my mind into words that told a story. Writing longhand, I felt closer to the material than ever before. And most interesting to me, I found that writing out the draft helped me to keep moving forward, not backward. For example, if I’m writing on my computer and I forget the name of a character or street or a coffee shop in the novel, it’s quite easy to do a word search (“coffee”) and find the name I was looking for. And invariably, once I found it I’d tinker with the section I’d returned to instead of moving forward to get the draft done and then go back to fix it later. Most writers are familiar with Michael Crichton’s comment, “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten.” Indeed they are. In fact, after I completed my handwritten draft, I barely even looked at what was inside those notebooks when I sat down to write the second draft on my computer. Ultimately, there was nothing I didn’t go back and tinker with. But the point is that by hand writing the draft, I made it difficult to look back and easy to move forward. All I wanted to turn out was a basic crappy first draft – a stake in the ground, an initial push to get the project going. Two years later and I’m on draft four, tapping away at my computer keyboard just like the old days. But when I wrap up this novel and move on to my next, I know I’ll write the first draft with my fountain pen.
I love the aesthetic, the feel of the pen in my hand, which, in collaboration with my brain transforms ink into language. I love the blotches and the scratched out sentences, the notes cribbed into margins, the arrows and asterisks. On occasion, when my thumb gets smudged, I wear it like a badge of honor.
Don’t get me wrong: I like my MacBook Pro. I like what happens when I tap the keys, when I move the cursor and when I easily backspace out a clunky sentence. I’ll always rely on this modern tool for my research and writing – for most of the work I do.
Just not for first drafts of novels. Having made the transition, I’m keeping it old school.