I have all my best ideas and revelations in the shower.
Now that you know exactly where I was and mostly what I was doing when this blog post occurred to me I’ll ask you the question that was running through my head: where did writing in cursive come from? The answer became pretty obvious: cursive was the most efficient means of writing when using a a quill and ink because it allowed for fewer lifts and presses of the tip and one continuous flow. While it may seems silly now in the age of the ball-point pen, a quill and even a fountain pen don’t have mechanically controlled flows of ink. A ball-point uses an oil-based ink and only writes if the ball itself is moving across the paper. But for centuries before that inks were water based and the flow was controlled only by capillary action. Think of how a paper towel will keep absorbing a spill into dry sections of the towel that are beyond where the fluid was on the surface being cleaned. If that quill stopped moving, a word or sentence could quickly be turned into nothing more than an ugly blot.
So why the historical reflection? Because on my deployment last year I had a startling realization: writing a letter home to a loved one just isn’t quite the same when it’s typed out in helvetica and represented by ones and zeros on a computer screen. Granted, that’s when I started this blog, but even that is only as permanent as I keep paying for the hosting. And a heartfelt letter written home to a loved one that has to be laser printed to made a keepsake won’t have so much as the author’s signature- just their word choice.
It suddenly dawned on me that not only had I abandoned writing in cursive about 15 years ago in favor of printing block letters, but I didn’t write at all anymore. Everything is typed these days. Typed into the keyboard of the laptop. Thumbs punching at a furious rate on the glass screen of a smart phone. For crying out loud, I talk to my iPhone and have Siri send text messages via dictation more often than I actually write something out by hand. And this is pretty sad for several reasons.
For one, despite never having great penmanship I’ve always enjoyed the experience of committing words to paper. There’s something innately wonderful about finding exactly the right words to convey an idea or emotion as your experiencing it in the moment. Even if you look back and realize it wasn’t fully formed or was somehow immature, the fact is you still have a record of that moment. Blogs and typing can still capture that essence (otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this, right?) but there’s something so much more tactile and real about imperfect handwriting and the subtle indentations in the paper made by the ball point rolling over it as it dispenses ink.
Think tactile and real don’t matter? The second reason it’s a shame to not physically write more is that historians have gathered a ton of information about the past from the journals and letters of even simple men. We live in an electronic information age right now, but have you ever lost a file because you forgot to save it? Or had a harddrive fail? Or gone back to a favorite website only to find it had been taken down? Sooner or later these things happen. Paper and pen are by their very nature physical objects, with all the permanence you provide for them (even just a cardboard box in a dry attic will keep them for years).
A love letter home to somebody special should be something special for that loved one. Sure, an email is great and can be quite long. You can say an awful lot and it’s much faster to type than to write the same message out longhand. But if you really love this person, is it the time that matters or the communication of the message? A hand-written letter is something for them to hold. It’s a piece of you, by nature of time spent crafting it, your unique handwriting building it, and your thoughts in that moment composing it. (A quick splash or spray of your cologne or perfume never hurt, either.) That hand-written letter is instantly a keepsake that can be re-read or even passed down to children and grandchildren. Your simple words to a loved one can become a monument to who you are.
I’ve written here in the past about how I prefer to shave in an old fashioned method. Maybe as I get older I begin to appreciate more and more “antiquities”. But I don’t think I want to let something so classic essentially die in my life when it can convey so much more emotion and personal connection than a typed out electronic document. Beside that, I like to think that since I’ve been practicing these past few weeks my handwriting has improved a great deal. And since nobody else is physically writing anything anymore, my penmanship looks marvelous now by comparison!
Oh my goodness, who knew there were such cool pens out there?!?! For a brief while I flirted with the idea of buying a Montblanc Meisterstück 149. This is one of the pens to serious collectors, and even those who think it’s over-hyped would admit it is something of a standard. But being a luxury good company, it is grossly overpriced and they go for half or less the new retail cost on eBay. It may be an 18k gold nib, but that “precious resin” barrel is still just plastic. There’s nothing wrong with a Parker or a Cross, but they just seemed to be everywhere so there was nothing special about them either (although Parker is trying to change this and eliminate an “entry level” image). Here are some really cool pens I’ve found for substantially less than a Montblanc 149, and arguably more interesting.
Retro 51. Their “Tornado” line of pens are nice and not-too-thick, with a pleasant heft and outstandingly smooth flow of ink. The local art supply store keeps one by the till for signing credit card receipts and I was instantly in love with the way it wrote. That’s never happened to me, because a pen is a pen is a pen, right? It turns out that I liked it so much because while it was a rollerball (which we all know writes smoother than ballpoint) it wasn’t the typical gel based ink, but rather water based like a fountain pen! Pictured here is the Vintage Metalsmith series, each named for an American president. They were $30-36 USD each, limited edition and becoming scarce, but you should still be able to find them if you look on Amazon or eBay. For a pen honestly hewn from metal rather than painted plastic, the entry price is worth it. Factor in the wonderful flow of ink, and the Jefferson (first on the left) has quickly become my favorite pen. I bought my fiancee the Franklin (3rd from left) and would have bought a Lincoln (2nd) if they were still in stock. The Madison didn’t strike me, but maybe in person would be different. Regardless, even the presentation is wonderful, with great retro art on the boxes and a very cool and colorful aluminium tube inside the box. Better presentation than one would expect from a budget pen. Even their Classic Lacquers line is a stainless steel body, beautifully painted, and can be had for $20-25 USD. Just remember that water based ink will blot if left stationary on very absorbant (computer printer) paper.
Lamy. This is another new discovery of mine that I’m very much falling in love with. I bought and now write with a Lamy 2000 fountain pen, and it’s wonderful! I love how vivid the inks are, and that I can get several different inks or even blend my own for unique colors. I love that even something as simple as a pen seems to be overbuilt if it’s made in Germany. I like the simple and timeless Bauhaus design influence- very modern and sleek. It costs less than one-fourth the price of a new Montblanc 149. But mostly I love the feeling of sitting down to write something with intent, whether it’s one of the journals I picked up or a letter to my sweetheart on some 24 lb. linen paper. Lamy has lots of other designs and models, as well. I really like the nice cases their Dialog series comes in, even though the only writing instrument in that series I care for is actually a “lowly” ballpoint. Even the box for a $12.50 Tipo rollerball is over-engineered .
You don’t have to spend a lot on cool pens. You don’t have to buy fancy paper. These are things I did because I want to dress up the experience of writing the letter (the pen) a little bit for myself as a reminder to put in the best effort and make a memorable experience (the letter) for my reader. Whether it’s my fiancee, wife in a few short months, or the children we have later. Writing something by hand can imbue that simple note with a little bit of who you are, even if it’s just a cheap Bic ballpoint and Mead notepad. If the fanciest you want to get a Cross pen, they make some beautiful writing instruments for a really fair price. Just write something. A letter for your kids to open a year from now. An unexpected love note to your spouse or girl/boyfriend. A thank you letter to your parents for not strangling you during your teenage years (that may just be me). Take advantage of the relative immortality your physically written words can have, but don’t dwell on it and try to be false or built-up in your pretense for writing. Just capture that perfect moment, the joie de vivre of sharing something with another human. Share your time and thought, and by nature just a little piece of yourself in this method slowly being forgotten.
If you’re genuine, and really writing something from your heart to somebody you care about, you won’t be able to help it. It’ll likely be the most well-written thing they read.