Pens! They just might be the cheapest, most important piece of technology ever overlooked by a large group of people on a daily basis. Pens are everywhere from your desk to your car to your junk drawer, though they tend to blink out of existence when you need one. Where would we be without them? Probably still drawing on cave walls with dandelions and beets.
Why do I think pens are so great? Well, they’re a relatively cheap tool depending on the pen you get, but whatever you spend, you’re getting a lot for your money. Pens are possibility, pure and simple, and they’re even conveniently packaged in a portable device.
Aesthetically speaking, I like pens because of how different they can be both inside and out. Some of them make thick lines, some make thin lines, and in the case of flexible nibs, some alternate between thick and thin lines depending on pressure. I use pens for a number of reasons, most notably for writing. Everything you read here that bears my name began life as pen marks on paper.
Pens are revolutionary because they can be used to make ideas permanent and/or illustrate any concept. It’s up to you to use the pen wisely. You can use other, better tools later, but pens are always a great first tool. If you’re not encumbered by an uncomfortable grip, ink that skips, or a scratchy, draggy contact point, your ideas will flow more freely. When you find the right pen for you, you aren’t hindered by your tool — you’re elevated by it.
This Machine Kills Fascists
In Margaret Atwood’s terrifying sci-fi future of The Handmaid’s Tale, the only women who are allowed to read and write are the Aunts — high-ranking women who train Handmaids and dole out punishment to anyone who’s earned it, regardless of rank. All signage and packaging in the republic of Gilead has been reduced to ideograms to prevent Handmaids, Wives, and little girls from reading literally anything, ever — lest they be empowered to organize and change their fates. Get caught reading or writing in this hellscape, and you’ll lose a hand.
There is true freedom inherent in writing implements that most people take for granted. You are free to write anything you want, though you may want to burn it afterward. Sure, the freedom is all within the larger construct of humanity and what is humanly possible, but pens push us toward possibilities and into the future. Most importantly, pens help us think. They are works of art that produce works of art. I once found a pencil that bears Woody Guthrie’s proclamation ‘THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS’. I wish it were a pen instead, because pencil marks can be easily erased by fascists.
Pens help us communicate ideas and explore our thoughts. They are a tool of total insight. Typing may be faster, but writing by hand gives us more time to form what we’re going to say as we go along. It’s much easier to haul around a pen and paper everywhere you go than to lug a laptop or typewriter. As long as you have ink and a substrate, you’re good to capture any thought or idea, no batteries required. Now that’s freedom.
If I ever feel stuck or out of ideas, sometimes all I have to do is change my pen. I also change pens when I need a fresh mindset, or if I want to color-code something.
Until recently, I would change my pen color just about every day, but a few months ago I got stuck on this one 0.7 mm black Pilot G-2. For some reason, I just got into the flow of that one pen even though they always get blobby on the tip, and there’s no point in fighting against something that’s getting me to a flow state.
I wanted to try the bold ones (1.0 mm) and I did, and now those are officially my jam until further notice. I’m sure I’ll go back to using a rainbow of pens at some point, or at least get bold G-2s in more colors.
Gels Are Swell
I’d have to say that gel pens are my hands-down favorite pen as far as everyday use. Gel pens came about in the mid-1980s and hit the United States in the late 1980s, and I remember them supplanting rollerball pens as the hottest thing out there among the young pen nerds. Anyone who was anyone at my elementary school had Pilot Precise Rolling Ball pens in four colors, but only the super cool kids had Gelly Roll pens.
I have a tendency to tense up and press way too hard when I write, and this comes from learning to write with pencils and ballpoints. The dark and free-flowing, easygoing marks made by gels help me to back off so I can write for much longer periods of time without fatigue.
I like gels because for the most part, they’re always ready to write and they don’t get all faint and skip-prone like ballpoints do. I go through phases where I’ll use a rollerball or a fountain pen for a while, but I always come back to gels. They’re easy to carry around, especially the pocket Cross pen I’ve had for about twenty years now. Isn’t it cute? You just pull it apart to open it, twist to change the cartridge, and push it back together to close it.
Fountains of Fun
I really like to use fountain pens, even though I have to write more slowly with them. I’ll go in and out of using one of my fountains exclusively until I get tired of uncapping and recapping it all day long, and then I go back to gels. There are several retractable fountain pens out there, but they’re all quite expensive ($80+).
For the most part, I prefer the cheap and mid-range fountains to the expensive ones, but I’ve only had one expensive one so far and I didn’t like it: the Lamy Safari. I think the problem was that I didn’t bring my own paper to the fancy pen store, which I would now recommend to anyone. They have paper, sure, but it’s always fancy paper and not everyday paper like you find in a spiral, legal pad, or composition book. Also, see if they’ll let you sit down to try the pens instead of hunching over the glass case, because sitting versus standing makes a difference, too.
There is a line of disposable fountain pens called the Pilot Varsity that I’ve used for around twenty years. They’re disposable in the sense that you can’t easily refill ’em, unless you’re dedicated and savvy and willing to get a little bit inky at some point. I’ve done it myself using this method, and it was surprisingly easy to both remove and re-seat the nib using a pair of nylon jewelry pliers.
Varsities are great for everyday use, except they’re a little scary to carry around. If it gets uncapped and encounters anything that can wick the ink out, that’s gonna be a bad time. But they hold a ton of ink and pretty much always work right away even if I haven’t touched them in months or even years. Really.
Fancy Pens for Fancy Letters
I have long been attracted to typography and calligraphy and sometimes mess around with both, so I have all kinds of calligraphy markers, nib holders, nibs, and brush markers.
Among the weirder ones are a couple of dip pens that are just cleverly-carved sticks of bamboo. I also have two pencils taped side-by-side that produce calligraphic letters when held at a 45° angle. I’ve even got this pen I made that looks like a little prison shiv made out of a piece of Sprite can that’s taped to a never-sharpened pencil. And fright is kind of the point — you just dip it in ink and it holds a few words worth of drippy, slasher film-type letters. I got a lovely glass pen for my anniversary this year. It’s a dip pen, but the spiral ink feeder holds more ink than you’d think.
My Beef with Ballpoints
I straight-up don’t like ballpoints. Okay, that’s not fair. I like ballpoints quite a lot in theory — their viscous, oil-based ink doesn’t get used up as quickly as gel inks or water-based inks, they can make beautiful artwork, and above all they represent the era when ink-powered writing implements became cheap and portable. But they’re just not for me.
I wish I liked iconic, ubiquitous, everyday ballpoint pens like the Bic Cristal or the lowly Round Stic. I press pretty hard when I write even though I try not to, and ballpoints usually make me press even harder which makes my hand and wrist ache sooner. I can’t and I won’t use ballpoints for the most part, unless they are really smooth to use and make a dark mark.
I do like Paper♥Mate InkJoys and wish other ballpoint makers strove to make theirs as bold and smooth. And once in a while, I’ll find a promotional pen that writes really nicely for some reason. Those are ballpoints 99% of the time, and nearly always have black ink. I wish I liked ballpoints so that I could enjoy using one or more of my collection of four-color pens from decades past. I have the 4-color InkJoy and the output is really disappointing compared to regular single-color InkJoys.
Thinking with Ink
I really enjoy the act of writing longhand, and using the right kind of pen can make a huge difference in my output and flow of ideas. A good, comfortable pen is a great way to get going and start flowing no matter what you want to do, especially if you need to get a bunch of thoughts in order first. What are some of your favorite implements for capturing and fleshing out your ideas? Let us know in the comments!