March 1, 2015

An Artist’s Tools

Guest Blogger: Jenny Sechler

I have been picky about pens all my life. I prefer roller balls with a medium or fine tip – extra fine is too scratchy. Felt tips are an acceptable substitute; ballpoints are out of the question. My current writing implement, in place for at least 10 years, is a Uni-Ball Vision rollerball pen.

When I was in high school, I collected pens in an array of colors. With time, I became increasingly insistent on black ink – and I now feel uncomfortable writing in any other color …even if it’s just a grocery list. Writing with black ink suits my personality in several ways. I like to become lost in the crowd, and hate drawing attention to myself. In this way, I imagine writing with bright colors is akin to wearing a hot pink dress.

Every writer has his or her reasons for choosing one writing tool over another. Virginia Woolf biographer Katherine Dalsimer writes of Woolf’s feelings about writing instruments as “playful,” noting: “the very implements of writing are endowed with spirit, with animation.”  Who is to say what these choices convey about a writer’s temperament, history , political convictions, social conditions, or identity?  According to an article in The Atlantic, my preference for a roller ball means: “You have aspirations.”  I suppose I do have aspirations, but then again, thats a pretty safe assumption, since most folks do.

If I have nothing else in common with great writers across the decades, my insistence on certain writing tools puts me squarely in their illustrious company. A list from Flavorwire reveals a preference for fountain pens among writers as diverse as Neil Gaiman, Simone DeBeauvior, and Stephen King. Other writers, including Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, and Henry David Thoreau, preferred pencil – a format I personally see as risky, given the impermanence implied in the very existence of the eraser.

Neil Gaiman describes his preference for fountain pens, which started in 1994 while he was writing Stardust, like this:

“I found myself enjoying writing more slowly and liked the way I had to think through sentences differently. I discovered I loved the fact that handwriting forces you to do a second draft, rather than just tidying up and deleting bits on a computer. I also discovered I enjoy the tactile buzz of the ritual involved in filling the pens with ink.”

Gaiman’s reflections on how the pen shapes the process of writing are not unusual among writers. My first drafts always start on paper; I then transfer them to the computer, read it over, and begin revising. Pen on paper also serves well for longer stretches of revision. I feel more connected to my words through the process of moving my hand across the page. The ink and paper allow my words to take a physical form. The computer screen is a weak substitute.

Which leads me to wonder how writers’ relationships with their instruments have changed with the advent of the personal computer. As a Gen-exer who grew up with typewriters (albeit electric ones), approaching a large writing project with my hands on a keyboard seems laborious and inefficient. Still, I see many people my age and older bringing laptops to writing workshops – out of which they produce beautiful, spontaneous pieces.

Ultimately, no matter how good the pen feels, words are what really excite us with their “spirit and animation.” If there were no roller balls or fountain pens or pencils we will still find ways to write.


Jenny Miller Sechler is a writer living in Leeds.

Doggie paw favicon

How about you: what tools do you turn to for writing…? Do you have favorites?

…Does the medium influence the message?

Leave a Reply