Putting Pen to Paper

It took a lot of soaking to get rid of the dried ink in the pen

Last weekend I was out Christmas shopping, and I went into a wonderful stationery store I’d never visited before. While I perused the beautiful papers and notebooks—any writer’s dream—my eye was constantly drawn to the fountain pen cases housing rows and rows of pens.

I’ve always loved fountain pens. I used to write with one when I regularly kept a journal. The first Christmas MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I were married, we gave each other identical fountain pens for Christmas. Lest you think I’m just a self-centered gift giver, let me assure you that MEH loves fountain pens as well.

Seeing those fountain pens brought back a lot of memories. Yes, the loveliness of that first Christmas with MEH. But more. The tactile feel of a fine writing instrument in my hand. Connecting, really physically connecting words with paper and feeling the fluid movement of the letters through the pen. Seeing those pens made me realize how much I missed that.

I’ve been spending a lot of time editing my current WIP (and I’m making great progress!). Right now it’s all about the computer: adding words, deleting words, moving chunks of text here and there. But soon I’ll be back to paper and pen, editing my second draft on paper.

As I looked at the colored ink, I wondered: would I want to edit my paper manuscript with a fountain pen? Could I? Would it be frustrating if it made splotches at the wrong places? What if the writing wasn’t always perfectly even? Would I need to stop and refill the ink plunger? Would I be able to write fast enough? I should say…I always, always (well, almost always) edit with red ink, a leftover from Journalism school. And the beautiful bottle of red ink called my name.

In the end, I decided to be practical. It’s Christmas—not the time to spend money on myself. Still, after I left the store I kept thinking about my idea. I found my old fountain pen in the desk drawer, and I felt the weight of it in my hand, opened it and tried to use it but the blue ink was all dried up from years of disuse. But holding it made me realize how much I wanted to write with my long lost friend. And last night I went back to Papier Gourmet in Portland (Maine), and I bought a bottle of red ink. When I got home I cleaned and filled my pen.


And I have to admit, when I wrote with that red ink for the first time, it was fantastic!

So, today I’ll be back hard at work at the computer—with just about six chapters left to edit until I reach that second draft. Then, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, I’ll sit at my dining room table with my printed manuscript in front of me. My fountain pen in hand. And I’ll edit like a medieval scribe.

Are there specific writing tools that make your job more fun? Have you ever used a fountain pen? What color is YOUR editing ink?



  1. Although I do remember fountain pens (and thanks for the memory, Julia…it was a long buried one) I never actually used one. I recall my big sis using them, and I do recall them being somewhat messy, so I had to chuckle when you wondered if your manuscript would be full of splotches.
    Can you imagine writing an entire novel with a pen, or worse, a quill? My hat is always off to those folks who did without cut and paste…and still managed to write brilliant novels that are read even today.
    I am a hopeless lover of the computer keyboard. Mine is worn so bad the letters are all gone.
    But I do like a nice red pen for editing hard copy…nothing gets one in the tight frame of mind to slash like clutching a red pen.:-)

  2. Beautiful photos and beautiful piece! I love that you dusted off the old fountain pen. I personally can no longer write things long-hand for some reason – perhaps the hands and fingers are out of practice? My handwriting has become atrocious, as well, and my hands physically get TIRED (this coming from a gal who penned thousands of letters to pen-pals over the years).

    But it does sadden me greatly to know that cursive writing is not even being TAUGHT in schools now. Made me realize that the days of professors scrawling notes all over your literature papers have long been replaced by “Track Comments” in Word. A sad day, indeed. I just wish my fingers could handle the writing implement the way they once did!

  3. Emma Pass says:

    Wow, your handwriting is beautiful – nothing like my drunken spider scrawl! I wrote a novel in fountain pen when I was about 15, and I loved it. Usually, though, I use a black biro if I’m writing by hand – I *can’t* use blue ink no matter what. It just feels wrong!

  4. I love this: “I’ll edit like a medieval scribe.” And the photo of the page you wrote with the new red ink is gorgeous!

    I was given a fountain pen once by a writing group when I was moving to another state. I did try to get in the spirit of using it for journaling, but at the time I had such low self-esteem it felt like everything I wrote was crap. And I didn’t want to waste that good pen on crapola. So I put it away. You’ve inspired me to see if I can find it. It’s stored in a lovely blue case with white satin lining. It might even be hidden in some nook or cranny of my messy, over-stacked bookshelf.

    ~ Milli

    P.S. I love the name of that stationery store, “Papier Gourmet.”

  5. I love fountain pens and just good pens in general. I always write longhand first, for that very reason of physically connecting with the words.

    Red ink? Love it! I was an editor for more than ten years, so I have a penchant for it. 🙂

    Great post. Glad your WIP is coming along well.

  6. Cynthia, I thought about writing an entire novel with my fountain pen and then I fainted…. ok, I’m kidding. But when I think of those medieval scribes who weren’t even writing but merely transcribing someone else’s words? What a tedious job!! As for novelists who have written long hand. As you say, WOW! I’m with you, the computer is KING…. nonetheless, it doesn’t quite have that visceral appeal of the red slashing pen 😉

    Melissa, Thank you for the nice compliment! Isn’t it so true that our hands get out of practice for small detailed work like handwriting? My handwriting is also atrocious after about one page…. (THANK GOODNESS I’m not the only one, in fact!) I agree that it’s sad to think cursive isn’t taught anymore — I love its fluid beauty!

    Emma, Thank you so much for the lovely compliment on my handwriting! I hate to say that my handwriting also looks like spider scrawl after about a page (but not a *drunken* spider, YIKES! 🙂 So interesting about not being able to use blue ink — I usually avoid blue, too, BUT if I’m editing and can’t find red, I’ll use any other color that will stand out among the black! (p.s. that is super cool that you wrote a novel with fountain pen! How long?!)

    Milli, I’m glad you loved the medieval scribe sentence, and I think I can say with all certainty that it’s the first time I’ve EVER thought I’d do anything medieval-ly. 🙂 And what a nice compliment about the photo! I really love the ink, gorgeous! As for feeling like you didn’t want to waste the fountain pen on writing what you felt like was “crap,” I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write with the fountain pen: it makes me feel so good with it’s physical flow. I hope you find yours!

  7. Rachel Small says:

    Love the photos! Great post, Julia. There really is something to be said for writing with a pen instead of on-screen.

  8. Karen, Glad you enjoyed the post! That’s so interesting that you write longhand first — even your fiction? I wish I could do that but my hands get pretty cramped up and uncomfortable. But I so agree — there is that very real physical connection with words. And writing with the fountain pen reminded me of when I was a teenager, sometimes I’d write in my journal just SO I could use the fountain pen for that very physical thrill of writing! (p.s. As an editor, I so agree: NOTHING like the red!)

  9. Rachel, So glad you enjoyed the post and the photos — thanks for the compliment! So interesting, the owner of Papier Gourmet told me there’s a real upswing in pen purchases — she thinks it might be a reaction to all the technology we need to use everyday…. as you say, there’s really something to be said for writing with a pen instead of on-screen! Well said!

  10. I’m so glad you decided to give yourself a gift. What a delightful one.

    I do most of my writing on the computer, but when I’m stuck, I switch to paper and pen and it always helps me get flowing again. Once upon a time I had a fountain pen that I loved, but I lost it in one of our relocations. You’ve inspired me to treat myself to a new one.

  11. How fun. Editing on paper is my favorite and I always try to use a nice, smooth, inky pen but I’ve never used a fountain pen. I think I’d make a mess. That jar looks like nail polish; I wouldn’t trust myself with it. Sometimes if I’m using a pen I LOVE I don’t use shorthand so I can write more. Later it’s kind of irritating when I have SO many notes on my draft. I’m glad you indulged on something that makes your writing more enjoyable. When you edit like a medieval scribe you should cut the power and do it by candlelight.

  12. Shary, It is so delightful, you’re right! I can’t wait to use it for editing….soon! I’m with you, most of my writing done at the computer, but I just can’t edit on the computer — can you? I need to see the printed work! So interesting that pen to paper help you flow again! I hope you’ll let me know when you get your new fountain pen; can’t wait to see it!! There are so many amazing ones out there now!

    Sara, You sound like you have that same tactile sensation with writing that I do… just the love of the writing! Exactly! You’d be pretty amazed at the improved fountain pens out there, you might like to try one, although I know what you mean about the mess, though — it’s my primary worry with using a fountain pen. They have new pens made of GLASS that you dip into the ink well each time you need more ink…. which seems like a lot of work and potentially might slow me down, but so incredibly fun to write with and are absolutely beautiful!

  13. Beth Hoffman says:

    Oh, this is a truly wonderful post; the prose and photos are terrific! I love fountain pens. I have several and adore how they feel in my hand.

    I’m glad to know that your WIP is moving along so well. Excellent news!

  14. Barb Riley says:

    I may have mentioned before, I am a huge believer in handwriting. I’m convinced it activates a different part of my brain for creativity. During NaNo, I cranked out my rough draft on the computer (which was some 50,000 words of skeletal story structure), but everything pertaining to my WIP thereafter has been with pen and paper. Lately, using ink has been immensely helpful in semi-curing me from my internet addiction. 😉

    One question for you regarding fountain pens: I used to use one back in the day, but it seems to me it came with a cartridge built in. I’m sure it was a cheap version, but oh, how I loved it. Did you see any like that at the store you were at? I wonder if they still make those? Another thing… I also remember the ink for my supposed fountain pen only came in blue, and I have a mental allergy to writing in blue ink. LOL It has to be black for the main writing. I can use purple or red too, but never blue.

    Also, when I first clicked onto your blog page I spent some time admiring that top picture of the pen in the water. It’s just a really cool-looking perspective with all the swirly ink (even if it IS blue!) and the distortion of the glass. I love how you always make your blog personal with your pictures. Just thought you might like to know that. 🙂

    Sorry to post a lengthy comment, but it’s been sooooo long since I’ve “seen” you. I missed you! Eek, on the countdown to Christmas is right. :O

  15. Beth, Thank you so much for your lovely comment and compliments! It’s nice to find another fountain pen fan…they really do feel amazing in the hand, don’t they?! I have to admit that all day long I’ve kept the pen close at hand, looking for reasons to use it. I’ve written *quite* the lovely lists today, let me tell you!

    Barb, YOU’RE BACK, wahooie!! I know you’ve several times sang praises of handwriting! I am so impressed that after the original 50K words, you’ve written everything else with pen and paper. Wow! I know what you mean about it helping cure the interest in the Internet…there’s just something so quiet and fundamental about a pen and paper. As for fountain pens, yes, mine can use either disposable cartridges or a “plunger” (used to draw up ink from a well). The colors are endless if you use the plunger! Most cartridges are blue or black. (p.s. I’m glad you liked the swirly ink photo… I confess to working for quite a while to get that one quite right, I love the swirls, too!)

  16. Ann says:

    Oh, I’m with Milli….the picture with the red ink is lovely! I’m SO glad you have a fountain pen! Honey Bunny actually has a couple of quill and ink sets he used to write with….he even has a glass tip!

    I think I might have told you – I have a Mont Blanc that I use for writing letters. While I don’t write many – it’s here on my desk waiting.

    I visited a Venetian Papers stationary store when I was in Assisi, Italy. I spent a LOT of money in that store. Honey Bunny and I sat at the cafe in the square….we drank cappuccinos, he purchased his glass tip quill pen set that day and I sat with my Mont Blanc and Venetian papers and wrote letters to everyone back in the states!

    *sigh* I loved that day.

  17. I’m a blue pen gal. I can’t use anything other than that. I’m not a huge fan of fountain pens, but I love the the look and old-fashioned feel of them.

  18. What a lovely story Julia. I can just imagine how it felt seeing the pens again with the little pots of ink. I’m so glad you went back and bought the red ink, and it looks lovely in the photograph.
    We had to use fountain pens at school. I had a dark green one – it was beautiful (green’s my favourite colour). My writing always looked ghastly though and I never found a way to write that looked natural and elegant when I used one. Having said this, I did have a spate of drawing with an ink pen and green ink, which was interesting. Now, I use any ballpoint pen I see and take a fancy to, but, like you, they have to feel nice in my hand, and I can’t bear blobby pens – they get binned straight away!

  19. Trevor says:

    I’ve just bought a couple of vintage fountain pens for book signing. I’m now the proud owner of a 1960’s cartridge pen and a 1950s pump fountain pen. (Didn’t realise how expensive a bottle of ink is nowadays until I bought that).
    I love the look of them, the feel of them and the pleasure in owning them. Lovely post.

  20. Ann, Thank you so much for the photo compliment! I am very envious of both Honey Bunny’s glass tip pens and your Mont Blanc!! Wow! I know we have talked about this before: fountain pens are spectacular. I can’t imagine the thrill of that stationery store in Assisi! Amazing! I love stationery stores! And the cappuccinos after? *sigh* Spectacular day!

    Leah, “I’m a blue pen gal.” Now that’s the first sentence of a novel!! And it’s so interesting because other than red when I’m editing, I often vary between pen colors — but I do like blue because it stands out with all the other black ink in the world! Nice choice!

    Abi, Thank you, glad you enjoyed it! The store was positively intoxicating, beautiful visually and the smell of inks and paper, too! Lovely! I know what you mean about dark green fountain pens — you probably couldn’t tell in the photo but mine is dark green! I love the idea of sketching with the fountain pen, and I’m sure your sketches were lovely, but I can barely sketch a stick figure!! (one of my sadnesses in life!) As for blobby pens, I so agree — straight to the bin, er, trash can!

  21. Trevor, What a fabulous idea to use vintage fountain pens for book signings — I love that! They must be beautiful; I agree there’s a real pleasure in owning them! But as you say, I also didn’t realize how expensive ink is…. wanted to get a sampler but too pricey! Thank you so much for your lovely comment & especially for your visit to my blog! Nice to meet you.

  22. Julia, it never seizes to amaze me how we’re always on similar pages…even though we didn’t write about the same exact thing, we’re more or less on the same chapter 😉 I completely get where you’re coming from. I’ve never written with fountain pens, but I do have favorite pens in general. The one thing I miss the most is being able to write without my hand tiring so much. Now that I’m getting back into journaling, I realize I have to build those muscles back up, literally and figuratively.

    When I read older books, I often think about the writers who wrote their entire drafts by hand. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that each generation of writers is deeply shaped by HOW they write, not just WHEN they write.

    As for ink…I use a purple pen whenever I can. I don’t have anything against red (I’ve used it many times before) but I like the color purple, and years ago one of my best friends gave me a purple pen and it just stuck.

  23. Natalia, It really is pretty remarkable that we often blog about similar things or at least, as you say, we’re on the same chapter 😉 I also miss the ability to write without my hand getting tired…. I do almost all my writing (even journaling) on the computer. But I’ve been so drawn lately to the idea of paper and pen journaling again, and as you say… I need to build those muscles up, too. What you say about older books is exactly what inspired the last line of my post. I really truly think that those writers, even the copiers, were deeply shaped by HOW they wrote. Just feeling the flow of the ink on the page, the letters forming, brings a different thought process in, I’m convinced… regardless of the color! You probably won’t have any trouble believing this: one of my ALL-TIME favorite pens was a purple pen! I found it somewhere and was never again able to find another. I loved that pen! It was a purple uni-ball and I’ve never found one just like it! What’s your brand?

  24. Nancy Kelley says:

    Oh, a fountain pen, how lovely! I would love to write with a fountain pen, but I’m afraid my handwriting is far, far too messy. I write rather like Mr. Bingley, leaving out half the words and blotting the rest, so that finding the sense of what I’m saying is almost a game to anyone reading it. (Sometimes, it’s even a game to me!)

    However, I do edit with pen and paper. I have a tri-color system, complete with matching folders. Stage 1 is done in purple ink, stage 2 in pink, and stage 3 in turquoise. I use the same brand of pen–Uniball Vision. Their color is fantastic, and they write beautifully.

    Drat, now I’m getting antsy to start editing!

  25. For handwriting, I absolutely have my favourite pens. I think I’ve mentioned them before, when we commiserated over your index cards. 😉 I also need the right feeling paper; some paper doesn’t take the ink nicely, or doesn’t flow the right way, or it’s too smooth… Back when I wrote calligraphy (I know, right?), I fell in love with fountain pens. I have a very special shell-inlaid pen from my deceased great-grandmother which I love using, but it’s really a lot more work and I could NOT take that much time with story-writing and it would become an awesome mess if I tried. 😀


  26. Ashlee, Yes, I do remember you mentioning your favorite pens! And obviously the way the paper feels is so critical to me as well — it was one of my worries I discussed with the stationery store: how will the fountain pen write on just plain paper… As for calligraphy. I am quite envious because I’ve never had the patience to do that except when I addressed my wedding invitations. So fun, so beautiful! And of course I used a special fountain pen! Your special pen from your great-grandmother sounds wonderful — I am sure that creates a strong connection with her as you write with it! Thank you for sharing that story!

  27. Nina B says:

    There IS something about a pen in the hand, isn’t there? I love printing out something I typed and editing by hand. I also do most edits for other people by hand. I think I connect to the writing more. Sometimes we just HAVE TO get OFF the screen. Is that you’re handwriting in the pic?? So neat! Mine is a mess. I’m left handed . . . makes the fountain pen a little harder. I’m a bic girl.

  28. Nancy, I love the comparison to Mr. Bingley and the blotting — very cool! But what a contrast to the incredible tri-color and folder organization. Impressive! I must admit that (like you and Natalia) I have a love of purple ink… pink and turquoise I’ve never tried but they sound lovely too. Are you near the editing stage again?

    Nina, I love printing things out too, so satisfying! Going off screen is so essential, I agree — honestly I can’t begin to edit on screen. I can well understand, knowing several left handed writers, that fountain pens are harder to use. As for the handwriting in the photo, yes it is mine! Thanks for the compliment! It’s a blessing and a curse: when I’m part of a group and minutes are involved, often I’m asked to take notes: “You have such a nice handwriting” are words I’ve grown to dread!

  29. Nancy Kelley says:

    I’ll spend January doing what you’re doing now–going through on the computer, moving things around and what-not. Then in February I’ll do the purple and pink editing rounds pretty much concurrently. I like editing because I can do it sitting on my couch, instead of at a computer desk.

    My cat likes it for the same reason. 😉

  30. Lisa Ahn says:

    Julia, I’m so glad you went back and got the red ink!
    I like to edit my hardcopies in red or pink ink too, but I do most of my editing on the computer. It’s been a looooooong time since I wrote anything in longhand.

  31. Jen says:

    I love the idea of fountain pens and of fancy writing implements and handwriting in general. I got a calligraphy set when I was young, and I liked looking at the beautiful letters on the box. But my handwriting is terrible. Holding a pen doesn’t feel right because I can’t get my hand to move in a comfortable way. I still love the idea of it though.

  32. Jen, I actually know what you mean — I’m seldom satisfied with how my fountain pen writing looks either — and don’t get me started on calligraphy! I tried doing it for our wedding invitations and my hand cramped up AND it didn’t look like the box! 🙂

  33. CMSmith says:

    Sounds lovely. I’ve never really had a real fountain pen, but I am very particular about the type of writing pen I use. The ink has to flow – no BICs for me.

    I don’t use red ink. One of my college professors claimed it was disheartening to students to see red ink on their papers. I just never started. I edit in black or blue, but I make sure to put a little dash in the side margin on the lines I’ve made changes to so I don’t miss anything.

    Have fun. I love this stage of the process.

  34. Christine, It’s so interesting that it was a college professor of mine who was insistent on the red ink!! Maybe I’m not as careful a reader as you are (or my eyesight is much worse…), because I never notice anything but seriously contrasting ink marks on the page! Now that I’ve been editing with the fountain pen, it’s often problematic because I can’t write as quickly as my mind works — I often use a red gel pen instead!