Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 25, 2009

Penned Up

It’s not an obsession. Not nearly. But, really if one is to be a writer, then one must have a writing implement equal to one’s task, suited to one’s personality, and matched to the work at hand. Got a pen in your pocket? If not, you’re not a writer.

It’s the writer’s endless quest: the perfect writing tool. Sure, most of what gets produced these days never goes through the stage of being carbon applied to paper by hand. But, as it happens, before I sat down at this computing machine to type out this post, I did actually jot down the basic ideas in a composition book with my current fave, a black Uni-Ball Signo Micro 207 (far right in the photo). Very classy. About six bucks for a pack of 4 at Staples. I could wax further over its merits, but my purpose is a broader one: this tactile, personal investment we make in the pen or pencil that is The One.

pens Brad Nixon 1876 (450x338)

In the beginning, there was the inchoate mass in a box of some sort in the kitchen drawer that held an assortment of pens and pencils, along with rubber bands and those forgotten old state tax stamp receipts and other detritus, from which we’d grab whatever came to hand when we needed to write something or, more likely, to draw a treasure map or pirate flag. Probably a lot of those items were branded Brant’s Hardware or Lebanon Lumber Cmpny. or One Hour Martinizing. In those days, before the Writing Game was the Big Game for me, I didn’t care.

But, even before that came the initial Rites of Passage. I remember this. It’s not a photograph or something someone told me. I remember Mom taking me to the stationery store to get my supplies for kindergarten. The fundamental acquisition was the Binney & Smith crayons: big honkin’ hunks o’ color that make today’s crayolas look, well, wimpy. That’s where it all began. If you put that flat little box in front of me at this moment, I’d lift off the lid, grab a blue one and draw a big circle, a little circle, and four lines going down and scrawl “CAT” under it.

First Grade called for more serious weaponry. We were going to start PRINTING,  so the armament consisted of a big round black pencil. This pencil is the reason pencil sharpeners still have that big hole that you never use for your miserable, puny #2s. That was a SERIOUS pencil. Apparently the reasoning was that if your hands were half the size of adult hands, the pencil needed to be three times the size of a normal one. I don’t know if one can buy such an implement now. It was massive.

Then, it happened. By 3rd grade, fashion had struck and, slave to fashion that I’ve always been, I manacled myself to the long, voluted pens in a variety of fauve colors that everyone in class was sporting. I vividly remember Mrs. Ingels raving about those precious pens — PENS, you must note. This was the Big Time at last. No more pencils. PENS. Of course, that also meant that one must have the pen ERASER, which was extremely effective because it removed not just ink but the paper itself, completely eliminating mistakes from all existence. The Impossible Missions Force would’ve approved.

Memory gets vague here, but somewhere around 5th or 6th grade must’ve been when the BICs arrived. A French Revolution. If you weren’t around then, you can’t imagine. 19 cents for the basic clear plastic model with the blue or black or red cap. Or 49 cents for the sleek white Accountant model with the metal clip (pocket protector, anyone?). Those Accountants carried me on into high school geometry. Oh yes. One would do those angles and charts and formulae in pen: why in the heck was that? Anyway, for me, the Accountant fine point was a stalwart, and probably remained so into college, where I learned to make marginal comments (both literally and figuratively) in my textbooks in a tiny, tiny hand that still shows up from time to time even today in my volumes of Proust.

For a while, still during high school, my admiration for the guitar playing of Mason Williams (“Classical Gas”) extended to include his journals, published in facsimile, written in blank ledger books with a felt-tipped pen: a pure product of the Late Machine Age. Sorry Mason, but that was a dead end for me. It’s great for show, but not something you want to churn out mongo pages in. I was back to The Accountant.

And, of course, there were any number of fountain pens around the house when I was a kid. Stationery stores (that’s what we call an Office Supply Store today, kids) still stocked plenty of Carter’s Ink in the squat little bottles and I tried it seriously, for a while. A short while. A bit fussy, may I say, when the BIC Accountant lies there in the drawer, smirking. It knows you’ll be back. (Orwell, by the way, coined a term, “ink stick” in “1984” to describe what he saw as a demotic, inferior implement like the BIC. Okay, George. You were right about Civilization and History and Tyranny and all that, but give me my ink stick and leave me alone.) I still have one fountain pen, far left in the photo.

Then the big world beckoned and the choices multiplied.

Oh man, how many other pathways and dead ends did I explore? Mechanical pencils. Cartridge pens that were the equivalent of the Winchester Repeating Rifle to the muzzle-loaders of the fountain pen. Endless, numberless kinds of graphite pencils of different hardness, thickness and tone.

Finally, out in the corporate arena, I encountered the Pen Players. These cats and kittens would reach into a vest pocket or purse and whip out the ritzy hardware to match their Rolex or Gucci bag. Mont Blanc. Cross. I bought one that put me near that class in Hong Kong: a nifty little French number by the name of Lamy. That’s it in red in the picture above. I’d still use it every day if it weren’t for the fact that the reservoir holds about enough ink to maybe sign your name on a a form, and then you have to know the one shop in a certain street just behind the Palmer House in Chicago where you can buy replacement refills.

I HAVE to mention Carolyn, a young communications director shooting for the top VP spot somewhere, anywhere. Carolyn astounded me. Bright, attractive, WORE HER PHI BETA KAPPA KEY. And each day, every day, her pen coordinated with her outfit. The mauve shoes and purple blouse? It’s the purple pen day. Staggering.

I have at least four Cross pens that came to me as very generous gifts for graduation, opening nights, and other significant events. One is engraved with my name and one with my initials. These are Significant Pens. They are, indeed, Writing Instruments: beautifully crafted, but designed only for executives to employ in signing Significant Documents like deals over $500 million (Please, use the Mont Blanc for deals over $1 billion). Not your workhorse for the long haul. There’s one in the photo, second from left.

This is not obsession. There aren’t really many tools of the trade for the writer. The only place that matters is the point at which the word goes on to the page. Ask some golfer, some time, how many putters, wedges, drivers, fairway woods she’s gone through. Prepare for a long slog. A 49-cent BIC Accountant hardly measures up.

Two final pictures.

The first is my dad, sitting at his drawing table, preparing to work on a perspective drawing for his architecture class. He takes a black Grumbacher #1 pencil and inserts it in the black rotary sharpener and spins it around, just so, and pulls it out with its perfectly-engineered conical point and gets to work. I tried the pencils. They belong on the drawing table. Loved that sharpener, man. German engineering down to the ground.

The final picture is of Fitz, my first corporate boss, whenever he had a Serious Piece of Writing to execute. He’d flip open his suit jacket and extract his maximum-thickness black Pentel Flair (or, if he was going to correct something I’d written, the red one). He’d meticulously pop off the cap and place it on the opposite end of the pen, and poise the felt tip over the yellow legal pad that he had angled just-so on the conference room table before him. A Dartmouth Man, you could just tell. He’d fill a page with that careful, well-formed script of his that in its very appearance conveyed as much as the meaning of the words, “This is Writing. I am a Writer. These are my Words.”

Do not attempt to tell me you can do that on a Word Processor.

If you have pen and pencil faves and raves, I’d be glad to hear from  you.

© Brad Nixon 2009, 2017


  1. Some of my favorites pencils we would find around home are the stubby ones that had been sharpened by a pen knife. Still it’s the most reliable way to sharpen a pencil.


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