I loathed handwriting in elementary school. As I eventually gained consistent access to computers, I happily left the writing of longer texts by hand behind me as a fading childhood trauma. As a programmer and computer scientist, avoiding handwriting is easy, and I always preferred taking notes in my head anyway. Yet here I sit, many years later, drafting this text with an expensive fountain pen. I discuss inks and paper with my friends. I read ink reviews online and ponder combinations of pen, ink, and paper. In short: what I used to hate has become a hobby. In this text I will attempt to explain how this transformation occurred, and why exactly I find the use of fountain pens so satisfying.
In the fall of 2016 I was reviewing conference papers, and I was taking notes using whichever rollerball pen had been available in the office supply depot. Like many times before, I was cursing the frequent stops and hard starts. But this time I vaguely recalled hearing that fountain pens did not suffer from this problem. I did some quick research and ended up purchasing a LAMY Safari along with a bottle of ink. But in addition to recommendations on good beginner’s pens, I also found something else: a world of craft, technology, and simplicity that spoke to some of the same interests that guide my work in computer science.
Fountain pens are simple devices. The physics behind their functioning is easy to understand, and the writing process involves no moving parts. They can be understood in their entirety, and do not easily wear out or become obsoleted by technical innovations. They can be understood in their entirety and have an air of permanence. In this, fountain pens are very dissimilar from the incomprehensibly complex devices I interact with in my daily work. Yet, pens still have enough depth to make exploring their differences enjoyable.
While interesting as physical artefacts, fountain pens would have been unlikely to capture my attention had they not also been associated with the craft of handwriting. In my work, creativity manifests itself solely through the creation of mental constructs and ideas. These can be beautiful, elegant and mathematically perfect in a way not possible for any physical object, but I still missed feeling of creating something with my own hands. Handwriting turned out to scratch that itch quite effectively, and now I find myself drafting many longer texts on paper before entering them into a computer for editing. Apart from the psychological pleasure of seeing my words on paper, I find that this more slow-paced style of writing also helps me choose my words more carefully - forcing me to think during the time it takes me to write each work. After so many years of using keyboards, I seem to have become faster at typing than thinking.
So are fountain pens more pleasant to use than ballpoints or rollerballs? Yes, without a doubt, although they are hardly more convenient. I enjoy the ritual of refilling the pen with ink, but it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Has my handwriting improved since I began using fountain pens? Also yes, although I still have far to go before it can be considered beautiful.
In conclusion, fountain pens have for me turned an unpleasant occasional necessity into a relaxing hobby, and I strongly recommend trying them out.