The Return of the Ink-Stained Finger: Writing with a Fountain Pen

As a youngster, I used fountain pens to write. I started my school career by writing in pencil, and then at some point, we were switched over to fountain pens by fiat. School work had to be done in ink; ball-pens didn’t count; and that was that. I do not remember my first shopping trip for a pen, but I remember many of those that followed. Budgets were always limited, so I had to reign in the most ambitious of my desires and settle for a compromise. The high-end varietals–Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, Mont Blanc–were always out of reach, but there were plenty of other brands available at reasonable prices. A few Chinese brands–Wing Sung being one of them–were all the rage in this category, and for most of my school career, I used these.

Fountain pens require ink, so inkbottles were procured as well, and after a few informal lessons in the pneumatics of squeeze fillers, the budding writer–sorry, schoolboy–was off and running. And of course, we were, all too soon, transformed into the proverbial ink-fingered students with smudges of black, blue–and not just any blue, but Royal Blue!–and blue-black ink on our finger-tips, palms, and rather inevitably, chins, noses, and sometimes even lips. (The precursor of the ballpen-chewer is the nib-sucker.)

We grew to be wary of the smudged page, to blow gently on a just-written paragraph before closing an exercise book. The heat in India meant that our sweaty forearms ruined many, many pages of school work, and perhaps our teachers grew to accept these Rorschach-ridden assignments with forbearance and patience. We learned to be selective in picking exercise-books to write on; pages made of out excessively thin paper would let the ink bleed through, and ruin our work. We became familiar with ‘writer’s fingers’–that affliction that makes all users of fountain pens wring their hands after an extended spell of writing. The fountain pen slowly became an extension of myself, a magical object that grew out of my fingers and let me express myself in the only way I knew. (Mysteriously, I never used blotting paper, not once.)

I used fountain pens through high school and my undergraduate days. I wrote my final exams for my undergraduate degree in mathematics and statistics with a fountain pen; the last time I would use one for an extended spell of writing. When I moved to the US in 1987, the era of the fountain pen seemingly came to an end. I used ballpoint pens and micro-tip pens; I wrote on word-processors. My handwriting deteriorated; I had been warned about this as a child: ‘Don’t use ball-pens – they’ll ruin your handwriting!’ I wrote my Ph.D qualifying exams–two four-hour sessions–with a micro-tip; the last extended spell of longhand writing I have done.

Some fifteen years ago, a girlfriend gifted me a Mont Blanc pen. (Thank you!). It used cartridges; I used it a few times but the word processor had taken over–even for note-taking–and using it just for noting down phone numbers and small scribbles felt silly. I would install an ink cartridge, use it for a few days, fall off the wagon, the ink would dry up, and I would give up. But the feel of the nib on the paper, the desire to see my old handwriting emerge, still remained seductive and kept up a steady siren call, pulling me back to the Mont Blanc case lying on my book shelves.

So, finally, a week or so ago, I opened the box, took out the pen, fitted in another cartridge, dipped the nib into a cup of water to clear out the dried up ink, and resolved to start using it again. And so I did. I wrote this post in long-hand, copying it into the blog after finishing up, editing it very, very lightly as I did so.

Note: I hope to write a follow-up post soon, describing the differences in the writing process between using word-processors and fountain pens.

15 comments on “The Return of the Ink-Stained Finger: Writing with a Fountain Pen

  1. Samir,

    What a blast from the past! There were a set of fountain pens which were called “Hero Pens” at least where I grew up in Tamil Nadu. Such proud possessions these were. My father, who was a high school clerk and went to become superintendent of the district’s education department, proudly would carry his fountain pens in his shirt pocket, and sometimes they would sparkle and glisten from sun’s rays bouncing off them. As a child, I always thought that was pretty cool. A sign of adulthood to write with a fountain pen. First we wrote on slates and then on pages of notebook with pencils and then to ink pens. The culmination of that growth was the fountain pen.

    Reynolds wrecked the fountain pen industry in India, anyway. Everybody wrote with it and the quality of penmanship went out the window.

    Learning to use the squeezable ink filler, and then the fillers of the fountain pen, all were significant milestones in one’s growing up. I remember adopting my father’s Parker pen and it still stays as one of my proud moments of my life. Something similar to getting knighted, I suppose. Your dad considering a “grown up” enough to let you write with a Parker pen!!

    Yep, as you mention, writing with ball point pens and then the typing on computers, has killed my handwriting. I once won an award for it as a child and now, I can’t even look at my writing on paper.. it’s that bad! Thanks for jogging the memories!

  2. Samir Chopra says:

    Subash,

    Thanks for the comment – lovely memories – thanks for sharing them. Slates – wow!

    Hero was the manufacturer of the Wing Sung brand, so I think we might have used the same brand. I remember looking forward to the day when we would have to do school work with fountain pens; like you, I thought it meant growing up.

    To be honest, one of the reasons I’ve resurrected fountain pens is to get my handwriting back – the other is to find a non-distracted way of writing. Let’s see how it goes.

    BTW, I’m not sure kids in India even do cursive writing practice these days.

    Cheers,
    Samir

  3. Satadru Sen says:

    Cursive is, I’m told, an alien concept to Americans of Noor and Amanda’s generation, to say nothing of our students. Even my very bad handwriting (and I failed the handwriting exam in class V) looks better than their childlike “printing.” Thanks, as you point out, to those years of wearing white shirts stained with ink and sweat.

  4. Samir Chopra says:

    Satadru,

    My nephew (back in India) didn’t learn cursive either, so it might be on its way out. I think parents need to enforce that themselves now. I really dislike the ‘printing’ style – looks terrible.

    My handwriting started out bad, got better, and then bad again. I’d like to get it back to its good days.

    • Satadru Sen says:

      Maybe it’s just part of the fallout from the decline of writing (with a pen) in general. The letter, which was the most vital forum of handwriting, has disappeared, after all. It’s a real loss, you know. We used to be able to recognize people by their handwriting – it was as distinctive and important as a facial feature.

  5. Subash says:

    One other important use of a fountain pen… On April Fool’s day, it was common practice to spray ink on someone’s back. (Don’t really know why that was such a good idea!).

    Thanks for this. I may have to go shopping for some fountain pens.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Subash,

      It was a ‘good idea’ back then – kids really do pretty retarded things, don’t they?

      Yes, go get a fountain pen – it’s a nice feeling to write with it again. Let me know which brand/style you get.

      Cheers,
      Samir

  6. Shuja says:

    Samir,

    Thanks for sharing… brought back such great memories of the Watermann days….

    There was always a certain angle at which the fountain pens worked best. For I remember that many a times I would have to borrow a friend’s pen to write…. but it never did feel right…

    Parker and Cross pens were the coolest back then… Only the rich kids in school had them and would carry them on the breast pocket flashing them them during the lunch hour….

    The way to shop for a good pen was to check the feel of the filler squeeze… for if it was too soft, one knew that it would not hold enough ink for the day.

    INK TRANSFUSION: So, in the middle of a school day … u run out of ink… What do u do??? Have your friend hold his pen pointing downwards onto yours and as he squeezes his filler slowly… you would release yours to be able to suck in every last drop….Over time … we had all Mastered this technique of pen matting…

    INK TYPES: so there was the Black, Blue, Skyblue and Black-Blue and then there was the Permanent Ink that would never ever get washed off your white school uniform….

    The Evil Doers: So, you get into a fight with another kid…. and what do you do??? Splatter the back of his white shirt with Permanent Black ink…. (and that my friends was violent as it got)…

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Shuja,

      Sorry for the late reply. (Thanks for the comment!). The notes on nib angles, the personal touch of one’s own pen, the hierarchy of pens, the shopping tips, ink transfusions – these all ring so true to me. Indeed, the brotherhood of pens does induce a collective memory!

  7. azeo says:

    and it made For more endearing writing. Writing with her fountain pen it’s more creative In such a different way Then a ball point. Sure it can be a little more mechanical But I respect myself more When I build a sentence With a fountain pen. I’m not saying one is better than the other but with a fountain pen I think differently and to get better results because I respect the writing more. This was written with voice to text

  8. […] think, deteriorated, a process I have attempted to rectify on a periodic basis–most notably, by using a fountain pen again–but with little […]

  9. […] and sensitive to the physical channels through which their words make their way to paper or screen. I’ve written here about my writing experiences with a fountain pen on paper; the modern counterparts of that implement, the word processor, the computer monitor, the keyboard, […]

  10. […] I was bemused by the number of typos I generated in my writing assignments in graduate school. (I had written with a fountain pen till my undergraduate days; something about writing with that implement had required a certain deliberateness which militated […]

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