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.