Until I started using the computer more than the pen, I had a knobby callus on the end joint of the middle finger of my left hand. And until I came to America that callus was permanently ink-stained, because I am incorrigibly messy and because I used a fountain pen.
As primary-school children in Greece we were issued a supply of ink and a new postcard-sized square of blotting paper every week. I don’t remember exactly what kind of pens we used, but I think that we must have been issued them as well, because I can’t remember having my own. Our desks still had inkwells built into them, but they were already vestigial by my time, since fountain pens allowed us to fill and write for a long time without having to dip the pen repeatedly into the ink.
No matter how modern the mechanism, filling a fountain pen was a tricky operation for me, which I could never perform without getting my fingers and clothes covered with ink. The school-issued ink seemed to be impervious to soap and water, and when I started buying my own along with my other school supplies, I was glad to be able to use washable ink (Quink was my favorite, blue or blue-black); not that it helped much.
Along with covering our textbooks and exercise books with brown paper, a pleasurable ritual of preparing for a new school year was stocking our pencil boxes with a filled fountain pen, a ruler, compass, and protractor, brand-new lead pencils, a pencil sharpener, and an eraser. (Of course, we didn’t call them erasers, but I learned to do so almost immediately after coming to America when, at 15, I innocently asked a boy in my class for a rubber. It took me a long time to live that one down.) At school in India, where we were responsible for purchasing our own fountain pens, I gained some cultural capital by developing a method of marking my classmates’ pens with their names. Using the tip of a pin, I would prick their initials or their full names into the barrel of the pen with a series of dots, and then rub chalk into the holes to bring the letters into relief. It caught on, and for a short while I was in demand, with everyone bringing their pens to me for “engraving.”
When I got to secondary school in England in the late sixties, ball-point pens—or biros, as they were known, after the company that produced them—were catching on, but the headmaster of our comprehensive school disapproved of them as an American import that led inevitably to the deterioration of handwriting—and, it was strongly implied, to the degradation of culture more generally. (He felt the same about the gum-chewing, which he described as “chewing the cud,” and abhorred as a foul American habit.) So we used only fountain pens at the Broxbourne School. I needed all the help I could with my handwriting, which had always been one of my weakest subjects in primary school (second only to needlework), so perhaps it was just as well that I was forbidden to use a biro.
Being left-handed and bearing down hard distorted my nibs into what eventually became a workable shape for me, but not for anyone else who tried to use my pen. I favored a fairly thick nib, because I was liable to rip through the paper with a fine-tipped scratchy one. Thick nibs also lent themselves to medieval-style calligraphy, which became a teenage obsession that involved creating thick, double-walled letters with large, spiky serifs and using diamond-shaped dots on the i’s as in Goudy type (akin, perhaps, to today’s teenage girls replacing the dots on their i’s with big chubby hearts).
As we got older and experimented with our handwriting as we experimented with our identities (mine imitated my mother’s, my father’s, and my boyfriend’s until it more-or-less settled into its own mongrel scrawl), our pens became signature possessions, dear to our hearts and to our idea of ourselves as scholars and writers. When Gail Inaba’s father gave me a Sheaffer fountain pen as a college graduation present, I treasured it for years, and now I do the same for the children of my friends at graduations and bat/bar mitzvahs.
It’s interesting that many young writers of this generation seem to be returning to the fountain pen as they are returning to the manual typewriter, an instrument even before my time, for the trusty Smith-Corona that saw me through my undergraduate years was already an electric model. Filling and using the fountain pen becomes a kind of ritual, perhaps, forcing one to slow down and take greater pleasure in the process of writing itself. Of course these instruments coexist with the laptop and the iPhone, allowing for the high-stakes pleasure of creating an unerasable original text and the high-speed practicality of editing, copying and disseminating it.
Today, I have a few old fountain pens knocking about, but use them only sporadically; when I do, somehow I still never fail to get my fingers covered with ink. My family says that I hammer the computer keys as hard as if they were the keys of a manual typewriter; that’s probably about as hard as I used to grip my fountain pen, giving me that characteristic inky callus that was a badge of my childhood. I miss it.