Frustration of Fountain Pens

In terms of writing instruments, the greatest source of frustration for me comes from fountain pens. While I enjoy experimenting with different ink brands and colors and likewise find appealing the smooth glide of a good fountain pen on quality paper,  I nonetheless find the overall fountain pen experience disagreeable due to one important factor: even with the finest nib size, I am forced to write much larger than what feels natural for me and as a consequence the quality of my penmanship goes to hell in a hand basket. Or in this case, an ink bottle. I have found that old steel-nib dip pens are more conducive for my style of handwriting than any fountain pen I’ve tried to date. Of course dip pens are about as impractical as one can get in terms of writing instruments.

Perhaps I just haven’t found the correct fountain pen yet. I recall reading somewhere that, as a rule, Japanese fountain pens have finer nibs that European or American products. Perhaps I should give an extra-fine point Japanese model a try (am open to suggestions!). Or perhaps I haven’t stuck with the fountain pen thing long enough to acquire the skill needed to write with the exactness I’ve grown accustomed to using .28 and .18 gel pens.

While I am intrigued by the world of fountain pens and bottled inks, I disappointedly remain on the sidelines, a mere spectator of new inks and “fountain pen friendly” paper, wishing that someone would develop a “tiny handwriting friendly fountain pen.”

The Moleskine Confessions

From the journal entry (photo above) dated March 18, 2008 :

“…Now that the quest for the ideal notebook is over due to the discovery of Moleskine, the hunt has been reduced to finding the perfect pen…”

Thus was once my opinion of that popular little black notebook.  My relationship with Moleskine had sparked to life the month prior and with the coming of spring it blossomed and grew and much joy was to be had scribbling away.  Alas, happily ever after was not to be; the chill of disillusionment soon set in and the flame flickered, then grew dark.  Yet, curiously, a few embers remained, smoldering just enough to allow the occasional, brief reignition- this cycle of love/hate characterizes my relationship with Moleskine.

Even after the passage of four years and ample whoring about  experimentation with other notebooks lines, I am still occasionally drawn to Moleskine, despite telling myself that I’ve moved on, far better notebooks await discovery. Perhaps it’s due to Moleskine’s slick advertising (you know, the “you can be the artistic or literary heir to Picasso/Hemingway/or even Chatwin-whoever the hell he is”  thing), or their ready availability compared to other notebooks -whatever the reason, the spark rekindles, I’ll purchase a Moleskine for this or that purpose and put it to use for a time, then the fire goes out and I move on…until some future fling. Try as I might to forge a meaningful and committed LTR with Moleskine, there is an element about these notebooks that is, for the lack of a better phrase, a turn-off.

Moleskine is the perfect notebook in nearly every respect. Experience has proved time and again that construction and durability are, quite frankly, first-rate. Not once have I had a moment’s trouble with the binding, the elastic band thingie, or any other physical element of Moleskine and they’ve been through some rigorous situations. From daily being carried around in my pocket or jostled about in the bottom of a backpack, to surviving two long seasons subjected to a hot and humid greenhouse,  to various travels, including evading in Spain the peril of grasping Gypsies, Moleskines have always come though no worse off than the normal wear and tear one would expect. Add to their durability the wonderful fact that the notebooks lie lay lie remain flat when opened PLUS the sublime appeal of their minimalist design…well what’s NOT to love about Moleskine.

Yet despite these wonderful qualities, Moleskines are lacking in perhaps the most fundamental category: paper quality. This is inevitably the deal breaker, the fatal flaw that sends me out into the streets in search of better.  It’s altogether incongruous that bound within the covers of these otherwise first-rate notebooks would be such cheap paper.  While it feels cheap to the touch, the real test of quality comes when putting pen to paper. The process of writing feels disagreeable, rough and even with a fine point pen and light touch the resulting shadowing  is too apparent and distracting. Some of the joy of journaling is tactile and derives from that elegant and sublime interaction of a good pen on smooth, high-quality paper. Sadly, this is not the Moleskine experience. And woe unto those who attempt a fountain pen upon Moleskine paper; between the bleeding and feathering, the result can be more horrifying than the sight of the chicken who didn’t quite make it across the road.

As I was reflecting upon this post, I hauled from their quiet retirement a few pocket Moleskine journals; their duty done, their cheap-ass little pages filled.  As I thumbed though the volumes I considered just how close Moleskine is to being the perfect notebook and wondered when and if the company would see fit to remedy their Achilles heel. I suppose the reality is that as long as they have their spiffy advertising (and can claim the likes of Picasso and that Chatwin guy) and enjoy their wide availability, there’s probably little incentive to improve their paper.

I suppose from time to time I too get caught up in the ideas symbolized so well by  Moleskine and again embrace them with a hope that has yet to be realized.

Writing Tip Number 4*

A concern sometimes raised about micro-point pens is their tendency to skip. I’ve experienced this from time to time and it’s always frustrating to stop mid-thought to rectify the technical difficulty while the ephemeral flicker of literary inspiration, such as it is, evaporates into Ok..hmmmm…now where was I?  There appears, however, to be a simple solution to reduce the frequency of, if not eliminate entirely, the skipping problem.

Have a glance at the photo in the heading of this post. Featured is a Rhodia Webnotebook (with the uber awesome dotted pages) and a Uni-ball Signo DX .28 (brown ink). The frumpy piece of paper to the lower left? A guard sheet and the solution to the skipping problem.

A simple sheet of paper between hand and notebook page seems to reduce greatly the incidence of skipping when writing with fine and micro-fine point gel pens. As one writes, a fine residue of oils, and perspiration at times, from the hand and wrist can be left on the page, thereby creating a surface that’s seemingly problematic for micro points and can lead to skipping. A barrier placed between hand and writing surface keeps the latter in the pristine condition required for micro points. Of course the concept of a guard sheet is not new; I recall reading a few years ago of its utility in the calligraphic arts. The point here is that it’s just as  important a tool when using fine and micro point pens.

If you’re a micro point pen user and skipping is a concern, give the guard sheet thing a try. And as an interesting experiment: after a few days or a week of use, try writing on the guard sheet with a micro point. You’ll likely encounter more skipping than a 12th grade home room teacher during the final week of high school.

The guard sheet: an important, but potentially overlooked writing tool.


* Number 4 you ask? This is a new blog so where are Numbers 1, 2, and 3? Well…George Lucas began his epic Star Wars saga in media res with Episode IV and we all know how that turned out. It is hoped that by beginning the Writing Tip series with Number 4,  Fine Points will likewise meet with an astounding success of perhaps a handful of page views and maybe a “like” before the author’s dilettante nature drags him elsewhere.

The Perfect Pen …Almost

In terms of pens, the nearest I’ve come to The Grail was the discovery a few years ago of the Uni-ball Signo Bit with a .18 point which has been billed as the world’s thinnest pen capable of writing words on a grain of rice. Jetpens has a photo of this feat and it’s rather impressive. While I have yet to attempt the “writing on my food thing,” I can attest to the capabilities of this pen on paper: absolutely amazing. After putting the first experimental Signo Bit .18s though their paces -including being impressed into travel journal service while rattling around Central America under less than ideal conditions- I immediately bought several more and a box of them soon thereafter.

The Uni-ball Signo Bit .18 is, if anything, a specialty pen and may not be well-suited for everyone, especially those who tend towards a large or  heavy-handed writing style. My penmanship has been assessed as somewhere between tiny, microscopic, and “WTF,” depending upon the charitable inclination of the particular observer, so the .18s feel very natural, especially when paired with good quality paper. While the .18s can at times feel a little scratchy, such is also the case with other micro-point gel pens, especially if one is writing fast, or too large, or perhaps using Moleskine cheap paper. There is a certain technique, an art if you will, for achieving a novel and pleasurable writing experience from the Signo Bit .18s.  Of the specifics I’ll perhaps write to exhaustion in a later post; the purpose of the moment is the pen itself and there’s much to say, both good and..well….not bad, as there’s really nothing bad about this pen. Maybe “meh” for those qualities which aren’t good, but not necessarily bad either.

One of my few remaining blue Signo Bit .18s

The Good: The Uni-ball Signo Bit .18s are well designed. They are both lightweight and well-balanced, with or without the cap. My preference is to write with the cap snapped onto the end of the pen as it seems to provide a slightly more balanced feel. As one would expect, the standout feature of the .18s is their capacity to write SMALL. In this respect it excels, outperforming all other micro- point pens I’ve tried, even the Sakura Pigma Micron 005 (.20mm), which has long been one of my favorites.

The Meh:  The biggest drawback to the Signo Bit is its fragility.  By no means is this a deal-breaker, nor exclusive to the Signo Bit line; one simply need exercise caution to avoid dropping it. If it lands point down, either capped or uncapped, the game is over. Experience has also shown that a pen landing on its side can have a detrimental effect, with some ink delivery mechanism thingie inside going all wonky, rendering the pen useless. Ink supply can be somewhat short-lived, particularly if one does a lot of writing, but such is true with a number of gel ink pen models.

And since we’re talking meh, a cautionary note: be ever so careful about lending this pen to friends, colleagues, or anyone in need, for this charitable gesture may doom your pen. While inadvertent theft is sometimes a concern as with any pen, the real danger arises from those who write as though they’re carving their name into a block of wood. The 18s are among the delicate lotus flowers of pen world and don’t hold up well to this sort of abuse. I’ve learned the hard way; more than once the final act of one of my pens has been someone else’s signature. For the well-being my .18s, I’ve since found it best to say “no” (or a polite “hell no”) when asked whether I have a pen, even if the person in need sees it clipped in my shirt pocket. Unfortunate yes, but the resulting awkward moment will pass and the .18 will live to write another day.

The Bad: OK I lied. There is one bad aspect of the .18s and it’s significant: the recent discontinuation of blue ink.  When I heard of this tragedy several months ago I immediately fell into a swoon, from which I’ve yet to fully recover. Alas, only three remain in my strategic reserve. 😦

So at any rate, the Signo Bit .18 is a wonderful pen and the nearest to perfect I’ve come across to date. While I use it daily, it’s not a general use pen, being reserved primarily for journal writing or situations where small writing may be preferred (such as jotting notes in the margin of a book); however, I can easily envision other, perhaps more creative uses, such as writing ridiculously small notes for colleagues.

Colleague: “A note that you wanted to see me? What note? I didn’t get a note.”

Me: “Look. It’s right there on your desk.”

Colleague: “What? That’s not a note. It looks like….I dunno….like a grain of rice.”