Many writers have been smitten with their tools — John Steinbeck and his Blackwing pencils, Ernest Hemingway and his pocket notebooks, Sylvia Plath and her Royal typewriter. I often wonder whether they, too, struggled to harness their ideas and emotions from mind to ink — and from ink to reality — that they took solace in the reliability of a perfectly smooth ink pen.
But it’s not just the consistency of the tool’s performance. It’s also about the wearing down of a pen until the nub releases ink at exactly the expected rate; it’s about the letters on our keyboards fading on the most commonly stricken keys; it’s about the softening of a notebook as it’s used.
The Japanese have this philosophy called “wabi-sabi” which seeks to find beauty in the waning and waxing of objects. The elegance of wabi-sabi is that it relishes in the essence of life; it finds goodness in the ephemeral nature of our existence, and asks us to find goodness in the ephemeral nature of things. It allows wristwatches to be infected with patina and earn the name ‘vintage’; it allows people to stumble through tragedy and earn the name ‘wise.’
It’s not the extraordinary things that give us this comfort, but rather the ordinary things that become an extension of ourselves.
In “The West Wing,” there is an episode where President Jed Bartlet wonders why his favorite pen — the perfect pen — isn’t in his suit pocket like it always is. He is later told that his recently deceased life-long secretary, Mrs. Landingham, used to put it in his breast pocket each day. This man, with so much power and responsibility, goes to Mrs. Landingham’s abandoned desk and opens the drawer to find a box of perfectly packed pens. He picks one up and revels in the even weight of the pen on his pointer finger.
Our favored tools, from pens to laptops, serve almost the same purpose as the aroma of our childhood homes. There’s a musk or a divot or a scratch that makes it imperfect or uneven in just the way we know it. These blemishes make them artifacts of our lives. Much like a baseball glove, these tools are broken in by one person and, as time progresses, it further serves that single person.
These tools all serve an assigned purpose — for example, a pen is created to write — but any pen can write, however, not any pen can fit into the crevices of my fingers and remind me of the muddled ideas that have dripped off its point.
Of course these are just things, and I could be called a materialist — and, even worse, a materialist that intellectualizes and romanticizes this terrible title. But in the movie “Julie and Julia” the main character comes home from a terribly stressful and wearing day and says:
“I love that after a day when nothing is sure — and when I say ‘nothing’ I mean nothing — you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick.”
A pen — my pen — lets me carry that feeling throughout the day, as only a fallible human like me can do.