The Importance of a Great Pen: An Appreciation

Somehow, when the right pen hits the right paper, there's a little bit of magic. Writing becomes fast and effortless. The pen glides across the paper, capturing the words almost as they're spoken.
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I owe a pen to a kid named Tyler.

I took his pen almost a year ago, when he was running lights for a play I was directing that I'd written for a one-act festival. I borrowed it to take notes during a rehearsal and it wound up in my pocket afterward, as often happens.

But it had such a smooth, easy feel to it that I never gave it back. It was a black ballpoint with the Amnesty International name and logo on it. And I apologize for not returning it.

But I'm not sorry I have it.

Pens are a crucial tool of my trade. Where many -- if not most -- people in my profession now use recorders (I almost said tape recorders, thus showing my vintage) when they conduct an interview, I've always been a note-taker. When I conduct an interview, I pull out a reporter's notebook and a pen and write down as much of what is said to me as possible.

And you can't overestimate how important a good -- nay, a great -- pen is to that particular task. Which is why I love the pen I took from Tyler.

It's about that feeling of pen on paper -- they don't call them ballpoints just for fun. It's all about the alchemy between that ballpoint and a certain rougher grade of paper that you find in reporters' notebooks. These slender notebooks tend to have slightly less slick, more absorbent paper than, say, the kind of spiral notebooks you used in school or find in marble composition books.

As I said, I've been taking notes for a long time and, in the past 10 years, have had enough interview subjects tell me I'm unusual in that regard to know that I'm part of a shrinking, perhaps disappearing breed. I never learned shorthand; over the years, I've created my own, I guess. I've written three books for which all interviews were conducted in this manner and written literally thousands of feature stories for newspapers and magazines in which I quoted people from my notes. Yet I've never been accused of misquoting anyone.

And, in a lot of ways, it's all about the pen.

Somehow, when the right pen hits the right paper, there's a little bit of magic. Writing becomes fast and effortless. The pen glides across the paper, capturing the words almost as they're spoken. There are moments when it feels like the pen has a mind of its own -- sort of the cursive version of The Red Shoes. It is the perfect blend of person, pen and paper.

By contrast, when the match of pen and paper is wrong, it can feel like torture. The point of the pen seems to dig into the paper, offering resistance that feels like scratching a stick on a brick.

I used to be incredibly persnickety about what writing implement I used. I had a thing for finding the finest point possible, at one point affecting the use of Koh-I-noor Rapidographs, a brand of needle-pointed fountain pen that was a lot more trouble than it was worth and whose points were painfully sensitive (and easy to bend or break).

I used to disdain ballpoints in favor of what were, way back when, known as felt-tip pens, which eventually went mass-market with the Flair. They still make them, though they now refer to them as porous-point pens.

Eventually, I changed over to pens that combined the ink of a felt tip with the rolling ball of a ballpoint, particularly the ones made by Pilot and Uniball. Again, I tended to favor the finest possible tip -- as a matter of taste and probably, to some extent, pretension (it made doodling more interesting, too).

I've come around to the beauty of a good ballpoint in the last couple of years. I tended to pick them up in hotels and, once, was pressed into using one when my fancier Pilot pen turned out to have exploded from pressure changes after an airplane trip. As it happened, the ballpoint I grabbed outperformed my pen of choice.

These days, ballpoints come with finer tips and "gel" ink -- and spongy, comfortable grips. And so I've stopped buying boxes of the expensive pens and gone almost full-time to ballpoints -- the retractable ones that you click on the top, for quick and easy deployment.

I am, as I said, a vanishing breed. These days, the bulk of reporters capture an interview on a digital recording device (which, to me, is like doing the interview twice, which wastes a lot of time). Students, in college classroom settings, more often type notes into a laptop than scribble them into a notebook.

The idea of carrying a pen (or more than one pen) and taking notes by hand in actual handwriting makes it seem as though I'm stuck in another century.

Well, in some ways, I am. But it's too late to stop now.

So, sorry, Tyler. And thanks for the pen. I'm still using it -- and I'll miss it when it runs out of ink.

Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.

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