The Mighty Pen and Paper

Jan 7, 2022

In an age of access, convenience, and connectivity, the fountain pen remains a touchpoint with the past and connects us to our natural pace. Evernote, Slack, Google Keep, Habitica, and other platforms and apps make life convenient and open to intentional technological integration, although most fail to follow through on these practices—for more info, see Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism. These digital, virtual media often lead to multifaceted attempts to distract you and to funnel you into a rabbit hole of platforms, tasks, functions, and applications which move at quick speeds and keep our minds moving through much of the day. I have used these platforms and apps only to find myself more busy and harried than when I use my trusty fountain pens and notebooks. They allow me to process and work with deliberate attention and focus instead of rushing me along to the next thing.

There is a simple, blissful satisfaction in choosing your first fountain pen and ink as well as keeping them in working condition throughout the years. The choices of style, pen material, filling mechanism, nib size and grind, and ink color give each person a chance to find their preferences and to take ownership of the form and shape of their writing.

 I have enjoyed using fountain pens for the last seven years. Plus, I have found that my own penmanship has improved as I find worthy vessels to transmit my thoughts, ideas, daily experiences, both joyous and sorrowful, onto the page. This enjoyment of fountain pens has led to many conversations with my students, and they have begun to buy some of their own and participate in more analog behavior alongside their tech-filled lives.

Still, digital technology has its place; it has and continues to shape and change the world much like analog technologies before it. Yes, digital technology allows for convenient connections to multiple platforms synced to one another to refer to across devices and in the future. But we designate the word “user” for the person connected to digital technology—a term which fails to dignify the human person and instead gives an image of a neuter, nebulous thing connected to the virtual but not engaged with reality. Perhaps this is why I so appreciate the feel of pen to paper: it gives me reassurance that the thoughts in my head have been set to a physical surface that can be referred to in the future. The pen and paper offer us the image of the artist, writer, craftsmanship—person—contributing to and participating in the distinctly human things, thought, leisure, life. This tangible experience also offers a distraction-free appreciation of my writing and grounds me in reality. The virtual world propagates much information and many ideas along with countless distractions and entertainment; time alone with my thoughts which I have recorded by hand offers me plenty of time and space to reflect, connect, and relate things to one another without the potential of falling down the rabbit hole. However, the fast-paced code-switching that accompanies computers and phones floods my mind and does not foster opportunities to slow down and remain at ease. Thought, leadership, decision-making, and problem-solving suffer when in constant motion.

Don't get me wrong, tech has great advantages, and I still use it for much of my communication, work, tracking, shopping, and entertainment. While I wrote my first draft of this essay in my notebook, the subsequent drafts were written online. Yet, fountain pens and notebooks allow for leisure and meaningful solitude as few things allow. So too have researchers delved into the nuances of pen and paper in superiority in memory retention and attentive focus. 

But my primary advocacy of pen and paper lies in their ability to allow you to reside with your own thoughts and to promote them to flow howsoever they come. As Kethledge and Erwin discuss in their book, Lead Yourself First, Solitude can clarify your thoughts, give rise to your creativity, allow you to gain and maintain emotional balance, and help you to remain convicted and strong. Without time separated from the input and thoughts of other minds or distractions, we risk floating through our usual day-to-day life. Solitude does not have to occur in the quiet of nature or without any other living soul for miles around, although those can be lovely respites. Instead, Kethledge and Erwin insist that we must be free from input from other minds and give ourselves time with our own thoughts in order to work through them. This can happen in a few minutes at the coffee shop before we head to work. It can even happen in the music-free, podcast-free, motor-humming quiet of our cars. Even those quiet moments in the shower can give us the requisite time to think and be with our own thoughts. I personally love the bustle and life of the city park with its sights, sounds, and busyness that form the backdrop to my thoughts.

In light of Lindsey Brigham Knott’s recent essay, “Industrialism’s ‘Leisure,’” I want to offer another way to encounter daily life and to make it more full while combating the busyness and bustle of summertime: writing. As she explains, the three obstacles which Donald Davidson presents in “A Mirror for Artists” offer us chances to reflect on how we can overcome these obstacles in our daily lives. Her article provided ample material for my own reflections about how my holiday has been and how it could improve.

Enter the fountain pen and notebook. Whether you wish to reprise your efforts to write that next Great American novel, keep track of your moods and gratitude, take notes on important meetings or conferences, jot down funny moments from what your children say for memory’s sake, or to recollect and allow your thoughts to flow without distraction, the fountain pen may be your step towards a more intentional and distraction-free life. Instead of signing up for an excess of camps, workshops, or conferences, jot down some ideas that came to mind about how to work with your spouse on a difficulty at home, rewrite your favorite poem in an effort to memorize it, or keep your notes for new recipe ideas. With the tendency for online connection and scrolling, we lose track of time; perhaps you could start a habit of writing out a plan for your day with goals or habits you would like to work on. Your thoughts and ideas find their most difficult crucible in writing, so making an attempt to grapple with them and wrestle them onto paper can provide satisfaction, clarity, and a possible plan for moving forward. I have practiced and incorporated all of the above and go back to them from time to time, but my holiday has been full due to my continued practice of planning my days, journaling, writing notes and phrases in my commonplace notebook, and writing essays and short stories. The seeming disconnection has provided me with rich opportunities to engage with and sort through my own thoughts to be and do better for those in my life.

 May your pens be mightier than your thumbs.

L. G. Baus

 L. G. Baus teaches Humane Letters, Latin, Drama, and History at Ozark Catholic Academy. He enjoys writing, cooking, disc golf, and pickleball as well as hiking trails with his wife, daughter, and dog.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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