On Pens and Prudence

The other day, I thought about the joy and hope that a new pen gives to a writer who writes by hand. This thought struck me as odd; how could the physical pen affect the content of the writing? But the instrument is as much a part of the product as the writer’s intention. Writing, as any art or science, depends upon its tools. A cheap brush will put paint on a canvas, but can it obey the painter? A poor planer will scrape wood, but will it speak the carpenter’s vision?

And what does this say about the computer? That it’s a writer’s tool is clear enough. But can we assume that it does the same work as the pen?

Writing is the act of making thoughts visible in language and refining those thoughts for the linear nature of language. Both are equally important, and this two-way relationship – along with my own experiences – pits me against the computer and in support of the pen. By my estimation, the computer, with its speed, is the proverbial hare to the pen’s tortoise. On a computer, your brain is able to throw up every thought that arises in near-real time. As it turns out, not everything that is thrown up is ambergris. Then, as ideas spill uninhibited onto digital paper, forethought disappears into background. The computer assumes that thoughts are already there; how else could ideas be prepared to pluck and deliver so rapidly?

The beauty of the pen is that it creates a bottleneck; thoughts must funnel themselves through the pen before being laid bare. The writer’s slower pace gives time for other thoughts to arise and vie for consideration. The sober mind sorts, ignores, and refines in tandem with the pen’s slower motion, inviting the act of writing to participate with the act of thinking. It turns out that writing has a place at the table of thinking, helping to judge and mold the validity and rhythm of ideas as they develop. The mind exists scattered, and the pen unites it.

A writer’s taste for a favorite pen is determined by the way the writer thinks: color, width, grip, brand, cap or click, gel or ballpoint – all speak directly from the writer’s mind. All are differences that can be traced to philosophy or temperament. There is no objective answer to the question, “what is the best pen to write with?” because the question itself is incomplete. What is the best pen for me to write with? Our thoughts are different, so our tools are different. The speed of a Zebra F 301 0.7mm BP is the speed of my brain and my hand.  It is my perfect writing tool.

The computer only offers speed, and little other variation. When I try to develop ideas on a computer, my ideas get away from me. Maybe I’m not fast enough to keep up with the fruition of my ideas. More likely, seeing those ideas on a screen jars my train of thought. If something I’m trying to consider appears before I’ve weighed its merits and faults, it lies dead on the screen. Ideas require time. Announced too soon, an idea is a puff of air that can’t stand up to criticism. If lucky, it will appear more formidable, but that doesn’t compensate for being young and untested. An idea is a wild animal; it requires nurture and protection, regardless of the beast that it will become. The computer tempts you to announce your musings prematurely, and few have the fortitude to say no to temptation.

Critics’ access to speedy megaphones have helped to create the world that our discourse currently inhabits; quick words backed by inflamed passions with no mechanism to slow down, cool off, or reconsider. Memes and click-bait articles are not repositories of sound and sober reasoning, yet they are the closest some people come to writing ideas of their own. The fast word has become the makeshift argument in the arena of perspectives and discourse is being cheapened as a result. I’m comfortable blaming the computer for these developments.

There are many – technology enthusiasts, social media gurus, and even real writers – who will disagree with my apparent vilification of the computer in the marketplace of written ideas. One published expert on the word, William Zinsser, describes the computer as “God’s gift” in his book On Writing Well. I must make a clarification. I don’t doubt or dismiss the enormous impact that the computer – along with its upstart cousin, the internet – has had on creating a community of writers and readers with widely diverse interests. In broadcasting the written word, there has been no advancement more vital than the computer since the typewriter or Gutenberg’s printing press. No advancement has insisted upon itself more vehemently, either.

My contentions with the computer, however, are not over its broadcast of words, but rather its place in the development of those words. The computer, as a substitute for the pen, is used in the development of ideas. This seems to be detrimental to the defensibility of those ideas. In the same sentence that Zinsser declares his fealty to the computer, he lauds it specifically for “rewriting and reorganization.” How many people sit down on a computer to write something over? How many are reorganizing a thing that they’ve spent time weighing and considering?

I’m certain that many responsible writers use their computers judiciously, and they might think that I’m overreacting to a monster that is more at home in my head than out in the real world. I only wish to argue that my pen exercises prudence with my thinking, while my computer acts rashly and is thus an enabler of vice. If I have an opinion about politics and social justice, my pen wants to explore the illusory nature of power, but my computer wants to establish a manifesto eviscerating the intolerant. In this particular piece, my pen wanted to dwell briefly on the relationship between thinker, writer and implement, but my computer wanted to take stock of the terrible and comical perspectives bled out onto social media on a daily basis. One of my tools is a mediator and an explorer, while the other is a bullhorn for my id, suffering from delusions of grandeur.

All of which isn’t to say that my computer doesn’t have its place in my life as a writer. It combines a thesaurus, dictionary, and publisher, along with a catalog of articles, videos, photographs, and ideas all coming from the tangible universe of people and things. It is the only way I can get this – which started as a handwritten draft – out to a broad readership. It really does help with rewriting once I have an initial piece to work with. Along with my books, my pads and my pen, it makes a fine addition to the team.

But it is no substitute for the wisdom and prudence of my pen, which shows the same restraint and curiosity as my mind. It is a good friend to this writer, and an indispensable one at that.

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