Spring cleaning


For weeks, maybe months, I’ve been hobbling alongside compromised implements: all my fountain pens were writing choppily, or out of ink (or both). There are giant problems in the world, but a functional, pleasing pen is one small texture of my day that matters a lot (to me).  (Neglected, deferred, the increasing row of pens waiting for service at the edge of my desk becomes a metaphor for a woman who is not taking care of herself.) Last week, overwhelmed by important and unimportant work to do, fumbling through the soup of distraction, I decided I needed to do something physical, tangible.

I needed to clean the pens.

Jim Kruose (whose book Parsifal I blogged about recently) suggests ammonia for clearing clogged pens. I finally bought some at the hardware store. It took more than an hour to clean all ten pens (two of which belong to my mother). The sink and my hands were a beautiful mess.


I refilled them with Noodler’s Ink, Concord grape. (I love Noodler’s. I even love the way it smells.) Some are flowing better but not perfectly, seem to need more than one cleaning. But most of them are working now.

Meaning I can work, now.

Reading Krusoe

Krusoe_sleep garden
Jim Krusoe’s newest novel from Tin House

“If a person will only think about it, the first fountain pen was
undoubtedly the human body itself, with its seemingly endless
(till death do us part) supply of ink.” —p. 165, Parsifal

“A fountain pen forces no one to read its words.” —p. 224, Parsifal

As I read Jim Krusoe’s writing, which I’ve been doing for a decade and a half, I find it simultaneously familiar and strange. In his work, I hear a persistent drumming behind the prose, a call. My ears strain to grasp the sound; it’s just beyond my reach. It occurs to me that it’s similar to how the musician Bill Frisell allows his past themes to reemerge and weave into the texture of the new, Don’t I recognize that from somewhere? Familiar, strange. By these haunts, I’m both lulled and awakened. What does that memory mean this time?

In Krusoe’s work, that mystery gives me permission to dream while I’m awake. Or, perhaps, as Krusoe puts it on p. 75 of Parsifal: “Somewhere there must be a word, some technical term, for a combination of anticipation, nostalgia, and dread.”

Then there are the pens. The protagonist of his last novel, Parsifal (Tin House, 2012) repairs fountain pens. (Reminiscent of the protagonist in his first novel, Iceland, who repairs typewriters.) This persistent loyalty to archaic means of capturing story on page is a comfort in our era of disembodied ones and zeros. In the narrative weave of Parsifal, a sort of Aesthetics of The Fountain Pen emerges:

“‘In my experience,” Parsifal tells those who ask, ‘there are two kinds of people: those who enjoy complications and subtlety, and those who do not. If you are not the sort of person who enjoys complications and subtlety, then a fountain pen is not for you.’”—p. 191, Parsifal

I write first drafts on paper. The fountain pen is my primary tool. Wait! Am I “the sort of person who enjoys complications and subtlety?” Am I really? Or do I like things more tidy? Complications and subtlety are so messy! So uncomfortable! But evidently so appealing, so attractive. As a person who (apparently) enjoys complications and subtlety, the fountain pen thread was one of the primary pleasures as I read this novel. If we can trust the narrator of Parsifal:

“During the first years of fountain pens, prior to the actual Golden Age, which was roughly from 1910 to 1950—prior to the invention of the ballpoint, in other words—it is a little known fact that no fountain pen came with the small clip that holds it snugly inside a pocket of a shirt. That was invented by George Parker, of the Parker Pen Company, and ever since then it’s hard to imagine a pen without one (though some pens are still made this way, primarily for the Japanese market). So it is possible for something to come from nothing: no clip for many years, and then suddenly, a clip. And now, with the fountain pen practically extinct, the clip lives on, attached to ballpoints, and roller balls, and mechanical pencils, and laser pointers.”—p. 246

Jim Krusoe was my mentor in graduate school, and since then has continued to be a significant influence, inspiration, and support. In the classes I teach, we sometimes discuss why different writers write. I’ve never asked Jim why he writes, but I wonder if there’s a clue in Parsifal on p. 181, “Who was it that said our sole glory as humans is to leave behind a record of our crimes and desires?”

(Was it Jim Krusoe?)

His next novel, The Sleep Garden, arrived at my house yesterday. I cannot wait.

The reluctant outliner

Outlining, after having written 150 pages of mess. All this will amount to a novel some day, but now, it’s a snarl of words in my computer and notebook.

And in my head.

I sometimes write an outline when I have something to write that needs a clear, simple structure. But with my fiction, which can be (and usually is) a mess, I tend to write an outline when I’m near the end of a draft, and stuck, not sure what happens, or needs to happen next.

Today, stuck, resuming after an uncomfortably long break, my smart husband suggested I write an outline, figure out what I have, and where I need more stuff.

It sounded quite unappealing. No romance, no forward motion.

But once I got started, it was welcome, easy, comforting busy-work. “I’m doing something in aid of my novel!” I thought. It’s not the exhilarating fall of writing new stuff, but feels productive. Like something a grown up would do. Like someone who Writes Novels would do.

Here’s how I do it:
1. Make sure all the handwritten notes are typed up into the computer file. (I write new matter on paper, with a fountain pen. It’s much more fun for me. And I usually write down scenes and new stuff as they occur to me, trying to put them in an order that makes sense, but not always in a linear or chronological way.)
2. Open the computer file, and start looking at it, page by page, but from a bird’s eye view (anyone who has a better way to put this without using a cliche, please share!).
3. With paper and pen next to the computer, write an outline, scene by scene. Mostly focus on plot (what happens) but sometimes on themes or other important things to note, things to pick up on later.

It takes a long time, but in the past, I have found it very useful. Sometimes the outline ends up being like a stage manager’s “bible” with set, costume, prop notes, and actor’s motivations, etc. Often, that’s how I find big gaps, things that need to be rearranged, or just taken out. I hope this will be true this time around.

At least it feels like I’m doing something.

Using fountain pens

hand_penAs a writing nerd who uses my (large) collection of fountain pens, I recommend that others who want to write try using good equipment. I know some people don’t use the the “good” china, but keep it for special occasions. But I ask: What are you saving it for? Enjoy life now. For me, using good pens and notebooks makes the tactile experience of what I do so much more lovely. It’s like a treat, even when it’s drudgery.

A (possibly superficial) parallel might be: practice dressing for the job you WANT, if it’s not the job you have. When I use my great fountain pens, I feel more like a writer.

I know plenty of writers for whom the instruments are not that precious–and some who actively use more pedestrian tools on purpose, so they feel okay making bad first draft. Everyone is different. Good.

Time wears on a collection of pens

The banner for this blog is from a photo I took in October, 2004. It’s a little recipe box from my grandmother’s things, and seemed like a perfect place to keep my collection of fountain pens. Yes, I know, a collection of fountain pens, but I’ve always loved them (I used to write with those leaky clear plastic-barreled Shaffer Scripto fountain pens in college–writer Howard Waldrop blogs about them here) and I actually use all my pens now, so I stand behind living the cliche. (And if it mitigates, I aim to write as few cliches as possible with those pens, and when I discover one slipped by, I scratch it out.) When I was first using this box to keep them, I would sometimes sort the pens alphabetically by maker. The little backdiving woman is from a cake top a dear friend (and host of my writing group) made for me (and put on top of a scrumptious cake) when I was about to get married.

I no longer own two of the six pens in the photo. One was a hand-me-down from my ex, and it needed to go. The other, a gift from my husband, I broke the nib, and it wasn’t fixable. (DANG!) But I’ve got some newer beautiful additions to the collection. Perhaps I will post photos some day when I get some spare time.