tools of the trade [a&c]

I went to my first pen show when I was in high school, the annual Los Angeles International Pen Show to be specific. According to its outdated website: “started in 1989, [the Los Angeles International Pen Show is] the West Coast’s premier pen show. It brings together pen dealers, collectors, and writing aficionados from around the globe.” Oy vey—what kind of useless garbage am I reading about now, you’re probably asking yourself! Do you think!? The world is crumbling and yet all I can think to write about are writing instruments… meta, I guess.

The first fountain pen I used was one I found on my dad’s desk. If you’re not sure what a fountain pen is, first I’d say that a quick Google search should do the trick; but also, it’s basically just a fancy pen filled with liquid ink that was the standard pen type through the first half of the 20th century. The moral of this story, if you’ll indulge me, is that early in my life I discovered a tool that had long been outmoded and replaced by more advanced technologies. In a very real sense, I had uncovered a relic, and like a relic I treated it with reverence. Over a number of years, I built up a collection of my own. I loved their ornate finishes and luxurious qualities which made them fun to use and to collect. I also appreciated the ritualistic processes that using a fountain pen entailed (filling and cleaning the pen, unscrewing the cap, etc.). Using something so involved and so focused on its purpose brought me closer to the page and to the process of writing. I was making marks—leaving traces.

On January 27 of this year, a large box arrived for me. Within the box and under a lot of packing peanuts sat my new/old typewriter. It’s a pastel green 1965 model Hermes 3000 with curves like a mid-century sports car. It’s beautiful. Though I was initially drawn to the typewriter for its beauty and its novelty, I realize now that I was unwittingly taking my next step into this outdated writing instrument crusade. As a tool, the typewriter, like the pen and unlike a laptop, has one job. When you sit down at the typewriter you’re there to write. Especially if you’re using a manual typewriter, there is a physical connection between the pushing of a key and the swinging of the hammer that stamps out a letter on the page. Typing becomes a musical endeavor. It’s just you and the words coming out of your brain through your fingertips. And unlike a digital document, there remains a physical trace of your efforts that materializes instantaneously.

I didn’t understand all this until recently, but my foray into the world of antiquated writing instruments was revealing a fact about writing that was hidden in plain sight. I was slowly and imperceptibly becoming aware that writing wasn’t as opaque and mysterious as I’d been led to believe. Writing doesn’t come to the solitary literary genius through divine inspiration or through a muse; writing is work. Writing requires more work, more practice, and more intention than one could ever glean from typing on a laptop alone. Writing of any kind is fundamentally a craft in that it is nothing more than the natural product of talent, hard-earned skill through practice, and the proper tools.

Many consider the poet and artist William Blake to have been a visionary genius, a modern prophet. But it’s essential to remember that Blake earned his living in London as a copy engraver, a skilled tradesman. He is also famously eccentric and most likely lived with some combination of undiagnosed mental illnesses—he claimed to have come upon a tree filled with angels as a small boy (an assertion that brought the scolding of his parents upon him). Later he was visited at his home by a friend who reported that Blake and his wife of him were naked in their garden reciting lines from John Milton’s Paradise Lost as if they were Adam and Eve. But that’s all besides the point. I mean to stress that even Blake’s poetry and art, divinely inspired as it might have been, took tactile, human labor to execute.

Taking on the appearance of modern reinterpretations of medieval illuminated manuscripts, Blake’s artistic production was inextricably bound up with the tools and techniques of his day job, incorporating trade skills he learned through years of apprenticeship to older masters of engraving. Examining any one of Blake’s illustrated poetry collections, it is easy to appreciate his mastery of artistic form and language. Maybe his talent was God-given, but his skill was surely man-made. We often neglect to acknowledge the years of training, reading and learning it must have taken to properly etch a design into a copper plate, to hand water color the printed pages, and to execute poetic verse. As multimedia creator John Green succinctly put it Wednesday night during his visit to Brown’s Salomon Center, artistic creation is never a solitary process, but a dense web of collaboration with the world around us and the past.

Far from presenting an unmediated view of whatever divine force that Blake used as his mouthpiece, Blake’s poetry is suffused with the language of his literary antecedents: principally, the Bible and Milton. As readers, we pick up a finished product, complete and refined as if nature itself had always meant for it to be that way. A great work of literature is like a smooth stone washed up on the shore; all we see is a perfect totality of form, not the millions of years of continuous waves that polished something rough into something simply beautiful.

I also like to think of the great writer as a great magician, a master of illusion. Writing something worth reading is akin to making someone’s ace of spades jump from the deck into their pocket. The precision of the craftsman, the wonderful effect produced as a result, distracts the audience or reader from the unglamorous and often messy work that allows the finished product to materialize. As readers, we don’t see the endless drafts, the hundreds or thousands of rewrites, edits, and cuts: all we see is a finished page.

Writing, like any craft, should be a continuous wandering. The goal is to stay moving forward, but that doesn’t mean straight ahead. Writing does not miraculously manifest itself on a page: it comes through constant iteration, failure, invention, and effort. This all might be obvious to you but it wasn’t always obvious to me. It’s a fact that’s better learned through experience than intellectualized. I found my way towards this level of understanding by connecting with the tools that make writing possible. I wanted physical remnants of my work, haptic nodes charting my limitless searching for self expression, connection, and understanding. You do not need fountain pens or a typewriter to appreciate this way of creating, these were just my particular ways in.

Endings are good places to take stock of the journey you’ve just been on; endings are the season of reflection. I sit at my desk by the window typing this out with only a couple of weeks left before I graduate. I feel so much gratitude for all, from Brown and beyond, who’ve shepherded me and my writing along the way. In particular I want to thank my parents without whom none of this would be possible; Emma Schneider and all the other generous, insightful, and patient editors at post- who’ve taken a chance on me and my writing these past few years; and Professor Joe Pucci in the Classics Department who, more than anyone, taught me the importance of going beyond the first draft and whose passion for supporting students might only be matched by his love for Diet Snapple.

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