Eight days ago I restarted a fresh journal from the stash in my closet. I say restart because, as is the case with many of my closet notebooks, I’d written in it at some point and then torn out those pages. In my intermittent diarist days I did that a lot. This particular journal had come from Italy by way of Barnes and Noble. There were 348 lined, cream-colored pages remaining to be filled. I opened to page one and contemplated my pen cup.
My current journal frugality has not extended to writing instruments. Indeed, writing every day plus watching YouTubers from the planning and journaling community may have encouraged me to buy more pens and pencils than I need, strictly speaking. Years of marking music in pencil—practically the first thing you learn—also may be a factor. I like to be able to write, highlight, underline, circle, and doodle in any color that appeals at the moment. Therefore, the pen cup on my desk contained a small but representative portion of my collection of colored pencils, markers, brush pens, roller ball pens, ballpoint pens, felt tip pens, fountain pens, etc. I’m always happy to invest in a pen that doesn’t make my hand cramp like the old Bic ballpoints that came in packs of twenty.
Even the most recalcitrant ballpoint takes way less effort than the first “pens,” the chisels and styluses suitable to inscribe stone, metal, and clay. Writing developed independently in at least four ancient civilizations, but it’s thought that the Egyptians were the first to make paper, which they did using the papyrus plant. They wrote on papyrus with pens made from reeds. The next big development in pen technology was the quill pen, whose tip needed to be sharpened frequently, followed by steel-point pens, whose tips were more durable. All of these pens needed to be dipped in ink. Fountain pens, which can hold a reservoir of ink, started appearing in the seventeenth century, although Leonardo da Vinci may have gotten there first, as he did with so many things. By the 1800s fountain pens were common. The next big thing in pen tech was the ballpoint pen, which used faster drying ink, followed by felt tip pens, roller ball pens, gel pens, and space pens that can write in zero gravity, underwater, and upside down.
I haven’t yet got hold of a space pen, but I was planning to use every pen class that I own for a pen test on page one. Such a test is practically de rigueur for journal enthusiasts, though it’s more commonly located near the end of the book. However, I prefer it on the first page; it takes away the pressure of writing something profound.
I picked out a fountain pen, one of the pre-filled ones that Zebra sells in sets of four. I went through a brief fountain pen phase in my mid 20s which led to inky fingers, blobs on the paper, and leaks. Lots and lots of leaks. I bought the Zebras on a whim and found them delightful: they don’t leak and they glide on the page. Or, so they did until Pen Test Day, when the nib scratched over the surface of the paper, barely making a mark. The fancy Italian paper, smooth to the touch, turned out to have the kind of tooth that a great white shark would envy. (“Tooth” being a textured quality in paper that “grabs” the pen or pencil.) I tried a different angle, a different fountain pen. Same results.
My dismay mounted as pen after pen turned out to write poorly or not at all. The brush tips, markers, highlighters, and colored pencils worked fine and didn’t show through on the other side. The only pen that wrote well was a gel pen.
I only had one gel pen in the house.
I considered returning the journal to the closet, picking another. Instead I went shopping for gel pens. With more than 300 pages to fill I figured I’d need a few extra.
Still, I felt a little resentful as I wrote entries with gel pens only. At some point I’d paid $25 for this journal in all its glory. I searched online to see if there were people who’d reported issues with this paper and found…positive review after review, many of which mentioned how great this paper was for fountain pens and practically every kind of pen. I turned to my current page (page thirty) and tried one of the Zebras. And it worked. I took the same pen back to page one; it didn’t work there. My other fountain pens worked on page thirty, and page thirty-one, and so did the ballpoints, and the rollerballs, and all of the other pens!
I apologized to the journal for misjudging it. A little part of me was ashamed of my pettiness; another part was thankful that I hadn’t tried a back page on that first day…more pens in my arsenal…