Pen, mightier than keyboard…?

I was talking to my friend the other day about pens and we found that we not only share strong views on ‘what pen it is best to use’ but also the importance of the relationship the writer has with said pen. In brief, it was all about the biro – of various types, including the Papermate and of course the trusty Bic – while squeaky nibbed pens and gel filled ones were to be avoided. I think the biro triumphed for both of us (at early ages) because it was good for lots of writing, and this allowed an apparently strong connection to develop between the ink curling out of the nib, the sense of the words and the person writing them.

The first pen I can remember being so attached to that it became part of the writing process was a very cheap biro that was impersonating an expensive pen. Myself and my friend discovered that neither of us like costly pens, not merely because they are expensive, but because they are heavy with a tapered barrel making them harder to hold and even more difficult to write with – and, as already stated, it is the writing that is the point of the pen. However, at the young age of eleven I was the proud owner of an inexpensive plastic pen (that was pretending to be a Parker ballpoint) and I loved this pen, I loved writing with this pen, and I had an almost paralysing fear that its ink would run out. It was paralysing because I had tried on numerous occasions to discover how to refill the pen, but like everything else concerning it, the suggestion that it could be refilled (it had several sections that partially unscrewed) was also fraudulent. I think this indicates something important about the duplicity of writing, i.e. that the first pen I relied upon to write was indeed a fake. Yet despite this knowledge, my reliance was total and my fear of the ink running dry was really a fear that without this pen my writing would cease to flow.

This memory – shared so powerfully with my friend – has made me think again about writing. At the risk of sounding ignorant, I want to know how children relate to writing now, is it through the medium of a pen, or is it the keyboard? The latter, it has to be admitted (particularly on a blog post) is also good for lots of writing. Yet they are not the same, although I will not go so far as to claim the superiority of one over the other, the pen stroke and the keystroke obviously mediate between the writer and the writing in different ways. There is no doubt, for example, that the keyboard as pen has produced widely published writing (through the ‘pages’ of social media) that helps mobilise political movements. Yet the kind of writing I am evoking, of the emotive, singular, ‘I can only write with this…’ variety, is still replicated in ‘youth’ culture in terms of graffiti – through which the choice of paint (ink) and the tag (signifier) are crucial to understanding what the writing means.

A long time ago, Derrida deconstructed the privileging of speech over writing, in particular the ‘common sense’ view that speech precedes writing – i.e. it is a more immediate, or present, form of expression. He argued instead that speech is writing. Yet there is even more to be written about writing now…

Take, for example, the sense in this blog post that handwriting comes before keyboard writing, or rather the privileging of hand over key. If we take Derrida’s model of speech as writing – or rather that what we perceive as second, probably comes first – then the handwritten is mostly likely written through the keyboard of the pen. It is only my nostalgia that makes the handwritten more ‘present’, more real in my memory, when in fact the advent of the keyboard illustrates that whatever the means of writing there is to hand – it is only ever a cipher for language.

About ejpollard

I was awarded my PhD from Manchester Metropolitan University, UK in December 2013. My thesis explored the notions of origin and ellipsis in the writing of contemporary British novelist Hilary Mantel. I want this blog to express the ideas I have in and around my academic writing. View all posts by ejpollard

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