Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Observations of Elitism in the Pen Community

For the most part the pen community is an inviting, happy place where likeminded people show up to geek out about handwriting, inks, paper, and writing instrument ephemera. You get the same taboo topics (politics, religion, etc.) that you can find in any niche community. At the end of the day there seems to be less animosity among pen users and enthusiasts than other niche communities I’ve observed or been a part.

That’s what I thought, but things change, and apparently I’ve either been blind or stuff is changing at a rather fast clip. What follows is my observations specific to a rising level of elitism that borders on classism I’ve seen crop up among the fountain pen community and spill over into the pen community in general. Mostly this encapsulates my thoughts on the entire situation as an observer more than as someone working in the “industry”.

I’ll be up front and honest about this post. It’s been written before in completely different terms and contexts. But I’ve always scrapped those posts as being far too personal, bordering on unprofessional. I’ll do my best to limit this post and pare the personal opinions down or remove them altogether. I’m really hoping to foster dialogue and debate in the community as a whole. Enough prefacing, let’s start this madness.

For those that don’t know my background I’ll give as brief an example of my “pen journey” as possible. I’ve been “into” pens now for five or six years. I started my personal journey learning to repair fountain pens, then branched out into modern fountain pen collecting, and landed a job at Karas Pen Co. Now I’m active in the community as the Karas Pen Co brand representative to the point it can seem like I’ve lost some of my objectivity, but I assure you that’s really not the case. If anything my job at Karas has allowed me to peel back the layers on a lot of the areas of the pen community I always had problems with and given me a desire to see a healthy community from all aspects, including any potential problems associated directly or indirectly with Karas.

From Day One of my journey there was a very real anti-newcomer/anti-user, pro-collector minority in the pen community. They were small, but they were LOUD. And they were tied with one of the largest, if not the LARGEST brand in the world. They railed against all other brands. Had enough power to get anti-“their brand” posts removed. Would flood those posts that didn’t get removed with comments making it impossible to have any discourse. And really looked down on all pens/brands that didn’t uphold the “luxury” mindset of fountain pens.

In general I dismissed this group immediately and steered clear of them since I never considered myself to be a person that would own one of “their” pens. Financially and stylistically they didn’t suit me. So I didn’t pay them much mind.

But as time has gone on, the same mindset held by “those” people can be seen across the community. Not just with fountain pens, but with ballpoint and rollerball fans and even in the pencil community. The sickness of “me versus you” based on some adopted brand identity is spreading through the writing instrument online communities and even to the groups of users that meet in person. And it’s both surprising and worrisome.

To illustrate my point, I’ll sketch out some situations I’ve seen repeated time-and-again in online writing instrument forums and communities.

A new fountain pen user will post up their surprise and joy at winning an online auction for a Chinese pen at less than a dollar, comment how quickly it arrived, and how pleased they are at how well such an inexpensive pen writes. While there will be a few congratulatory posts, the vast majority will be castigating the purchase. These rants will range from “how could you buy some crap from China”, to “For a few bucks more you could have got a Pilot”, to “it’s gonna break in a couple weeks” or any number of negative posts that only serve to alienate a relatively enthusiastic newcomer.

Now I understand some cheap pens can be problematic, and there needs to be the ability to send out a “buyer beware”. But most of these posts are commenting on inexpensive pens from brands that have a reputation for sending out functional pens. Most won’t be broken immediately or even after months of heavy use. So the comments should be constrained to warnings about actual problems that crop up from those brands.

Another one I see frequently is the denigration of all writing instruments that aren’t fountain pens. There are entire communities numbering in the thousands that loudly call out the terror of ballpoint and rollerball pens. As much as they are badmouthed in those communities you’d think they carried the plague or were seeking to bring back slavery. And god forbid you voice your approval of a ballpoint or rollerball, you’ll be called a Neanderthal, Philistine, fake, and likely a few four letter words as well.

This type of reaction does nothing to promote the benefit that writing provides society. The large majority of people that currently DON’T write with a fountain pen will NEVER write with a fountain pen. But if you get them a cool ballpoint or rollerball you might entice them to put pen to paper more often. The goal of writing instruments is to inspire and assist in the creation of memories, ideas, art, etc. catalogued by placing them on paper. We should never discourage this process of creation. Simply put this is the worst flavor of elitism, a group that has set their own “fill-in-the-blank” above all else and is unswerving in their devotion to that “thing”. This type of thinking is never healthy, and only serves to drive a wedge between two groups that at their core value the same process, if not the same implement in that process.

As I mentioned above there are those loudly promoting one brand or another and all of those things NOT that brand get verbally defecated on. You’ll find this in every community, but for some reason it looms its head large in the luxury items communities. You’ll find divisions even in this community that only like certain elements of a certain brand, or certain timeframes where that company released items.

Similarly there are people that will shout you down if you aren’t supporting small, American made companies. As if the support of small British made, Italian made, etc. companies were “lesser”. While the backstory behind purchasing “Made in USA” is rooted in good intentions and a desire for quality goods, that entire movement has been shot through with rot in the recent days by companies that have a fa├žade of “American Made” but are pretty much American “assembled” or even just “American” shipped. They skirt the rules and regulations but their fans are rabid and often attack anyone that tries to show off alternatives that are of equal or greater quality. The “Made in USA” phenomenon has become as watered down as an Instagram hashtag, it’s an overused term that doesn’t mean what it should and is often attached to a very vocal and verbally violent portion of elitist “gear” users.

Lastly there are those that attach value, both literal and figurative, to the price of the item. This group is probably the most frustrating and many times the most abusive. You can find them flexing their proverbial muscles almost everywhere. They come out when someone posts any pen under a certain price point. They’ll be quick to point out the flaws of the pen and connect those directly to the cost of the pen. They’ll then show off a photo of pricier pens in their personal collection, annotating how they are superior in all aspects.

This is where the classism comes in specifically. Most of these pens are out of the range of 70-90% of pen enthusiasts. They have price tags usually attached to jewelry or mortgage payments. Like fine wines they are rarely exponentially, or even noticeably, “better” than a pen 1/10th their cost. And while many dream of them, those that own them seem to take great pleasure in simply showing photos of them. A similar phenomenon occurs in the knife collecting community, and it’s equally disconcerting. I’ve seen a pen case full of 40 pens or an end table lined with 12 knives, the value of either would easily purchase a $30,000 dollar car. And when asked about how often those pens or knives get used, the owners scoff at the idea of sullying their mint condition items.

I’m not ranting against someone using their hard-earned money to purchase items they assign value to. The problem lies in how the mindset of these collectors becomes vocalized and crafted into condemning new users that can’t or never will be able to afford those luxury goods. They alienate a vibrant, often enthusiastic, group of users that are more equipped at spreading the word of fountain pens than the elitist group is. This larger, less funded, group is far more likely to keep the fountain pen hobby going than the “1%”. There is a place for both groups to coexist but before that can happen there needs to be a “summit” between these groups in the hopes of smoothing things out.

None of this is to say that the sky is falling in the pen community, not the least. But as the community grows, there needs to be people in place that can ensure it grows in a healthy manner and that the unhealthy aspects are fixed before they can spread. I’d hate to see the pen community devolve into a bunch of cliques that are railing against one another incessantly. And I think there is a need for evaluation and when necessary, correction given to those that would do harm in whatever form it may take.

So I hope you read this more as my intent to inform those of you that frequent the pen community so you can be on the lookout for similar instances of elitism. The desire is for the continued growth and diversity of this wonderful community. We can spread our love of writing instruments and the written word, but we are better when we work together than when we focus on our divisions and differences.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

On Writing: Why I Write Pt. 2

Now that we have the long and relatively boring origin story out of the way we can focus on more important things. The ideas that drive me to write. My “writer’s ethos” for lack of a better term. I’ve been told my motivation to write is both sentimental and romantic. That it lacks a lot of mechanical reasoning. I’m perfectly okay with that. I don’t ascribe to the idea that writing has to have a designed purpose. I’m comfortable with the thought of writing for writing's sake. I’m also 100% behind writing for no other reason than to see ink flow on paper or to test the viability of lining up words together just for the pleasure of seeing them sit side-by-side. Writing does not require an end game, many times an end game would completely ruin what needs to be written; and I’m okay with that too.

I’m going to attempt to have a theme for the rest of these posts. This will be difficult for me because I like to jump around and being constrained by one set of thoughts and ideas is often problematic when I’m writing something mostly from “scratch”. That said I’ll do my best to “color within the lines” as I’ve defined them for each post. The themes will take the form of whatever “reason” to write I’ve identified as being important. All of this is a loose set of rules I’m setting for myself and for you the reader. Since importance is really a poor word for what I’m trying to relate, which shows how long I have yet to go where writing is concerned; a better writer wouldn’t require this disclaimer.

For Part 2 I think we should start with a tangible “reason” to write. This is also likely the most applicable to my job at Karas Pen Co since the tangible “reason” to write I’ll be covering will be the writing instrument itself. I don’t plan to land on many specific writing instruments since that’s largely subjective, but I will tie this all into how writing instruments can prompt the act of writing, or foster it, or draw one to desire to write more. The focus will be on the implement itself, and I’ll delve into the emotional/psychological state I sometimes enter with specific pens and pencils, but only as it applies to the writing instrument itself. So much for the boring part of this post, let’s hope the rest of this is more enjoyable to read…and to write.

In the past, I never paid much attention to WHAT I was writing with. For the majority of my writing life, I just used whatever was handy or sometimes what felt comfortable (that really only applies to pencils in my case). When I was in high school and college I made the choice to ONLY write with pencils. My handwriting was far too sloppy for pen use, plus I often needed to erase entire lines of text and start over. Needless to say, pencils were a must. Then I joined the Army, pencils were rarely used. A pen that used black ink was the only acceptable utensil for writing. I used a Fisher Space Pen, the standard black slip cap one, for a long time. It served me for my entire first deployment and most of my second. But even that pen was really only a tool, it never impacted the writing experience in a direct way. I rarely used it for anything other than official documents, my letters were written in pencil.

By the end of my career in the Army, I was doing most of my personal writing on a laptop. Journaling, poetry, and stories were all recorded in a stripped-down word processor that took up little space and was designed to hold LOTS of content. I separated from the Army, failed to back up all my files, and subsequently lost hundreds of documents both professional and personal. After that fiasco, I went through a period where my writing was entirely blogging and wasn’t very imaginative or very good. Then five or six years ago, I got into fountain pens.

My wife convinced me that a fountain pen could help improve my handwriting. I immediately went online and started looking at pictures of fountain pens, rather than finding reviews of fountain pens, something completely out of character for me. Needless to say, I ordered a 1940’s Sheaffer in that lovely green and black striated material off eBay. I had no idea the pen needed to be repaired until it showed up at my house, and in the space of a week, I was off on a trip teaching myself fountain pen repair. This was the beginning of my education in how a writing instrument can dramatically change every aspect of writing.

There is something almost speechless about picking up a truly remarkable pen or pencil. Again, I’m not speaking to specific brands or styles, simply that a person can be a pen or pencil user for years and then one day they are handed a pen or pencil they’ve never used and it falls into their hand, the heavens open, and the Hallelujah chorus starts playing. This concept is one that I first found when I repaired a rather unremarkable looking Sheaffer Triumph Touchdown. The pen had been a beater and seen a lot of heavy use. It took all my skills at the time to repair it and something over 2 hours just trying to seat the rear plunger seal. But when I was done and the pen was inked up, I set it to paper and started writing and the experience was utterly amazing. It was unlike any other writing experience I’d had up to that time. I wrote a page of largely nonsensical statements and set the pen down. Immediately it was back in my hand, and I think I filled another five pages of random writing before I forced myself to stop writing. I’d experienced a pen that MADE me want to keep writing even when I had nothing else to say.

I’ve since run across this numerous times, with pens ranging from two dollar ballpoints to fountain pens costing hundreds of dollars. It’s always a unique almost unsettling experience, especially when the pen is owned by someone else and you have to give it back. But the experience is one, I truly feel everyone should have. It encourages writing in a way that other forms of encouragement simply can’t. It creates a desire to write that is external but serves to push in a way that isn’t nagging or driven by another human. It is also an external driver to write that can be fully controlled by the writer, so you never feel out of control during the process.

The correct writing instrument is also important because so much that we do today is digital. We discount analog instruments as being old fashioned or not user friendly. But the reality is - writing, not simply putting your brain on paper, but the analog process of writing engages the brain in ways that other forms of communication can’t. There are numerous studies listing the benefits of analog writing. Psychologists prescribe it as stress relief and for those that are experiencing anxiety from being in a constantly connected digital world. And the benefits only BEGIN at those points. I’ve come to understand one way to get over hurdles that are often present to new writers is finding that writer the correct pen or pencil. The right instrument that is comfortable, feels like a part of them, encourages them to write, isn’t too difficult to use, and speaks to who they are; all of these are elements that can turn writing from a chore into a daily experience.

For these reasons I highly suggest going out and picking up as many random pens and pencils as possible. Visit pen stores (yes they exist). See if there is a pen meet up in your area. Attend a pen show. All of these situations will bring you in contact with far more writing instruments than you could ever imagine existed. I would wager a new pen that if given a decent amount of writing instruments, you’ll find one that creates that “moment” for you, and I guarantee it will be a life-changing experience.

Too many people are rushing around, spending their time texting frantically, Snapping, or Tweeting and they are missing a truly experiential method of communication that transcends all other methods. Don’t be one of those people, I beg you. I truly wish that all of you would be able to find that pen or pencil that can take you from a person with immense amounts of creative potential to a person that willingly spreads that creative potential onto thousands of pages of paper. Unlock the writer waiting inside you, we all have one. It doesn’t have to be a bestseller to be worth a damn; your writer could help change the life of one random person that reads a message you wrote and left with the check at a restaurant. You never know just what you can do until you begin. I say all great beginnings start with a fantastic pen and a blank piece of paper.

Until next time…keep writing…

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

On Writing: Why I Write Pt. 1

I’ve most likely covered this at times in other blogs. I might have even written something with the same title, though likely not on this scale or with the level of introspection I’m going to put into these posts. The reason I often come back to this topic is that it is often on my mind. As a writer, I frequently receive comments, read articles, or simply have a thought that prompts me to think about this topic. The answer isn’t always exactly the same, while the origin story of my writing is the same, the reasons or the circumstances for that period of time might lead me to respond differently. This series on “Why I Write” will take the reader from my origin story through a myriad of "reasons" I write to a list of items I prefer to use when I write. Some of those reasons will be recurring and others will be reasons I’ve landed on in the moment or recent history, and a few might have been impactful for a specific time in my life. Mostly I want to connect with the reader in a way that prompts them to consider why they write or perhaps help them experience writing differently.

Origins of a Writer

I write because I can’t draw. That statement is anathema to a lot of people. It comes across as relatively strong and sure and somewhat dismissive. You’re reading it but let me be clear I’m saying it in a way that should convey total confidence in you that I mean what I say. I didn’t grow up dreaming about being a writer. I loved to read, but I only fell on writing because I failed time and again at drawing. I grew up dreaming about being a comic book artist.

From the time I could mow a lawn, wash a car, and have a paper route; I read comic books. My mom bought my brother and me comics earlier which started my addiction to them. But she couldn’t afford it very often, so it was more of a luxury. When I was ten or eleven, I began doing small extra chores for money. Mowing our massive front and back yard for five dollars, washing the car for three dollars, I got a paper route that paid something like forty-five dollars a month. There were a lot of things I bought: baseball and basketball cards, G.I. Joes, gum and candy, but comic books were at the top of the list.

I grew up in what I still consider to be the comic book revival. Comics fell off in the 80’s some in quality outside of books like Dark Knight and Watchmen there was a lot of garbage coming from the DC and Marvel. That combined with how poorly artists were paid for their work caused a major move in the comic book industry right at the time I was able to start buying comics with my own money. In the 90’s well-known artists left DC and Marvel and started their own studios. Image comics was the collective these studios worked under, and I fell in love with nearly every release Image put out in their early days.

Artists like Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, and Whilce Portracio left major publications, to create new heroes and villains with new artwork and coloring. Spawn, WildC.A.T.s, Cyberforce, and Wetworks along with numerous other titles were born. Unbeknownst to me, they brought with them one of the best comic book writers of all time, Chris Claremont. I didn’t care about that, all I cared about was the art.

With a great burning desire I invested every leftover cent I had in sketchbooks, mechanical pencils, woodcase pencils, even colored pencils all in a vain attempt to create my own comic book. I checked out every book on drawing the library had (this was pre-internet so the library was a big part of my childhood) and began trying to teach myself how to draw. I went through hundreds of pages of dogs, cars, dinosaurs, sharks, and other random sketchable objects. Weeks turned into months and I flipped through sketchbooks, my heart sank as I turned each page. There was no improvement. I could sketch rough animals, was slightly better at buildings and cars, but when it came to people I was horrendous. There was no other way to put it, I couldn’t draw a person to save my life. If I couldn’t draw people, there was no way I could create my own comic book.

In a fit of anger and sadness, I carried all of the sketchbooks to the trash and tossed them in. Took the leftovers and gave them to my brother. Returned the books on drawing and on a whim checked out Fellowship of the Ring. I barricaded myself in my room and came out when I was done with the series. A new light in my eyes. I went from a fantasy world of comic books to a fantasy world of words. Characters leaped off the page, the thousands of hours of reading comics and attempting to draw had only honed my already well-developed imagination; and they enabled me to see every person, place, and thing in Middle Earth as if I was standing right there.

My brother had taken up the pencils and expanded to paints and other mediums. Where I failed at art, he flourished. Inside I was jealous and a bit angry, but he was my best friend and after a while I simply let it go. Art slowly faded as I finished more and more books, before long I was writing, albeit poorly. Derivative stories of superheroes or fantasy wizards and warriors. My brother and I began talking about collaborating on our own comic book. I’d write it and he’d illustrate it. We never did anything beyond a few panels; it is something I still wish we’d accomplished.

My writing overflowed in nearly every aspect of my life. I had always loved essays and reports, not I craved them. I read voraciously throughout junior high and high school and wrote pages upon pages. Everything from fantasy to reports on small battles in World War II, to poetry, and even a few terrible rap lyrics. I wrote everything by hand until my junior year of high school when I bought an electric typewriter. I’d write by hand when I was out, then take over on the typewriter when I got home. I’d use a three-hole punch and put the typed pages in a binder with the handwritten pages.

Looking back on my origin story, I’m no longer sad and angry about not being able to draw. I found a different medium of creation and expression. Writing is a part of me, it’s integral to who I am and who I’ve become. It’s grown and changed with me as time has gone on. I went from thinking of it mostly as a tool that helped me through school and then, later on, to secure work and now I consider it something of a trusted companion.

Writing is something that transcends the simple task of putting pen to paper. It’s more than arranging letters into words and words into sentences. For me it’s become a way to put myself into the very stories and poems I write. I leave part of myself in every piece. It’s not a conscious decision I make, it just ends up that way. What I write is important to me and so I take pride in it, but I also understand that what I write MIGHT be important to others. I just hope that others who read my pieces take away something from it, and maybe they get to know me a little bit in the process too.