July 7, 2008

“A, B, C, It’s Easy…” – Jackson Five, Part III – Putting My Fingers on It

Posted in journal-keeping, Uncategorized, Writing tagged , at 12:05 am by otherdeb

This post is by Gwen Knighton Raftery. When I read the original posts on her LiveJournal, I was blown away with how well they would fit in this series. She graciously consented to combine them and let me use them as my first guest post.

Gwen Knighton Raftery lives in London with her family. She has one husband, one son, two stepdaughters, one kitty cat, and a wi-fi bunny called Pleather. She frequents folk clubs around London. Gwen knits often. She loves singing, writing, telling stories, working with her hands, making other people smile, people, the stars, clouds, magic of all descriptions, and being herself. She gives time, hugs, stories, advice, and the rest of herself freely. Gwen writes songs about all of the above, and sometimes Y.

Putting My Fingers On It

In June of 1984, my uncle sent me a Sheaffer pen set as a high school graduation gift. I’m not a pen collector; I couldn’t tell you what the model was or anything like that. I don’t remember what happened to the matching ballpoint; I only remember what it looked like in comparison to the fountain pen. They were both black and gold, and the ballpoint was skinny and annoying, but the fountain pen? The fountain pen was magic. The fountain pen came with cartridges and this nifty converter thing. You could use the converter to put any colour of ink you wanted into the barrel of the pen and write in any colour you liked. A lot of high school graduates get pens from old uncles they haven’t seen in half a dozen years or more, and I think most of them must go right back into their boxes, and then right into the back of the sock drawer. Mine went immediately into my pocket. I used it for everything. After experiments with cheap Sheaffer ‘no nonsense’ pens in high school, I had a pretty good idea of how to write with a fountain pen, but getting used to an 18k gold nib took some time.

What did I love about that fountain pen? What didn’t I love would be the more accurate question. In the days of cheap Bic ballpoints and fat pencils, when a few of my friends even had personal computers, what was a geek like me doing with a fountain pen?

Simple. I was writing. I never had to go through the annoying ritual of rolling the tip of the pen around on another piece of paper before I got started: the ink just flowed out of the tip. I never had the ‘left-handed’ problem of oil from my hand on the paper making the ballpoint freak out and refuse to write in that little spot: my Sheaffer handled everything. The only thing, the one and only thing, I didn’t like about it was it could not change colours instantly. I had to clean it first. I became fastidious about that pen, and I never lost it or damaged it.

In my 20s, I bought three or four more Sheaffers. I briefly flirted with other pen manufacturers: Parkers were too skinny and the nibs felt scratchy; Watermans just seemed a bit foofy; Mont Blancs were obviously made for people who wanted other people to see them carrying a Mont Blanc and weren’t meant to write with at all. I developed a love for good sepia inks. I wrote most of my college poetry on legal pads, with a brushed aluminium Sheaffer carrying sepia ink I bought from art supply stores. Occasionally, I’d buy some cartridge ink just to experience another colour, but I always went back to that lovely red brown, I think because it reminded me of painstakingly hand-lettered invitations. It also looked great on the yellow legal pads I liked to write in when I was in college (twenty cents apiece at the grocery store, and you know I had to scrimp on the paper a bit after spending $30 or more on individual pens).

Some of my friends investigated fountain pens when they saw me writing with one. Only a few of them ever became comfortable with a fountain pen; it really was the decade of the ballpoint, I think. When things like gel pens and uniballs started to be readily available, I guessed I’d lost the fight. The only friends of mine who were still using fountain pens were, you know. The sort of people who like to be seen using a fountain pen. In solitude, I’m sure they switched back to their Bics.

I loved the Sheaffer Targa I bought in 1988 more than any other pen I’ve ever owned. It was made of brushed aluminium, and it had a stainless steel nib. All silvery, no gold. That suited me just fine: it was a pen made to be written with, not to be admired by other people. It was just my pen. The Sheaffer had a weight on the nib that I liked. It fell against the third finger of my left hand like a lover’s arm in sleep: not too heavy, and comforting enough that sometimes I’d hold it in my hand, just to feel the balance of the pen. That weight in my hand, that ink waiting to be freed onto the paper, made me feel, every time I picked up that pen, as if I had something to say. The other Sheaffers were good like that, too, but that Targa? Mm. I was in love. I fancied that it grew in to me and adjusted to my hand as the years went by, and I am afraid I wasn’t kind to people who’d maybe snatch the pen off my desk to write something down. Nobody but me was allowed to use that pen. That was a rule. We were monogamous.

In my mid-twenties, I moved away from writing poetry by hand with sexy fountain pens. I had a baby to think about. But whenever I came back to them, my beautiful Sheaffers, all clean and flushed with water or pen cleaner, all waiting in their little box, they never minded that I’d been away. Somehow, writing a grocery list or notes at work didn’t seem as magical as writing poetry. Those pens wanted to write poetry. So I put them away, time after time, because I didn’t have time to write poetry anymore. And uniballs were nice, and you could get gel pens in sparkly colours.

Something happened to me in 1999, and I became a songwriter. I was also making a bit more money than I had in college twelve years earlier. I wrote half a song on my kitchen table with a Pilot gel pen and then realised it was taking so long to get the story down because that pen wasn’t the right one. Where was my Targa? Safe in the box. Ink? Out. I drove halfway across Atlanta to an art supply store because the clerk recognised the word ‘sepia’ when I asked about writing inks over the phone. I folded up the song-in-progress and took it with me, because you can’t just leave something like that lying around on your kitchen table. I bought two little bottles of sepia ink and a plain writing tablet, and I went to a coffeeshop for a latte and some quiet, and by the time I got home, my husband and son were cross with me because I hadn’t told them where I was going. (This incident led directly to my first mobile phone, but my ongoing obsession with mobile phones, PDAs, laptop computers, and other gadgets much more shiny and automatic than a Sheaffer fountain pen is beyond the scope of this piece.)

Not long after the ink incident (and armed with a Samsung flip phone that could access my email, yowza!), it occurred to me that it might be nice to have a notebook, you know, to keep songs in. One small enough to fit in my purse so I could carry it everywhere. I picked up a cheap, fat, spiral-bound notebook, and I wrote dozens of songs in it before I realised it just wasn’t, I don’t know, pretty enough to be seen out on a date with my Targa in the little French restaurant where I used to go to write songs on my lunch break. I ended up in a new age shop, pricing Oberon Leather notebooks. They had a lovely one that was really a book cover, small enough to fit in my purse, in dark green leather, with oak leaves and acorns on. It had a matching pewter button. How could I resist?

Over the next three years or so, I wrote dozens of songs. They all got recorded, in various stages of done-ness, and with all their work showing, in that book, or in the other plain book I slipped inside the green leather cover when I’d filled that one up. My beautiful, brushed aluminum Targa, now fourteen years old, danced on every page, even when I switched to blue ink just because I wanted to. In 2002, during a traumatic move (is any move not traumatic?), my pen box, with four Sheaffer fountain pens, several bottles of ink, and several packages of ink cartridges in case of emergencies, was lost. It was a rough time in my life, and I am almost ashamed to say that I didn’t even notice they were gone, though I might have vaguely looked for them and assumed they’d ended up in a box somewhere. The song books, old and new, those weren’t lost.

It is 2008, and I haven’t written a decent song (by my standards) in five years. I haven’t written anything that couldn’t be composed on a computer or my PDA for a long time now. Whether it was life getting in the way in the form of me being happy for the first time in a long time, or something else, I haven’t felt the pull to write songs, much less poetry, for some time. I’m writing novels, blog entries, short vignettes, but not really songs or poetry. And at some point a few weeks ago, I realised I want to change that.

I took down the still-unfinished songbook currently in the leather cover. It was about 3/4 of the way full, with a lot of unfinished fragments in it. I leafed through it and thought there were some things there that had potential, and then I put it in my purse. The next day, I took the book out and put it on my desk at work. I didn’t write anything, but I did flip through it and consider what I had written. There were fragments in the book from as long ago as ‘fall 2000’, neatly copied from book to book as the good stuff I might edit into real songs later. I copied a song fragment I’d found on a folded up piece of paper tucked inside the songbook cover. It was from 2006; maybe I’d come back to this and looked at it before. It felt good to copy a song, even an unfinished one from two years ago, into the back of that book, to carefully date it and note it down in small, neat hand so it could be added to or edited later. I flipped back through the songbook again, surprised to remember every tune that went with every unfinished song, not just the ones with the solfeggio noted down in the margins. Somewhere, in an alternate universe, these were real songs, I decided. Time to bring those universes back into sync.

The rituals creative people build around the act of creation, the steps of it, like a dance, those are the framework that enable us to construct a door that can be opened. What are my rituals? What were my rituals? There were the pens. There were the songbooks, fragments copied from book to book, the comfortable, familiar cover of the songbooks, the careful notes of dates and times, the margin notes and repetitions of things I wasn’t done with. That’s what I needed to recapture.

First, I thought about the pens. I went looking for the sort of pens I used to use and found that fountain pens have got more expensive over the last fifteen years. Research led me to some great UK-based pen shops, the Fountain Pen Network, and of course ebay, and it turns out that according to most people I know who are into fountain pens (and I was quite surprised to find out how many people I knew who were into fountain pens!), the contemporary inexpensive fountain pen that gives the most bang for buck (particularly for somebody who doesn’t care for Parkers) is the Lamy Safari. Lamy is a German company, and before I started this pen research I had never heard of them. Now, I could have held out for a Sheaffer on ebay, but my beloved Targas are going for £20 and up, and I just don’t have it. So I did some more research and found out that Ryman’s (a stationery chain based in the UK) carries the Lamy Safari.

Then, I began to consider the songbook. I thought back to the last time I’d replaced the book on the inside. It had been six years, and the spine on the interior book was breaking. Maybe I’d break the mold and buy a real Moleskine this time, leave the cover behind. That might be a way forward. As it turned out, the Ryman’s I visited had both the Safari and several species of A6 notebook. In the end, I went with a cheaper A6 notebook, because the Moleskine was just too expensive.

It was a Thursday evening. I got the family dinner behind me and sent the husband and son upstairs to surf the net (not that they needed much encouragement). I inked the Lamy and tested it on a plain piece of paper. Despite the near-weightlessness of the pen in comparison to my Sheaffers, it felt like the same process, if with a slightly skinnier partner. I needn’t have done a test stroke on that extra piece of paper: it was ready to write almost immediately upon having been inked. What a lovely feeling. And then, over the next four or five hours (time got away from me), I went through the previous songbook, line by line. I copied old things that felt promising into the new book, put aside things that were not ever going to become songs, and let my hand get used to the Lamy. Writing the songs down by hand just seems to connect me to them, even if they were written eight years ago. Every one has a history, but whether that history will go forward is a question only the pen, and I, and the next few pages of that precious little notebook can answer. But now, now I am back in the circle of songwriting. Now I have my setting secure, my tools in their places. I’ve got my fingers on it. It’s only a matter of waiting for the moon to rise.



  1. Dorcia Wellington said,

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    • otherdeb said,

      @dorcia.wellington: Welcome to my little corner of the Internet.

      Actually, the better link is http://thedanglingconversation.net. The blog has been dormant for a bit, but I’ve been planning on picking it up again.

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