This is the sound of me writing. Specifically, it’s the sound of me writing this Iteration. I’m using a Slate Gray Pilot Prera fountain pen with a medium nib, loaded with my favorite ink: Namiki IC-100 in blue/black. While I typically sketch and jot down ideas on paper, I do most of my actual writing in an app called Bear, which I’ve used for a number of years. But for the past several weeks, I’ve been going back and forth on getting a new iPad to replace my aging second-generation mini along with an Apple Pencil so that I could potentially retain the feeling of analog writing on a digital device. What I found is that while the mechanics of writing on the iPad might be the same, the feel isn’t even close—and that’s where it falls apart for me.
I have always been what’s commonly known as a “sensory seeker,” which is basically someone who has a tendency to gravitate towards experiences that engage the five senses. For me, smell and touch are the big ones, with sound following close behind. I don’t like pure silence at all—if I’m not listening to music, I’ll often have a noise generator or something like Coffitivity on in the background while I’m working. The same goes for trying to fall asleep—having some sort of noise is a must. I actually love working on the sofa in the living room of our house because under one of the end tables is a mechanical timer from the 70s that turns the lights on and off and the subtle sound of the gears whirring inside is oddly satisfying. On the other hand, random creaks and rattles drive me bananas. I’m definitely my father’s son in that regard—he had folded bits of paper and little pieces of toothpicks jammed into the dash of his 1974 Ford pickup to silence the random noises that bothered him. He added to it so much over the years that it got to a point that adjusting the radio or turning on the air conditioning was like playing a game of Operation. Adrianne loves to share the story of how well I packed our Honda Fit when, over the course of a week, we drove about 2,600 miles from California to Maryland without so much as a peep from the back of the car.
As much as I love the iPad as a device, I really can’t stand writing on it with the Apple Pencil. The almost frictionless feeling of writing on glass punctuated by the occasional “tick, tick, tick” of the plastic tip against the screen feels way too sterile than what my sense-driven self is looking for. And I know there are “paper-like” screen protectors and third-party tips that claim to capture the feel of writing on actual paper, but they don’t. Not really. Not for me at least. The only thing I’ve found that gets close is a capacitive stylus from Studio Neat called The Cosmonaut. The tip is much softer than the Apple Pencil and the rubber barrel is large, almost like the fat pencils we used in kindergarten when we were learning to write. So maybe it’s not that the experience itself is better at all as much as it taps into some sort of childhood nostalgia, which is satisfying on a different level.
I’ve said for years that I’m happiest when my hands are in motion. While for the past several years that’s primarily been tied to painting, I think it also applies to writing, which I’m doing more and more of. In the same way that I use different brushes, scrapers, and palette knives for different reasons when I paint—because it’s not just about the type of marks the tool makes—I have a variety of different tools I use to draw and write. For example, I have more than a dozen different kinds of pencils, each with characteristics that makes them uniquely suited to a specific task, and each of them feels different in my hand. The same goes for pens—a fountain pen feels very different than a Rapidograph, which feels different than a Bic, even though all of them are ostensibly used to make characters and lines. The way you hold them, the quality of the line they produce, even the sound they make against the paper—which is a whole other thing—all affect the experience of using them. The great writer Neil Gaiman, who has a collection of more than 60 fountain pens, said, “I discovered I loved the fact that handwriting forces you to do a second draft, rather than just tidying up and deleting bits on a computer. I also discovered I enjoy the tactile buzz of the ritual involved in filling the pens with ink.” I love that and I completely agree with him. My biggest concern with the Apple Pencil on the iPad—which I think proved to be true even in the short time I had with it—is that the lack of tactility and the almost clinical experience of using it would affect how and, maybe more importantly, how often I might allow myself to use it.
So what’s the takeaway from all of this? Well, I think for me it’s that sensory experiences are important not just when I’m making art but even when it comes to work and productivity, because it’s all part of the same kind of expression. There’s also the experience of really knowing a tool well enough that it disappears when you use it and just allows you to focus on the making or the task, whatever it is. I still love my Fuji X-Pro1 for exactly that reason. Well, that and I love the quality of the images it produces. But I’ve used it for so long that I don’t have to think about it at all while I’m using it, and isn’t that one of the signs of a great tool?
What are some of your favorite tools that you find difficult to be without?
How do those tools affect what and how you make?
If this Iteration has gotten you thinking about writing more or perhaps taking up writing or journaling for the first time, Jet Pens (which I also linked to above) has some terrific guides to help get you started. And if you’d like to deep dive all things pens, pencils, and paper, check out The Pen Addict podcast. Since 2012, hosts Brad Dowdy and Myke Hurley have been having weekly chats about all things stationary and are a wealth of information and insights.
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In 2013 ESR, a famous software developer, wrote a blog post noting how keyboards are not and should not be considered as a detail for anyone doing any amount of work on a computer. Indeed, anyone who ever writes on a buckling spring or even your usual "mechanical" keyboard will confirm this - they can actually significantly improve your overall wellbeing.
In photography, I truly believe that your camera choice will impact your mindset which in turn impacts the work you produce. I take different pictures with my leica than I do with my rolleiflex. You _can_ take amazing images regardless of the camera, but the right camera just makes it that much more enjoyable and puts you in a better mood for the lack of the better word.
Similar thing goes for writing, I guess. Even within fountain pens, my writing is so subtly different when using my fine pilot 823 vs using a custom ground pilot nib which is much slower to write with. Can you write a novel with a bic? You sure can, but you're not going to have as much fun with it.
So to answer your question in a roundabout way, I think the answer is a matter of priority. If I was in a portrait phase, I would put 500cm over Rolleiflex any day. But as a general tool, I prefer the latter.
With that in mind, a few items without which I'd be genuinely upset:
1. Pilot 823 in fine on midori paper
2. Ergodox keyboard with cherry switches
3. Rolleiflex TLR and Leica rangefinders
I love learning terms that explain what's going on in my head. Sensory seeker explains so much. So when I discovered what misophonia was, I felt an odd peace come over me, knowing that I wasn't just weird.
Tools are such an integral part of daily life that I could go on for days about them. I, too, don't care for writing on the iPad, even with the Paperlike screen protector. Not only is the physical feeling of writing missing, but I also spend too much time fiddling with the app.
But I also think the tool(s) we use are a reflection of maybe mood, task, or environment. For example, I have become a fan of journaling in the Zequez Classic 360 journal (Austin Kleon). I typically use a Pilot G2 07 pen over one of my fountain pens primarily for ease and replaceability. I think, over time, I have bent the knee to practicality. I can buy a new pen anywhere rather than worry about running out of ink.
Cameras are more specific. If I feel experimental and what to play with exposure and film simulations, I grab the Fuji X100v. If I have time and what to slow down, I grab a film camera. The process is a massive element for me, so much so that I enjoy making more than the result.