Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On the Sensory Pleasures of Putting Pen to Paper

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On the Sensory Pleasures of Putting Pen to Paper

By Becky Toyne

A few months ago, I lost a pen. A beautiful fountain pen with one of those squeezy ink chambers that you fill from an old-school inkpot. The pen had been a university graduation gift from my parents and I loved it. It fell out of my coat pocket somewhere between where I was going and where I had been, never to be written with again. I scoured the sidewalk and gutter for it the next day, but it was gone.

A few weeks ago, I happened upon a short documentary in the National Screen Institute Online Short Film Festival. Ink: Written by Hand features Toronto-based artist Tanja Tiziana sharing her burgeoning love affair with pen, ink and calligraphy as a calm and creative form of expression in a tap-tap-hurry digital age. I watched the film twice, and then, in a fit of back-to-schooly, must-buy-stationery exuberance, I headed out to invest in a replacement pen.

Situated down an alleyway in a crafty industrial enclave in Toronto’s east end, WonderPens, which Tiziana visits in Ink, is a pen-and-ink-lover’s dream. More specifically, it is a dream for “pen people” and for “ink people,” for co-owner Jon Chan sees these as two discrete kinds of customer. Cubbies filled with ink pots with intriguing names (Noodler’s Black Swan in Australian Roses, to pick just one at random) line the store’s back wall, pots and tins stuffed with pens of different colours fill a centre table, and a cabinet framing the cash register boasts row upon row of fancier writing tools. Behind the cabinet, a chalk-board wall declares, in the words of Charles Dickens (and in perfect cursive, of course), “There was something very comfortable in having plenty of stationery.” I introduced myself to Jon, and explained that I had seen his store in the movies. Also, that I wanted to buy a pen.

I don’t see too many other people whipping out their benibbed implements in business meetings, and so while Jon showed me his wares, I asked him whether he thinks fashion is moving in the fountain pen’s favour these days. Its popularity, he thinks, is on the rise, for reasons of nostalgia, yes, but of practicality too. “I think a lot of people who haven’t used a fountain pen or a pen in a while, they return to it because of nostalgia. But there are studies out there which prove that it helps memory and learning to write with a pen and paper,” he says. “Whether that can ever be replaced, I don’t know, but I do think, personally, that when you’re writing a letter to someone versus writing an email, you really do take the time to think about what you’re doing when you’re putting pen to paper.”

He’s right about that. In a slew of articles reacting to the decline of cursive handwriting in schools, experts have suggested there are many benefits to learning and comprehension when we write by hand instead of typing. The act of scratching something down helps commit it to memory. And, similarly, studies have shown that we retain more information when we read on paper than when we read on a screen. With this in mind, is it surprising that while other technological advances move the experience ever further from the analogue original, e-reading strives – with features such as wooden “bookshelves” and page-turn animation complete with soft background swoosh – to replicate as closely as possible the experience of reading a physical book? Ink-on-paper maintains an edge, though try not to give yourself a paper cut on it.

For two summers now, stores have been awash with colouring books for grown ups. Colouring socials have cropped up in bars and community spaces. Career moms have picked up their many-coloured pencils in search of some Me Time after work. Articles about why this might be cite the therapeutic nature of unplugging and engaging in a multi-sensory, tactile creative pursuit that doesn’t involve eyeballs pointed at a screen or a vague panic that your battery might soon be dead.

At WonderPens, Jon Chan and his wife and co-owner Liz offer a number of pen-and-ink social events and workshops, including free cursive lessons for kids and letter-writing groups for grown-ups, and paid calligraphy instruction. With its combination of nostalgia, creativity and tactility, might calligraphy be to summer 2016 what adult colouring was to the summer just past?

I left WonderPens with a cheap, fine-nibbed pen for making editorial squiggles on documents (yes, I still print those), and treated myself to a rather handsome Watermark to replace my fallen-from-the-pocket graduation gift. Back at my desk, I watched the Ink documentary one last time, before switching off my computer, opening up a brand-new notebook, and drafting this column longhand. There was, as Tanja Tiziana says in the documentary, “a slowness” to controlling the flow of ink onto the blank page, and a calmness knowing that it wouldn’t go to sleep if I paused too long before committing to a thought. And though I was writing for work, it felt a little like leisure: the therapeutic pleasure of putting pen to paper.

Becky Toyne is a freelance books columnist, editor and literary event publicist. She is the "Should I Read It?" columnist for Day 6 on CBC Radio One, and her writing about books, publishing and Toronto's literary scene has appeared in the Globe & Mail, National Post and Open Book: Toronto. Becky is a regular host and interviewer at literary events including Word on the Street, the International Festival of Authors, and the Toronto Literary Salon, and a freelance publicist for the Writers' Trust of Canada. Find her online at or follow her @MsRebeccs.

You can find past columns by Becky Toyne in the Open Book Archives.

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