04 June 2006

What we write with

Some words we step over, most days. We come across them and step over them or take a small detour; carry on where we were heading. Like “fountain pen”—actually two words, but never mind. I found it on page 124 of my copy of The English Patient [1]:

She writes everything down. Then puts the fountain pen into the drawer of the small table where she keeps the book she is reading to him, along with two candles, Vesta matches.

Most days I’d step over “fountain pen”, knowing it well, sometimes writing with one, enjoying the feel of the nib sliding over clean paper, the shape of ideas appearing for the first time, the long flow of ink drawing words into existence. Words like “fountain pen” in these sentences. Because I know the phrase well, it doesn’t break my stride—I read those last two words on page 124; the image arises; certain connections form, and my eye flicks to the top of the next page,

into the drawer of the small table
An image of ink drying; a cap closing over a gold nib; nearby, a heavy bottle sitting on a sheet of extensively stained blotting paper—its soft, thick feel no longer as common as when Hana closed that pen as her war drew to a close.

The pages of my copy of the book resemble blotting paper; just a little less soft, a little less absorbent. If I touched the nib of a fountain pen to one of those pages the ink would spread along the fibres as if the page were trying to suck words from the pen. Nothing I wrote would be clear.

The images and the connections they make now locate “fountain pen” in the past. The candles and the Vesta matches—particularly the Vestas—confirm it, make it more precise, move it further back but not too far; they give it a period. I’ve held Vestas. I know what they are and what they look like; the size, colour, and texture of the box; but, unlike fountain pens, few people now can form this detailed an image—for them, the connotations are intellectual rather than experiential. Most people, I suspect, will detour around “Vesta matches”, appreciating the detail, the specificity, but not able to step straight over the image.

Usually, this is what we do with unfamiliar words, and the next time we encounter them they’re a little less unfamiliar—with each encounter we come to know them a little better; each context adds a little more understanding, until at last we find ourselves taking them in our stride.

Sometimes unfamiliar words stop us. The detour seems too far; obstructed, we stop reading and hunt for information—definitions, which are often unhelpful, and examples, which are often better than definitions, particularly because we now have two: the example that stopped us and the example we sought.

But some days we’re stopped in our tracks by familiar words. Words we've met many times and usually consider ordinary. We read “fountain pen” and something arrests us; we read past the small table, the candles, and the Vesta matches and find we haven’t really gone anywhere. We’re still back at the fountain pen, wondering; captivated by something. But what? Is it that “fountain pen” is at last beginning to become unfamiliar—if not to us, then maybe to the biro and felt-tip generation, and certainly to the keyboard kids? Is it the knowledge of the accumulating unfamiliarity that draws attention to the words?

Or perhaps it’s because the words, like the pens themselves, are becoming rare. We read them and something taps us on an ankle, trips us; something that says, “Look, it’s been a while since you’ve seen those words.”

Then you begin to notice the strangeness of the words—why “fountain pen”? To fountain would seem to be the last thing you’d want a pen to do. Generations of designers struggled to prevent pens from doing exactly that; strove to design the pen that could be relied on never to gush over your page or piss in your pocket. You wonder; you don’t step over the words, nor detour around them—you circle, inspect, explore; and the more you do so, the more you feel you’re seeing them for the first time.

When you finally pick up the book again to read on, you know those words differently. Maybe you think you understand them better; maybe not; maybe you think you understand them less. What you do know is this—you appreciate them more.

I'm looking after Dirk, Miep, and the marvellous house at Eastbourne, and struggling to process photos on a computer with too little memory and too slow a processor—a bit like me, I think. So, you only get three photos. Sorry.
[1] Ondaatje, Michael 1992 The English Patient. London, Picador (Pan Books). 302 pp. ISBN 0 330 32754 2.

(click on the first two if you want larger images; the third is full size (blogger being uncooperative)):
1. Mere illustration
(see note 2 on this post).
2. Pihoihoi, New Zealand pipit, Anthus novaeseelandiae. Eastern shore of Wellington harbour, south of Point Arthur.
Piwakawaka, New Zealand fantail, Rhipdura fuliginosa. loc. cit.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor


Clare said...

Interesting as always Pete. I tend to trip over words on a regular basis, wishing I had a greater capacity for language.

Love the photo of the Piwakawaka. Does it have a crest? Or is that the "just crawled out of the nest" look?

bev said...

I trip over words too, and enjoy musing over them or the images they might evoke. Your musing over the word "fountain pen" brought back a very clear and cherished memory from a dozen or so years ago when I was finishing up a degree at university. The man who sat next to me in one of my graduate courses was ninety-two, I believe. At ninety, he had decided to get a graduate degree in English Lit. He kept incredibly meticulous notes written in Pitman Shorthand with a beautiful, gold-tipped fountain pen. His longhand was wonderful too - elegant, flowing script. He had been a clerk-secretary for one of the railways here in Canada for almost his entire life. He ended up being the oldest person to have earned a graduate degree at the university. I think the lectures and studying gave him something to look forward to each day. Anyhow, a nice memory associated with an interesting word. Very glad you decided to stop and consider "fountain pen" today.

adagio said...

So nice to read mention of Ondaatje's 'The English Patient'. You are very fortunate to own a copy with the original cover. I first read a library copy, with original cover. By the time I bought my own copy, the movie had come out and I could only buy a copy with Ralph Fienne's and Kristen Scott Thomas' faces plastered across the front cover. I hate that! With a passion!
Oh, and to anyone who saw the film but has never read the book: No comparison! Don't judge a book by its film. The book is exquisitely written. An absolutely remarkable piece of literature.

A great post Pete. Thankyou.

pohanginapete said...

Clare: Thanks, and no, piwakawaka don't have crests — it was just a bad hair day for this wee one.

Thanks Bev. Sounds as if the 92-year-old's notes were works of art. Actually, I suppose they are: calligraphy. In fact, pages of hand writing usually seem to have that quality to me, even if they more closely resemble Jackson Pollock's works ;^)

Adagio, I know the cover you mention, and share your distaste for it. I read the book in '94, then again before viewing the film. Reading it again after such a long time, and after seeing the film several times, I'm appreciating the book even more. It seems to me like a great, extended poem.

lené said...

You created an interesting reading experience by including such a large photograph of the bird near your words. My eyes and mind kept referencing it as if you were speaking of birds and words--the way they can be familiar, or not, stop us or just become another element in the larger world we see.

I couldn't help but make metaphors in my mind with your subjects--the words, the fountain pen, and the birds. Each subject kept weaving in and out of your sentences and it seemed to work. "Or perhaps it's because the pipit, like birds themselves, are becoming rare. We read them and something taps us on an ankle, trips us; something that says, 'Look, it's been a while since you've seen those birds."

Great post--much fun for the mind, Pete. Hope you don't mind that I weaved your photo into words.

pohanginapete said...

Lene, I'm delighted. It's as if my words, like birds, are out there in the wild for others to enjoy and appreciate in their own ways. Thanks! :^)

Peregrina said...

Hello, Pete.

There must have been a degree of synchronicity - or something - in the air today. I read your new post. I thought, "Hmm, that's interesting. Something to think about. But I haven't anything to add, so I don't think I'll post a comment this time." I then went on to check out "synchronicity" in Wikipedia. I'd been meaning to do it for a few days. You'd used it in your reply to a comment in the Rainbow post and it wasn't until I looked it up in the Concise Oxford Dictionary to compare its Greek roots with the Latin roots of "coincidence" that I discovered it wasn't in my dictionary at all. I subsequently learnt that it was coined by Jung and had a specific meaning. So this morning in Wikipedia I found its definition, along with the example of Émile Deshamps and the plum pudding.

Later, as I was preparing some lunch, I considered what I'd read. I came to the conclusion that I couldn't quite go along with Jung's idea - that is, if I'd understood it properly. Then, with last week's "Listener" to finish reading, I sat down to eat. Blow me down! There was the word "synchronicity" in an article in the "Listener", complete with such an apt example that it made me smile.

Several hours later I returned to your blog and, interested in rereading what people whose names I'm now recognising had written earlier, I began looking back through the Comments. There was that word again! You'd used it several posts before the Rainbow one in your reply to a comment. Now I'd read this comment at the time, but "synchronicity" was a word I'd, as you put it, stepped over - in this case mistakenly taking its meaning as being synonymous with "synchrony". I kicked my own ankle when I decided to compare it with a word related in meaning, but then didn't get around to a search for its definition until today. In the light of your topic, the timing seems particularly appropriate. Coincidence? Synchronicity? Just plain synchrony? Whatever.

So, maybe to familiar words that we step over, we can also add words for which we think we know the meaning but are actually mistaken about. It can take a tap on the ankle from something to help us get them right.

Another great thought-generating post, Pete. At this rate my brain's going to need a holiday soon!

Anita Daher said...

Great post, Pete! "something taps us on an ankle,"... Love that :-)

Duncan said...

Once again you've articulated so clearly what I occasionally feel when reading. Maybe it's my advancing years, I don't know, but I certainly identify with that passage about being pulled up short by a familiar word, almost as if I hadn't seen it before, strange.
One "word" I do trip over, and would like to kick right out of the way is a new one, used to categorise a TV show, "miniseries" It's just plain wrong in my opinion, it should at least have a hyphen between mini and series. Whenever I see it I read it with the emphasis on the is part, as if it's french or something. Or am I just old and behind the times?

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Peregrina; good point about that extra category of words. I suspect we begin to stumble over them when we finally begin to realise they're out of place on this particular path.

Anita: At various stages of writing this post, I found my ideas wandering off on their own paths, as if they had a mind of their own. The clause you mention is a good example of that — I kept thinking about where it might lead. So much so, I ended up lost, and had a hard job finding my way back ;^)

Duncan, I agree about that word, and love your irascibility about it. I glance at it and it most reminds me of "miseries" — which is what most mini series are ( I assume they're just as bad as the last one I watched, so long ago I can't remember). And don't knock being "old and behind the times" — that's what fountain pens are, yet they have a quality you can't find in any other writing medium.

Tracy Hamon said...

I'm with Anita, and the phrase that "something taps us on an ankle". The words/phrase "fountain pen" contains so much imagery, but from a poetic train of thought--mine right now--it's the word fountain that holds, and gives us the image of the words flowing out, and through, and landing, perhaps, on the ankle. And that's when we slip and slide with amazement and the story.

Have you read the prequel In the Skin of a Lion? I think it is even more thoughtprovoking and poetic/lyrical than The English Patient.

Lulu said...

I loved In the Skin of a Lion as well, but not more than The English Patient. They're beautiful companion pieces. Ondaatje's my favorite author. Such gorgeous mosaics. Even the ones I don't enjoy as much, like Anil's Ghost, contain marvelous phrasings.

KiwiSoupGirl said...

Pete, reading your post immediately sent me back to my very early school years...when fountain pens were still a requirement. I found it took me a while to read the rest of your post because I was completely "stuck" in that time - carefully filling the inkwell, drawing the ink (my favourite colour being peacock blue) into my pen and blotting it carefully on the desk top where myriads of other "blotters" had gone before me. I even became lost in those ink blot patterns all over again, as I used to as a child, seeing pictures and places in them.....

So, yes - I too found myself tripped up by your words - tripping back to another time and place. By the skill of your writing and the beauty of your prose.

The journey was quite lovely, and the photo of the piwakawaka created in me the most intense urge to "smooth" down the feathers on its head...a little like gently sweeping back the hair from my kid's faces while they slept as youngsters. Heartwarming.

Again, and again...thank you! :-)

yllstonewolf said...

a lovely post. i'm rather attached to fountain pens. i collect vintage pens. i love the ritual of writing with a gold nib on good cloth paper. i like the little water colored strokes left behind. also loved reading the book _The English Patient_ so full of wonderful images.
your images - the birds - give me a tender feeling in my heart! thanks.

pohanginapete said...

Tracy, I've read nothing else of Ondaatje's — yet — but now will certainly be fossicking in the second hand shops for a copy of Skin of Lion. Thanks for the recommendation. I enjoyed your exploration of fountain pens, too! :^)

And Lulu, thanks for seconding Tracy's recommendation. I'm looking forward to finding the book; maybe in Wellington this week; settling down on the deck with the whole harbour shining and the cats watching over me... reading, looking up, thinking, imagining, wondering... The English Patient did that for me. And "mosaics" — that's an astute, apt analogy for his writing :^)

KSGirl: I know what you mean by wanting to smooth down that little tuft. (I loved Clare's phrase, "...the 'just crawled out of the nest' look..." Like me this morning!) Like you, I went through the writing with a fountain pen stage (after progressing from large, clumsy pencils).

And, I love that image of you "...gently sweeping back the hair from [your] kid's faces while they slept..."
Thanks :^D

YSWolf: I recall some time ago you posted a lovely, evocative photo of books and a pen? I'm glad to hear you enjoy using the pens, not just collecting them. I like things to retain their function, or, sometimes, acquire a new one; collecting for the sole sake of ownership leaves me feeling a little uneasy. (I don't think that's the English patient speaking... ;^))
Pleased the photos worked for you :^)

Patry Francis said...

Never did think much about the term "fountain pen." Sounds like a magical implement. You put it to paper and it spills words, sentences, one glorious paragraph after the other. Is that your secret?

pohanginapete said...

Ha! Thanks Patry :^D (LOL) Seriously, I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss what you write with as having at least some influence on the writing. A pen (whether fountain or not) that forms words beautifully does encourage the writer to form beautiful words. The converse is just as true — possibly more so, in my experience.

In fact, most of what I write begins as ink on paper, written at morning tables, in cafes, in bed with rain on the roof, mice in the walls, and sheep under the floor; at evening tables, in mountain huts, in a bivy bag or tent... I don't have a laptop and can't imagine lugging one to many of those places. Later, of course, I'll use what I've written by hand; type it up and expand it, follow the ideas; explore the paths — but I find it difficult to form the same relationship with a keyboard and monitor as with a pen and paper.

There's magic in it, though; magic irrespective of the implement. Magic, or witchcraft — I don't know which.

Clare said...

That's intesting Pete. For the most part I find writing with pen and paper a chore (the exception being a travel journel, I have no idea why). I've terrible penmanship and that might be part of the reason. Typing on the computer, while initially difficult, allows me more to express thoughts. More like a conversation than anything else. Perhaps it is because I'm a decent typist, but a crummy handwriter.

Mind you, if getting a fountain pen will bring my writing closer to yours I'm all for it.

KiwiSoupGirl said...

:-) witchcraft for some reason made me think of my father - who considers computers, microwaves, and television to be "white man's magic"...and is deeply suspicious of all such things.

He also describes poetry and prose as "souls on paper"....I wonder what he would think of a blog post on a computer via the internet....?

pohanginapete said...

Clare, interesting that you should mention the travel journal. Years ago, I never seemed able to write while travelling; now, I find travelling particularly conducive to writing. Perhaps it's just the discipline of writing every day, or perhaps there's more to it than that. I do know I sometimes feel frustrated when travelling because there's so much to record, and I'm too worn out to reflect...

KSG: I've often reminded myself of the difference between words as ideas and words as shapes on paper, monitors, whatever. I like the idea that words arranged in a particular way come into existence — an existence independent of the physical form they take. Seen like that, I suppose the blog post on a computer via the internet is just another expression of the soul.

KiwiSoupGirl said...

yess! totally agree with ya there - the combination of the words onto anything comes from one soul reaching from self toward others. Worth respect and honour wherever they may appear.