On journaling

I signed up for this journaling course with Derek Black offered by my friends at Make Meaningful Work. There have been some interesting discussions about journaling as a practice which I hadn’t thought of before. I didn’t realise I have been journaling for so long until I was given this assignment. We were asked to think of a time when we were either effectively or ineffectively sustaining some type of journaling and record this in the form of a story. We could then practice-spot from this story. Practice Spotting™ is an excellent observation and sense-making tool developed by Make Meaningful Work that turns implicit and explicit practices uncovered in stories into everyday practice.

The very five-year diary I started back in 1992. I started writing in it on 6 May.

Perfect journaling is not perfect: sustaining the practice of journaling

I remember in primary school we had weekly (?) composition classes (ie essay writing) which were hour-long double-periods. The teacher would give us a topic, and we’d have to write a few hundred words in Chinese during class. Most of my classmates – me included – dreaded this, especially when we had to write under time constraint. We often had ‘a day (or week) in the life’ topics where we were asked to effectively write diary entries. It was always a struggle to find something meaningful to write about, and we often ended up with mundane, trivial things. Writing was seen as a chore with the sole aim of meeting the word count, not a medium of expression and certainly not a medium for thinking things through.

My story of journaling proper began in 1992, when I moved to the UK to study. Before I left Hong Kong, my mother gave me an old-fashioned five-year diary with a faux leather cover and gold-foiled fore-edge where on each page you’re supposed to write an entry on the same day for five consecutive years. My mother said to me, ‘whenever you feel lonely, write in the diary’. Without the internet, instant messaging, or even cheap long-distance phone calls, Hong Kong and the UK were much, much further apart than they are today. It’s not difficult to imagine how overwhelmingly homesick one could be. Not having a great command of the language (I went to a small town in Northern England close to Liverpool, enough said), living with relatives that I barely knew, and just the plain culture shock left me feeling completely isolated and lonely. I wrote daily, simply because I felt lonely or sad. The daily ritual of writing a diary entry was therapeutic for me, even though I wasn’t a fluent writer and words didn’t come naturally to me. Writing made me feel better, even when I was my only reader. I sounded awkward and didn’t really have my own voice in writing. I wrote in Chinese at the time, as I was more comfortable with the language then.

As I gradually got acclimatised to the country and started to make friends, the frequency of writing dropped. It seemed that the happier I was, the less frequent the entries were. I had never set myself targets, nor forced myself to sustain journaling as a habit. In fact I dislike any kind of regimented routines, and certainly don’t try to judge whether my journaling habit is proverbially ‘successful’. It never even occurred to me until Derek gave us this assignment.

This diary-writing habit kept going on and off, and eventually it dropped off completely. Never had I considered taking notes, planning, sketching design ideas, blogging, etc. to be journaling by definition. If those things do count, then I have continuously journaled until this day. My journaling habit proper picked up again on this exact day: 7 July 2020. As of today, I have written 86 entries. That’s 0.7 entries per week on average. I picked up journaling after I started the Covid project (non)material text [this website] in March 2020, a blog that explores the art, acts and technologies of writing, editing and publishing. It also explores my love and fear of writing and getting things published. The thoughts are pretty random. Most of the 86 entries were written on the seven typewriters in my collection, and a few in longhand. Writing is now a way to reflect and to work things out, and the manual typewriter is the perfect medium. The difficulty to correct things moves the writing forward, rather than backwards to edit and censor oneself. Embracing imperfection is definitely part of the process.

Pelikan fountain pens

I raved about the Goodnotes app in several posts, saying that it has largely replaced pens and notebooks for me. I still stand by its strengths: digital notebooks can be synced on all devices; its ability to search through handwriting recognition; its flexibility when it comes to sharing and exporting notes, etc. What I’m a bit tired of is how unpleasant it is to write on the screen of the iPad, even when I have a Paperlike screen protector. I never got used to it, and my handwriting looks worse than it does on paper.

I wrote about ‘grail pens’ 10 months ago. There’s something satisfying about the nib of a fountain pen gliding on the paper surface, laying down a tangible trail of expressive, undulating marks. I like how fountain pens write effortlessly without having to press hard. Writing on a screen can never replace the sensual quality of putting pen to paper, especially when it comes to fountain pens. For me, writing in long hand is not conducive to fluency of formulating thoughts in prose, as I write slowly and my hand cannot catch up with my brain. I described this as ‘congruency or fluency between thought (ideation) and action (preservation, or production)’ two years ago. But pen and paper are good for planning and ideation, and for the occasional letters and notes.

I have since rekindled my love for ink on paper, and have accumulated a small (?) stash of fountain pens and inks. Four of these pens are Pelikans, same brand as my first ‘proper’ fountain pen back in 1992. It’s now my favourite brand.

The remainder of this post are musings about these five Pelikan fountain pens, written with the respective pens in longhand using different inks.

Picture of five Pelikan fountain pens, four black ones and one blue one.
From left to right: M200 (?), Classic Series M215 Black with rings, 400NN, Souverän M605 Stresemann, and M120 Iconic Blue. Writing samples below are in this order.
A handwriting sample written with a fountain pen. The text reads:

Pelikan M200(?) c1992 'HEF' nib
Parker 'Quink' Blue-black ink

This is the first 'proper' fountain pen my parents bought me thirty years ago as a 'parting gift' before I went to study in the UK. I wrote about this pen on 13 April 2020, entry 3. I had never enjoyed this 'HEF' nib so much. I have since found out that this nib was made for the Japanese/Asian market, hence works better for Chinese/Japanese writing. (or is this an architect's grind?) I still like this pen for sentimental reasons. Parker's blue-black is still a great ink. The nib is a 12C gold.

A handwriting sample written with a fountain pen. The text reads:

Pelikan Classic Series M15 Black with rings
'EF' nib Diamine Oxford Blue ink

A small, understated pen with a stainless steel 'EF' nib that writes very smoothly, but with slightly more feedback than the M605. Although the pen is slightly on the small side, the heft is very good and well-balanced, thanks to the metal rings on the barrel, but also gives it a unique aesthetic. All give of my Pelikan fountain pens use Pelikan's signature piston ink-filling mechanism, which is extremely reliable. This is a very good pen overall.

A writing sample written with a fountain pen. The text reads:

Pelikan 400NN c1950s 'EF' nib
Montblanc Midnight Blue ink

A 'vintage' Pelikan possibly from the 1950s. A flexible 14C gold nib that's very pleasant to write with. A all pen with subtle green and black translusent [sic] striations on the barrel. A beautiful writer.

A writing sample written with a fountain pen. The text reads:

Pelikan Souverän M605 Stresemann
'F' nib Diamine Oxford Blue ink

This is my most expensive Pelikan to date. A classic yet understated pen design, more subtle than the regular green or blue stripes with gold trim. The grey strips are an homage to Gustav Streseman [sic], a Nobel Leave Prize recipient in 1926. Streseman [sic] is attributed for a kind of suit with thin grey stripes, hence the name of this pen. Souverän is Pelikan's flagship series. The numbers refer to the size of the pens and nibs, from 100–1,000, 1,000 being the largest. I find the size of this 605 perfect for my hand. The nib is Rhodium-plated 14C gold, which writes extremely smoothly. Very enjoyable to write with. Though the 'F' nib is a tad too think for my handwriting. This is now my favourite pen in my entire collection.

A writing sample written with a fountain pen. The text reads:

A retro relaunch of Pelikan's classic 10 school pen from 1955. This is a 018 special edition that comes with a retro style presentation box with a bottle of ink (the ink I'm using now). The pen's styling is quite minimal in a beautiful blue and gold trim. The gold-plated stainless steel [nib] is surprisingly thin for an 'F' nib, and it's very flexible. A very leasing pen.

(First and final draft of this post written in Byword on the iPhone 12 Mini and iPad Pro. First and final draft of the writing samples written in ink on Tomoe River paper, 52g/m² then scanned.)

Finally, an exhibition

(non)material text featured as an installation titled ‘See words, shift thoughts’ in the ‘See words, ______’ exhibition curated by Typeclub, coming soon at the Centre for Communication Design, Hong Kong Design Institute.

Artist statement:

(non)material text is a miscellany of thoughts that explores the art, acts and technologies of writing, editing and publishing, made public at nontxt.com. This post was published on 12 August 2020, written with an Adler Tippa 1 typewriter. It lays the writer’s thought process bare for the viewer–reader in final published form. An archive of draft posts as material text offers an alternative reading process.

Heinrich von Kleist: On the gradual completion of thoughts during speech

This charming little pamphlet was gifted to me by a dear colleague who has just retired. Designed and typeset beautifully by Erik Speikermann and set in his FF Meta Pro typeface (I suppose this is a type specimen of sorts), its content is an essay by Heinrich von Kleist titled ‘On the gradual completion of thoughts during speech’. Both the original text in German and an English translation by John S Taylor are contained within, with an introduction by Speikermann, a biography of Kleist and some translator’s notes.

[A different English translation of the essay by Michael Hamburg titled ‘On the gradual construction of thoughts during speech’ can be found here.]

This is of course a neat little designed object, but I was more intrigued by the essay. ‘Thinking out loud’ is a typical apology that we prefix any tentative thoughts we utter when conversing with others. In this short essay, Kleist argues that we do that all the time, and even great orators use speech as a gradual process for structuring thoughts:

I believe many a great orator, even in the moment he opened his mouth, did not know what he would say. He made a bold start, leaving what was to come to luck under the conviction that he could achieve the required clarity of thought and heightening of his mental faculties from the circumstances.

As a lecturer, I quite often find myself in the exact situation. I would happily ad-lib my way through any given occasion with nothing but a loose conception of what I am to speak about. This happens even at conference presentations, after the aptly named ‘abstract’ has been accepted and a slide deck cobbled together. Scripts have never been my friend; having to follow a script word for word is torture for both speaker and audience. No two presentations can therefore be the same. This can be extremely daunting. Control is given up to allow for more freedom and happenstance. It’s risky.

It follows that a slide deck cannot capture what actually happens in a presentation. A slide deck is only a visual aid, not a documentation. It’s an entirely different document genre. Ad-libing and then transcribing into text would also be a shift in genre, which is similar to ‘stream of consciousness’ writing, but rather different from the process of writing and editing.

Kleist’s essay made me realise the potential richness of conversations as a means to think things through. Building your own thoughts on others’. Allowing your mind to be shifted as new information and points of view emerge. Entering a conversation with no assumptions or preconceived notions. Realising that it is okay to waver and not have a fixed point of view. These might be prerequisites for meaningful and thought-provoking conversations as a means to structure tentative thoughts. Good conversations are hard to come by, and I believe that meaningful conversations are important in a world that is becoming more polarised and ideas become more extreme.

Kleist writes that the processes of ‘conception’ and ‘expression’ need to work hand-in-hand, and unclear expression doesn’t necessarily mean unclear conception. He suggests that a command of speech would be indispensable. He continues: ‘he who speaks faster than his opponent will have the advantage, since he has more troops in the field.’ I can see a parallel in writing drafts, or even sketching as a conceptualisation method.

This seems akin to using writing as a process to structure thoughts, as I wrote on 25 July 2020:

Making thoughts visible or material allows one to organise ideas in a tentative way, not having to commit to anything until completely satisfied. Making thoughts visible is important, as it allows one to toy with ideas, reason through, assess options, iterate, clarify, etc.

On another note, New York Post published an article on some research done in Japan which found that the act of writing with pen and paper aids memory and recall more effectively than taking notes on digital devices (mobile phone and tablet), even when using a stylus. I’ll park the link here and come back to more discussions on this topic later.

(written in Byword on the MacBook Air, revised in WordPress on an iPhone 12 Mini)

Grail pens

Writing samples of the Twsbi Eco with an EF nib, a Twsbi Diamond 580AL with an F nib, and a Platinum Prefounte fitted with a 03F nib.

Back in April 2020 I wrote two posts about (mostly fountain) pens and writing in long hand. I wrote that I don’t write best when I use a fountain pen because of several reasons, one being: ‘writing with a fountain pen feels a bit “ceremonial” or “ritualistic”.’ Over a year ago I also raved on about the Goodnotes app, and how, along with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, it has largely replaced pen and paper for my notetaking needs. I still use the app almost daily, and am still a fan. While Goodnotes keeps my (mostly work) life sorted, nothing beats the immediacy of grabbing a pen and a piece of paper to make ideas visible. I have incorporated pen and paper back into my notetaking habits, for I have found my ‘grail pens’ – excuse the Reddit-speak, that’s something along the lines of the ultimate pens that one is searching for. This post is a pen review.

There is a renaissance of fountain pens, even amongst younger generations. There are numerous pen reviews online and r/fountainpens on Reddit is thriving. My cynical side thinks that this might be a passing fad, nothing more than a bunch of people trying to be hipsters (in Cantonese we call these hipsters [偽]文青, [fake] cultured youth), or luddites who hate technology. Just as I thought stationery stores are on the demise, I find more and more specialist pen shops across Hong Kong, one of which is the fantastic Muze Pens in Shamshuipo, where I bought my two Twsbi fountain pens from. The owner is originally from Taiwan, an academic turned pen shop owner. He is infinitely knowledgable and passionate about pens.

Twsbi Eco

This is now my everyday pen which I use for signing documents and jotting notes. Twsbi is a Taiwanese brand, and the parent company had been manufacturing OEM fountain pens for big brands before debuting their own brand in 2009. The brand’s Chinese name is 三文堂 San Wen Tang, with the acroynm written backwords and appending the Chinese word for pen (筆 bi ), the name Twsbi is coined. This is a demonstrator pen, meaning that the barrel is transparent and you can see the mechanics inside. While I don’t care so much for the styling, the Twsbi Eco is extremely smooth to write with. I chose an EF nib, which gives the thinnest lines, and suits the size of my regular handwriting. The greatest thing about this pen is that the ink flow is wet and continuous, and the ink doesn’t dry up inside the pen like most of my other pens do. Lines flow smoothly and never skip. The ink capacity is phenomenal – the piston filling mechanism works extremely well, filling the entire pen barrel with ink. My only qualm is the grip, which is rather thin and smooth, not the most comfortable fit for my hand. Though it is nowhere near as bad as the Lamy Safari, which I can’t use at all. The thick barrel also works for me. The cap and piston knob come in a variety of different colours, and mine is cement grey, which looks quite fine. This is not an expensive pen by any means, just over $200 Hong Kong dollars.

Twsbi Diamond 580AL

I have since bought another Twsbi, this time a more expensive model: the Diamond 580AL. This has all the positive attributes of the Eco, but the material and build is much sturdier. The barrel has a polygonal design, which prevents it from rolling off the desk. It is also a demonstrator with grey trimmings, and again I don’t care so much for the styling. The pen is weightier, with a larger, better nib than the Eco. The F nib I chose seems to make substantially thicker lines than the Eco EF, making it quite good for signing but slightly too thick for my regular handwriting. The ink flow is again fantastic, and writes continuously without skipping. Unlike the Eco, the grip is round and with a screw thread-like texture, which is quite comfortable to hold. This is a better quality pen on all counts than the Eco, and the price reflects that, which is around $600 Hong Kong dollars.

Platinum Prefounte

A Platinum Prefounte fountain pen

A much cheaper pen than the two Twsbi at $72 Hong Kong Dollars, the Platinum Prefounte is extremely good quality for its meagre price. It’s easy to mistake its styling for a cheap disposable pen, but it is far from it. The nib writes very smoothly without skipping. It takes a Platinum ink converter with a piston filling mechanism and it works well. The 03F nib writes quite thick. The package shows a graph: after 12 months, the ink would only deplete to around 70%. Conventional fountain pens would dry up completely after 9 months. This is a very good entry-level pen for those who are not used to writing with a fountain pen. The coloured barrels make them good for using with matching ink colours. By the way, Platinum is a Japanese company that is over 100 years old.

Information leaflet inside the packaging for the Platinum Prefounte fountain pen, with a graph that compares the rate of ink depletion between the Prefounte and conventional fountain pens.

If you go for looks and style, or use a fountain pen because you want to project a certain image, then don’t go for these pens. These are high performance, practical pens that work well for everyday use.

A picture showing five fountain pens.