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.

Procrastinating writers, and other random thoughts

This weekend was spent, again, by not writing. Though I did turn in something to the publisher on Friday. As much as I’d love the idea of making a career out of writing (and editing and publishing), I’m a terrible procrastinator, much like many writers. I’ve explored the idea of a ‘writer’s block’ elsewhere on this blog. Tonight I revisited this article in The Atlantic. The idea of churning out crap in one’s first draft and then revisiting and reworking it is admittedly quite excruciating. Writing is also a terribly lonely pursuit: desk-bound for hours on end, staring at that fucking blinking cursor and toying with words and sentences for long stretches of time. Not something I’d consider fun. I’d much prefer going on my ramblings in the city, looking at people and feeling the rhythm of things happening around me, getting lost in thoughts.

And onto the random thoughts:

  • Can this blog turn into a publishing project?
  • Can this blog turn into some sort of an ‘art’ installation?
  • When will I work on the book I proposed to a publisher back in 2015 and got accepted?
  • Genres of writing, something in between fiction, non-fiction and academic writing (see The archaeology of an imaginary city by Dung Kai-cheung)
  • If only I could write for publishing the way (and at the rate) I churn out emails, blog posts, notes, and reports. What’s the best way to put the pressure off writing for publishing?
  • That PhD that I started back in 2013 but never finished (on hold)
  • Another book that I’d like to write
  • The writing/editing work that I should really be getting on with

On (design) criticism

Some tentative thoughts on design criticism, in a raw and unedited form. Although written for a largely Chinese-speaking audience, English was thought to be more appropriate for retaining cultural/language authenticity and my thought process.

TL;DR: A ‘debate’ on social media prompted me to contemplate on design criticism. Social media is deemed not such an appropriate venue for design debates and discourse, a medium that promotes emotional reactions rather than rational discussions. Design as a profession would benefit from discussions beyond aesthetic preferences (which cannot be debated) and venture into what makes something works, and less reliance on celebrity opinions and hyperbole (subjectivity) and more on logical analysis and research (objectivity). Related frameworks here and here (Chinese).

(First drafts written on the Adler Gabriele 25 and Alphasmart Neo, final draft on the Adler Gabriele 25)

(Edit: all pages slightly corrected by hand, rescanned and reposted)