A few weeks ago, I decided to splurge on some new notebooks and two fountain pens. After typing everything directly on the computer from my notes for several months, I wanted to get back to engaging with the pen on paper. I wanted to practice “slow writing.” In my case, it will be “painfully slow writing”; I am left-handed and have suffered from severe writer’s cramp for most of my life. I knew, though, that if I stuck with it long enough, my cramping muscles would get into shape and I’d be able to write through an afternoon without stopping every few minutes to massage my claw back into a hand.
After shopping around on several websites, I ordered three different notebooks to try out—an Exacompta Basics Black with Silver edge, 5 ½ inches by 8 inches; a Clairefontaine Basic Black, Large, 8 ¼ inches by 11 ¾ inches; and a Clairefontaine Basic Black, Medium, 5 7/8 inches by 8 1/8 inches. All three were made in France with high quality paper. It seems France is the only country that takes notebooks seriously. The Exacompta has some texture to the paper with 25% cotton fiber making it an excellent choice for use with a fountain pen. Clairefontaine is known for making the first notebooks that French students are required to use in school and the quality of their paper is legendary. When I took students to Paris one long ago summer, I filled my suitcase for the return trip back to the states with large Clairefontaines I found in a huge stationary store. I loved those notebooks and used them for my journal for years.
I use a variety of fountain pens collected over the years: Waterman, also made in Paris; Conklin, one of the oldest American fountain pen companies; Cartier, French yet again; and Sheaffer, in cheap models that write with a solid, wet line. I find a good ink flow eases the writer’s cramp, but with the Sheaffers, I have to be careful because a quick movement will spray the desk with ink. My latest acquisition is from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a 45 gram heavyweight with an Elizabethan armor exterior, a kind of novelty purchase but I am hoping it will also be a good working instrument. One day, I want to get the classic Montblanc fountain pen, but for now, those are out of my price range.
I chose the Exacompta notebook to test out first, and immediately loved the feel of the paper. Hypergraphia is the compulsion to write and write and write. It is a mental illness often present in patients with epilepsy, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. I don’t think I fall into any of those categories but since my notebooks arrived, I’ve been decidedly hypergraphic. I just love the feel of the nib sliding across the page, and I’ll find any excuse to write. What am I writing?
Well, while paging through back issues of The Times Literary Supplement (TLS), I found a review from 2012 reminding me of a French author I read years ago whom I love: Annie Ernaux. Her many slim, intense volumes are part of a genre in which she specializes: ecrire la vie, or life writing. In his essay, Michael Sheringham says that life writing “has become not only a handy catch-all for what were previously considered discrete genres, but also the emblem of perceived affinities between different ways of capturing the warp and weft of lived experience, and of grasping how the various dimensions of a life ‘hang together,’ as Wilhelm Dilthey famously put it.” Ernaux’s work crosses a number of genres, including “autobiography, biography, essays, history, confessions, diaries and travel narratives…” says Sheringham.
She is not the first writer to utilize this form. Sheringham mentions Rousseau, Stendhal, and Chateaubriand; Andre Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre (my hero!); Marguerite Duras (another French writer I deeply admire) and Alain Robbe-Grillet for whom the term “autofictional” was coined. Sheringham describes Ernaux’s work in detail. “The text is set out in chapterless blocks of print, usually a page or so in length but sometimes consisting of a single sentence, with the spacing between the units also varying in extent. Description and figurative embellishment are avoided (there are few similes or metaphors); sentences are short and usually tersely declarative; enumerations are frequent, as are comments on register and rationale. The result is an appealing mixture of the prosaic and the poetic…”
A term that surfaces frequently with this kind of writing is ethnography, or autoethnography. This kind of writing uses personal experience and reflection to explore political, cultural or sociological issues. Although Ernaux often writes about extremely personal issues like her relationship with her parents, her marriage, an illegal abortion she had in 1963, and her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, the writing is inclusive and enlightening, and soulful, like a secret conversation between confidantes. She explores the human condition and the experience of being alive through a personal lens, but the insights connect with readers and their experiences, as evidenced by her popularity, not only in her native France, but in other countries and languages as well.
To counteract possibly falling into narcissism and navel-gazing in this kind of writing, I have days where I do not allow myself to use the personal pronouns. I watch, observe and describe people and places. I am a fly on the wall. I write about issues. I explore spiritual and philosophical ideas. I continue to use journal writing in my classes, and students, after becoming acclimated to the process, embrace it and often come in with their own topic suggestions for the day. It is practicing the craft of writing, of capturing what is in the mind and putting it down on paper coherently and concisely. Like working out a muscle, regular writing practice makes the skill stronger and more reliable.
So with all the digital tools and 21st century technology, I am drawn back in time to the broad-nibbed fountain pen and high quality paper in a notebook with a cloth-and-hand-sewn binding. The pen is mightier than the sword; in a pinch, one could defend himself against an attack with a quick stab of the fountain pen. If what Joan Didion says is true—“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”—life writing is not just hypergraphia or narcissism. It is an act of survival, a way of processing the big world, and to improve the craft of writing.