Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon


general & personal 3 min read

I recently received a gift from Lauren: a Parker Reflex gel pen and a big pack of refill cartridges. I’ve been using Parkers for years now but have been without one for a few months, making do with disposable gel pens (which gets expensive, and just doesn’t feel the same). So why am I talking about a new pen? Well, it’s not the pen itself: it’s a feeling which has been not so much formed but crystallised as a consequence.

Like most people, I make notes all the time; little lists of tasks I’m working on, thoughts, quotations, ideas, doodles, and so on. I’d been resorting to making those notes in Stickies or TextEdit, but it never felt right. I felt constrained by the screen, for one thing. A virtual box sitting in front of me: the so-called “lean-forward experience” which I find so suffocating at times (especially when frustrated). Not particularly conducive to creativity.

Getting the new pen of course made me go out and get some little notebooks, and start to once again use paper as my note-taking medium of choice. The difference, though unsurprising, is remarkable. My productivity hasn’t soared or any such thing, but I do feel more liberated from the tyranny of the machine (yes, even OS X can be perceived as a tyrant). My pen and paper are utterly under my control, and they grant a basic creative freedom which can be only very crudely imitated on a computer. I can even draw little diagrams without resorting to some absurdly heavyweight-for-the-task piece of software like OmniGraffle or such. I don’t have to cut and paste or drag around. And it’s all so bloody charming.

I’m having a kind of “analogue” (if you’ll permit me the indulgence of stretching that term to mean non-electronic in this context) renaissance at the moment. I suddenly care deeply about the weight and balance of the pen, the richness of colour of the ink and the ease with which it flows onto the page. Cheap, rough paper will no longer do (and nor will a pen which won’t readily mark on smoother stuff, or dry quickly enough for realistic use). This has all been something of a revelation for me, having heretofore had taste which could be quite fairly described as digital snobbery.

(At this point I’m tempted to write some puff about how any initially perceived dichotomy between the computer and these manual tools quickly evaporated as I came to appreciate that the design aesthetic of Apple’s gear in is fact complementary to a favourite pen or such, but it would be just that: puff. It might be true - I might even think so myself - but I’d just be playing to the crowd, and that wouldn’t be my A game.)

Paper has its obvious downsides: tricky to undo, hard to categorise after the fact, you can’t move things around, it’s not searchable in the same precise way, there’s a lot of work to do making it interoperable with my more “traditional” electronic tools. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Paper is immediate, tangible, tactile. It’s an intensely personal, private, luxurious, fetishistic thing. I think that’s what grabbed me about it.

I’m aware there are valid and valuable bridges to be built between the paper and electronic worlds (cough GTD cough HipsterPDA cough bandwagon), and perhaps I’ll explore that in due course. My primary concern, however, could hardly be less about making pen and paper into a tool of efficiency. Rather, I’ve found myself embracing and even cherishing the multitude of little ways in which paper is so damned inefficient.

When I write my notes in these little books, I don’t tear out the pages afterwards. My just-legible and worryingly inconsistent handwriting and my juvenile scribbles are masterpieces! No “Move to Trash” (Wastebasket, I hardly knew ye) for these. Whilst utterly inconsequential, there’s something undeniably compelling and scandalously evocative about the mark of ink or lead graphite on a page; something which cannot be dismissed and doomed so lightly as I would an icon on the desktop.

I’m a software engineer and a user interface designer, but most of the time I just feel like a developer. But in odd moments when jotting down notes or sketching a layout with my pen on my physical notepad, I’ll be damned if I don’t actually feel like an engineer, or like a designer. Like an architect of things, by god. Tapping these thoughts into TextEdit seems crass and soulless in comparison.

It’s fascinating to me that in my profession and with my personality, something as mundane as picking up a pen can incite such an emotional response. There’s a deep and ancient truth in this simple instrument, and the barrel positively vibrates with it. My pen is a beautiful and utterly civilised island of sanity and control in the hubbub of this needlessly complicated life we all lead. If you haven’t had occasion to really pick one up in a while, perhaps it’s time you did.