The write idea – An Irishman’s Diary about pens

The thing about a good pen is that you feel that you must write good things with it

The thing about a good pen is that you feel that you must write good things with it


‘Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests; snug as a gun” (Digging, Seamus Heaney) .

The lines are from one of Heaney’s most famous poems and are some of his best-known lines, lines that would eventually earn the Derry boy a Nobel Prize for Literature. Few people will ever come close to Heaney’s facility for poetry. That said, all of us can own a pen and hold it “snug as a gun”.

Writing is a process we all had to learn at school. You will no doubt remember the jotter and joined-up writing. You can perhaps remember struggling with letters and words, the palm of your pen-hand resting, snugly, on the paper as you tried to fill it, line by line, with legible words. The other hand was stretched out on the table, an anchor to hold you onto the desk while you wrestled with words.

Perhaps you were lucky enough that the teacher praised your efforts or a parent remarked on how neat and tidy your writing was.

Students, just a few weeks ago, were throwing themselves into writing. The tables of Ireland were filled with pen-toting teenagers as they attempted to answer question after question and write and write and write as if their life depended on it.

Likely as not, most of them will have had a clatter of disposable pens with them in their pencil cases. They were like hurlers going to a championship match; they would bring the match hurl and a couple of others – just in case.

Most of them will have had pens that cost little, that did the job, pens that, should they be lost, they would have no problem replacing. It is understandable but a little odd.

Young ones want the latest tech but care nothing for something as beautiful as a pen, an objet d’art that we can all own.

Who has not heard the wail of the petulant teenager bemoaning the fact that their phone or iPod is last year’s model, that such-and-such has the latest, that they cannot show their faces in public unless the model is upgraded?

They are hugely concerned about smart phones but not at all about smart pens. Many adults think the same way. The plastic pen will do the job – it can be lost, chewed, thrown away.

Yet a good pen is wondrous. You might not have Heaney’s gift for language but I am sure, at some stage, that someone gifted you a pen for Christmas or a birthday. Perhaps it meant nothing or perhaps you held it much like a samurai might admire a well-made sword. The thing about a good pen is that you feel that you must write good things with it. If it comes in a box, you keep it in the box until such time that you have something important to write.

If you are of a certain generation, you probably received letters and postcards after your Gaeltacht courses. Do you remember those little missives arriving in the post, little reminders from friends, wildly written, of a summer in the west? No doubt you replied as best you could. You needed a pen and paper for that then.

Perhaps, in the first flushes of adult love, you even managed to write a love letter or two? Was that you at the cafe table in Grafton Street, the pen, snug as a gun, in your fingers as you wrote to a loved one across the water?

Your palm would have warmed the paper, your heartbeat drove the pen along, word by word, letting your love know that they were not forgotten, that you had taken the time to write, that those moments between beginning and end were for them and them alone.

It is no mistake that we talk of love letters but not of love emails. God have pity on the generation who know only sexting. Electronic communication is more immediate but less intimate.

You need a good pen for writing – which is not to say that it has to be an expensive pen.

Being in the writing business, I have picked up pens here and there other the years. I have a matt black and inexpensive Parker, which is a reminder of the first good pen my parents ever got me. I have picked up hand-crafted and gorgeous wooden pens in Fermanagh and Donegal. Their value as mementoes far outweighs their cost. I have been given gifts of pens which are a constant reminder of the person who gave them. (No Mont Blancs as yet but I wait in hope!)

What they all have in common is that they are good pens and I use them all, one by one, for all the little bits and pieces of writing I have to do. They make me want to write. They, bizarrely, make me feel like a better writer because, after all, real writers write with real pens. Between my finger and my thumb The squat iPod rests; snug as a gun. Nah!