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John Steinbeck’s Pen: How the Joy of Handwriting Helps Us Draft the Meaning of Life

29 April 2015

From Brain Pickings:

Edgar Allan Poe believed that handwriting is an indication of character, revealing our “mental qualities.” Mary Gordon saw in its “flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper” a reminder that “however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.” Indeed, the marks we leave on the paper are our most human trails of thought. Few things exercise — and exorcise — the not always seamless collaboration between brain and body like that direct line between the tip of the pen and the tip of the neuron. To be particular about one’s writing instrument is, then, to be particular about thought itself — one can’t afford to be careless about the corporeal transmitter of creative flow.

John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) captures this curious role of the pen as a negotiator between brain and body in a series of disarming observations in Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath — that remarkable volume that gave us a glimpse of how the great writer used the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt when he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life, the masterwork that earned him the Pulitzer Prize and paved the way for his Nobel Prize.

. . . .

In mid-July of 1938, three weeks into the work, Steinbeck makes an endearing note of his writing companion — that trusty conduit of thought:

This good pen holds up beautifully. I guess it will last out the entire book.

Then, on July 25, he records the growing intimacy with his writing instrument:

This pen writes thinner if it is steeper. This has been a good pen to me so far. Never had such a good one.

By mid-August, he is fully in love:

What a wonderful pen this is. It has and is giving me perfect service — never stops flowing for a second and never overflows and blots a word.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings and thanks to Barb for the tip.

Books in General

26 Comments to “John Steinbeck’s Pen: How the Joy of Handwriting Helps Us Draft the Meaning of Life”

  1. “Edgar Allan Poe believed that handwriting is an indication of character, revealing our “mental qualities.”


    Shoot me now.


    • I have a love/hate relationship with hand-writing. I love writing but I suffer from writer’s cramp and my handwriting is illegible. Even I can’t read my own writing.
      I received straight A’s every year in elementary school, except for that effin’ ‘F’ in penmanship. Sigh…
      I do think hand writing is good for the brain tho. My poor brain. Think how smart I’d be if I could only write by hand.

  2. I received a “good pen” this week: my first Lamy Safari. It’s better than ones that cost me more. Like Steinbeck’s pen, it never stops flowing. I mean, until you want it to.

  3. I’ve been using a Pilot Metropolitan I love for a while now.

    I could have sworn Montblanc had made a Steinbeck edition. I know there’s a Poe that’s lovely.

    • Those are great pens, especially for the price (and especially if you’re the kind that loses pens).

  4. Okay, you guys, this is getting to be a little like Pen Porn.

    But what I want to know is, what the heck kind of pen was Steinbeck using to get him all worked up like this?

    • A little?

      John fondled the shaft, so firm and smooth beneath his quivering skin. He wanted to fill it. Needed to. He saturated its interior with dark, luscious liquid, before he wrapped his fingers around its length, and set the tip upon his pad. Words appeared in short, precise strokes marring the clean, white paper.

  5. I highly recommend “Working Days.” It’s like looking over his shoulder, day by day. He’s dealing with construction next door, the refrigerator running, the occasional hangover from the night before. And yet he’s turning out “Grapes of Wrath.”

    On some days, he started out with a paragraph in his journal talking himself up, to the point where he could start writing. A warm-up paragraph, if you will.

    Brain Pickings wrote about that aspect of the book.

  6. “How the joy of writer’s cramp helps me decide to go play Angry Birds instead.”

    I do love me a good pen, but not for writing a whole draft. *ouch*

  7. I mix in some hand writing here and there. There’s no right way.

  8. Gee, what can keep up with the speed of thought, handwriting 45 words per minute or typing 90? So these guys are advocating, when i really let the madman fly, that i should then handicap him by not using the most efficient tool for the job? No thanks.

  9. “Gee, what can keep up with the speed of thought”


    Yup, dats me.

    I found a whole new me when I took keyboard lessons and upped my speed to burst at about 70 when I’m burnin’.

    I have bread makers hands, (hot) so any pen I use the ink becomes hot and unusable after a while.

    The keyboard keeps up with the brain much better.


    (Cold hands are for making pastry.)

  10. I found a way to hold the pen (or pencil) that eliminates writer’s cramp. If anybody wants to know, ask.

    • I’m asking. 😀

      • Put the pen between your index finger and your middle finger. Use your index finger, middle finger, and thumb to control it. (With practice, you will need only your middle finger and thumb.) It requires surprisingly little practice using this grip to produce good handwriting.

        With this grip, your palm is down, not canted, and the weight of your hand rests on the heel of the hand, not the little finger. Say good-bye to writer’s cramp.

        • I forgot to mention something important. When you hold a pen this way, do not curl your little finger under your palm. That will lead to writer’s cramp. Keep your little finger straight. You will find the heel of your hand rests on the paper and your little finger and ring finger glide along the paper.

          If my wife and I work out our video problems, I will post this to my blog some time.

  11. “It requires surprisingly little practice using this grip to produce good handwriting.”


    LOL…I will give it a TRY!

    I love the occasional wanderings that take place here. I know that the off topic monsters hate them, but they are the soul of the internet for me.

    Thank you Antares, Thank you P.G. and everyone else:)


  12. Sadly, I can write very little by hand anymore, due to arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome. When it’s raining (like today), it’s worse. I couldn’t make a fist first thing this morning. 🙁

    I’m going to try your method, though Antares. Maybe it will help with the small amount of writing I manage to get done. I love to write by hand.

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