Saturday, February 21, 2009

Journals, Fountain Pens, and the Life Less Hectic

I have been meaning to start a series of posts on slowing down, on living the life less hectic, and finally have gotten around to writing one. Books about slowing down aren't too helpful in actually figuring out how to do it. They tend to analyse the reasons why slowing down is a good idea, or point out how hectic our lives have become, but they are weak on advice or help in making changes to do less and to enjoy more.

Carl Honore's In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed is a typical example of the problem. Honore is a journalist, and the book reads more like a series of superficial magazine articles than the comprehensive report promised on the jacket copy. Most of the chapters center on some visit or experience Honore has exploring this or that group's "slow" activity or orientation. Meanwhile, he maintains a wink and nod subtext letting the reader know he is too sophisticated to take all this "slowness" stuff seriously. In the chapter on slow food, for example, he brags about liking to eat at McDonalds. In the chapter on slowing down on the road, he mentions various speeding tickets he receives. In more than one instance, he actually sneers at attempts to live life in the slow lane -- British couples moving to the countryside from London, for example. He goes to 10-day meditation retreat, but only stays for three days. Readers turning to the book for help in slowing down won't find much help, unfortunately.

I would be happy to hear about any book you have read on this subject, which you think is more helpful.

Anyway, my idea for this serious of posts, which I'm going to tag with the label "slowing down", is to talk about actual things Elly and I have done to slow down and enjoy ourselves more, which gets to the title of this post. (You were wondering about that, weren't you?) BTW, if you have skipped ahead to find the main subject, you should slow down, go back, and read the post from the beginning. This will help you. :-)

For those who aren't heavily into blogging, "labels" (also called categories) are a way to organize blog posts so visitors can find posts about a subject that interests them. On the left side of this blog is a section titled "Labels." Clicking any of the items will display the posts on that subject. The number in parenthesis is the number of matching posts.

Keeping a daily journal is a great way to slow down, I have found. You don't have to write pages and pages each day. Writing as little as one paragraph makes a difference. It is important to date each entry. I write the day of the week, followed by the month, day, and year like this: Saturday, February 21, 2009, spelling out the day and the month. Wouldn't it be faster just to write 2/21/09? Yep. I mean, later, if you want to, you can always look up the day of the week on your computer. BUT, the point is to slow down, right? Take your time. Not be in so much of a hurry. And, trust me on this, months or years later, you will appreciate having the day of the week right there.

What do you write about? Anything you want. The point is simply to take a few minutes, or ten or fifteen, and just reflect on your day. Maybe write about something that happened which you truly enjoyed. Or about taking the time to do something you wouldn't ordinarily do. Or comment about a book you are reading. Write about birds you have seen in your yard. About a new wine you have tried. About a recipe you are cooking. About the antics of a pet. Really, anything you want. And a nice aspect of your journal, compared with a blog, for instance, is that you don't really need to worry about other people reading what you have written. This isn't about keeping secrets. It's about relaxing on your own and not giving any concern to what others might think, not worrying about incomplete sentences, or explaining context, or misspelling words, or skipping here and there on a whim.

Soon you may notice something interesting. How many times has someone asked you what day it is and you have to stop and think. "What day is it??" What day of the week. What date. I mean, talk about an indication that our lives are too hectic! If you start writing in your journal each day, before long you won't have to think about what day of the week it is, or what the date is. You will know off the top of your head. And if you find yourself thinking, "Gee, this week has just flown by, what did I spend my time doing" all you need to do is flip through the pages of your journal to recover that time.

Why write with a fountain pen? First, don't worry about getting a fountain pen before starting your journal. Any pen will do to begin with. I started messing around with fountain pens for sketching. Kansas City has a great pen store, called the Pen Place, where I got my first (and second) fountain pens. I chose Lamy pens. These are the best quality, reasonably priced fountain pens available. The resin (plastic) versions cost about $30. (The matte finish versions are particularly good for carrying about in your pocket -- the shiny version starts looking scratched up pretty quickly.) The Pen Place person added what is called a converter, which cost another $4. It is a little piston device that enables you to fill the pen from an ink bottle instead of using cartridges -- much more economical.

Frankly, I thought fountain pens would be fussy and not great to write with. In fact, they are easy to use and write a beautiful, flowing line that is pure pleasure. One thing you will need, though, is good quality paper to write on, and one of the first things I realized is that Moleskin notebooks now have very cheap paper that doesn't work well for fountain pens. (They are made in China, now.) I've been writing in lovely journals I found at the Nelson-Atkins Museum Store (shown in the picture above). They are lined (I wish they weren't, actually) and have wonderfully smooth and high-quality paper.

Writing with a fountain pen encourages you to slow down. A good thing. We're not talking about crawling across the page, but for whatever reason, fountain pens work best with a light tough and a steady smooth cadence. And something about these pens encourages that sort of writing. It's a sort of reflective pace that lends itself well to mulling things over and contemplation. One thing that helps is to pause occasionally and tap the barrel of the pen with your forefinger three times. This sounds kooky, I know, but it causes your grip to relax and loosen up. Holding the pen (any pen) with a vice-like "death grip" causes cramped and unpleasant writing. It happens almost all the time, too, if you don't pay attention to how your holding a pen. At least it did to me.

Another great thing about fountain pens is that they conserve on natural resources. They last for years and years. That is many, MANY disposable pens you won't consume.

Will keeping a journal and writing with a fountain pen really help you slow down? Honestly, I didn't start doing it to slow down, but the truth is, somewhat unexpectedly, it really does help. The effect becomes more and more noticeable over time.


waxwing said...

Interesting -- I've got a couple fountain pens and a number of decent journals around the house, but since I began blogging have not used them much.

When we were in Ireland last summer, I did write in a journal (that I ended up transcribing when I got back home). I don't know if writing in the journal helped me slow down much (just being in Ireland does that for you) but it was quite different from blogging.

Do you have a set time where you write in your journal? What do you do if you miss a day? Ignore it or write the next day and backdate it?

My teenaged journals almost always included the day of the week, in addition to the date. I'd often also include the time of day.

Perhaps I'll try your experiment and report back.

Fiske said...


I usually start a journal entry each morning. Frequently I'll add more later in the day and often something before I go to sleep. For one thing, I have started keeping track of my reading through the journal. I had thought about doing this on my blog, but found I didn't make time for it.

I'm also fond of including quotes I really like from books I'm reading, which makes the journal a little bit of a common place book.

This sounds like a lot of writing, but I don't think it really amounts to more than 20 minutes a day. Spread out, it doesn't feel like much. Maybe it is as much as half an hour some days. When I'm at home, I tend to keep the journal close to hand.

I actually keep separate journals for the workshop and for astronomy. I might add dedicated birding and cooking journals. The reason for dedicated journals is just to make it easy to find specific types of information. The workshop journal is particularly useful when I need to recall the details of a setup for making some type of moulding or other -- trim carpentry projects tend to spread out over the years (as one moves from room to room) and detailed notes help keep the trimwork consistent. :-)

I don't back date, but sometimes I will talk about events from the previous day. I just say whatever I'm writing about happened yesterday or etc.

I like blogging in its own right, but my journal is much more immediate and convenient. I had thought I would do a lot with Google Notes, honestly, but find myself using 3x5 index cards more and more. I know this sounds archaic, but it works well for me. I use index cards as book markers and make notes of items I want to refer to later. I have also started keeping bibliography cards on all the books I check out from the library so I can recall them (and recheck them conveniently if need be) later.

I know all this sounds terribly organized, but it isn't OCD or anything. :-) It was keeping an astronomy journal that really got me into the whole journal thing. Have you ever happened to look at pictures of the 22-inch scope I built?

Fiske said...

BTW, I would love to hear your report on journaling and whether it helps you slow down. The whole "life in the slow lane" thing is really important to me. I've been pondering whether I might have a book in me on the subject.


Michael K. Gause said...

Great to read on a topic very close to my own way. I am a fountain pen user and journaler, and writer in MN. I am working hard to slow down the movement of things in my sphere. I carve out time to write slowly in my journal with a fountain pen in an effort to simply do something aesthetically nourishing, visibly pleasing, and focused. The result often ends up on my blog of creative scribblings.

Perhaps all of us here should each compose a chapter on the value of slowness. We all put them together and self-publish a book about it.

In any event, keep thinking, keep writing, and for Odin's sake...slow down.