jasonphoenix Jason Phoenix: Thoughts on Quality: Ink & Bricks & Durability


Thoughts on Quality: Ink & Bricks & Durability

At the beginning of this month, I started to write about Fountain Pens.  I woke up one morning, similarly to this one, with a desire to write with a fountain pen.  There is a specific feeling to writing with a fountain pen, the ink gliding out across the texture of the paper, the ink itself drying, the words spooling out into the blank space.  Thoughts have to be processed differently, a pause causes blots, the speed of the hand never matches the speed of thought.

My fountain pens were non-functioning, and I sought out all the information I could on the Internet.  I tried to write a blog post about my travails with fountain pens, and a thought about permanence using Google Docs Offline, but after I shut my laptop to make instant mashed potatoes, the document was not there.  This furthered my thought upon permanence through the lack thereof.

It was there on a digital list somewhere, but the document simply wouldn’t load in any way, shape, or form.  Frustrated, I gave up, remembering to put in more about the quality of mashed potatoes, convenience, and impermanence.  A day later what I had written synched perfectly like nothing had happened, all was well and fine, no words lost.  Score one for Google, albeit a late breaking score after the stadium had been let out.  

By then I had bought a disposable fountain pen, and I tried to finish my thoughts on how fountain pens relate to permanence or quality or some fleeting thought about them both that I was trying to cage with words.  I re-read what had become my first draft, and I hated it.  I read what had been my second draft, in ink, and I hated it too.  I also discovered now much I despise writing with a fountain pen in bed, at night.

I wondered about how much the medium affects the thought, or the ability to transmit thought at a given speed affects how you think, what you write, how your expression ends up choked off or deliberated upon.  How I use less words in longhand than when I am clattering away on a keyboard, how many more characters are typed, cut, edited, pasted when I am on my computer than when I am at my beloved manual typewriters.

Yes, its true.  Not only do I wake up with longings to write with an archaic instrument, I have manual typewriters that I love.  Both Royals, neither electric, no means of corrections.  I thought about my love for these different ways to achieve expression, different instruments and their effect on the output.  I thought about writing about the joys of manual typewriters, their loudness and their sense of permanence as opposed to the plastic chitter of a laptop and the seeming ethereal permanence of Google Docs.

This idea inspired me to pastiche all of my various attempts together, using my typewriter for the last push.  I would take photos of all my physical writing, combine it with my original Google Doc, publish the whole brilliant thing online.  It would speak to er, uh, what was the original idea?

I tried to write about this brilliant idea in bed with my new fountain pen and realized how much I hate writing in bed with fountain pens, the smear of the ink, the frustration of angles and awkward motions and sheets interference.  The thing you want becomes the thing you wanted once you have it.

When I eventually reviewed what I’d written, it felt like the idea, that mental itch wasn’t gone, but none of the attempts were getting close to scratching it.  I had written about the feeling of writing with fountain pens, the history of fountain pens, the frustration of Google Docs, the odd time displacement of disposable fountain pens, but hadn’t said once what I originally wanted to.

By then there had been a National Election, which I ended up sick during, and throughout.  There has been more work to do and things happening.  The original thought submerged back into that void of forgotten ideas.

The thought is that I perceive of a dissonance between quality and convenience, at least where I live.  This dissonance seems to be getting louder, and although I cannot come up with a solution, I think that perhaps describing the problem may go to help create a new consonance.  I also think that I have to be mindful of this dissonance as an artist, because I want to limit my compromises.

One of the things that my fountain pens and manual typewriters share in common is that they require effort and maintenance, but that if maintained, they could last for a very long time.  My fountain pens were not working because I’d accidentally gotten ahold of some bad ink, which has clogged one completely despite my best efforts.  

This had lead me on a train of thought about how ink can go bad, about how many people once relied on a supply of quality ink for their fountain pens to work, about the concerns from ages past on how long, how permanent the ink itself is.  I learned about metal nibs and dip pens, iron gall ink, and india ink, archival ink, and Quink, a brand of ink by Parker Pen Company.

I also read about how fountain pens were upstarts to the metal nibs of dip pens and ink pots, but that their complexity made them more convenient--if prone to destruction through misuse or bad ink.  People bemoaned the constant messy effort of having to fill the reservoir not so long after they’d abandoned the use of ink pots.  

The golden age of fountain pens coincided with the downfall of the fountain pen.  The same technological advances of resins, plastics, hard and synthetic rubbers that made fountain pens even more complex (and more accessible to more people) also were the advances that quickly replaced them altogether with ballpoint pens over a few decades.  Eventually, everyone could afford a ballpoint pen, and fountain pens went the way of the hobbyists, enthusiasts, and the status symbol.

Interestingly, I was unaware that a metal nib on a dip pen can last a lifetime of use, or that iron gall ink is extremely permanent, with documents lasting thousands of years having been written with the stuff.  

It turns out what I’d been associating with permanence and effort in fountain pens was in fact an example of a modern upstart, the solution to a problem that didn’t really exist, replaced by something even more more convenient and more inferior.

That’s not entirely true.  The problem that existed was the effort involved in dipping a pen into an inkpot.  It broke the train of thought.  Running out of ink mid word was distracting.  It was slow, even if the pen and the ink could potentially last forever.

Enter the Typewriter, a massive evolution spawned from multiple engineers from all over the world over decades to create a thing which had no pause, no need for penmanship, clear and concise and quickly printed.  

Except, of course for the pause to unstick keys, to unjam the ink ribbon, to get the inner mechanics to function, to hit the carriage return after the bell.  To have to write a thing and then edit it and then write it again, and then edit it, and then finally labor over a perfect copy of it.  Maybe another.

However, given maintenance, a typewriter could last a lifetime, or more.  If the ink was good, the records were permanent, and didn’t require a person to spend part of their life learning the muscle memory for writing in legible copperplate.

The typewriter was usurped by the word processor, then the computer, and then webpages.  The ultimate in convenience, the pinnacle of editing and correction.   

Here we hit a wrinkle, which is the permanence and impermanence of digital things.  It is extremely convenient to be able to write and edit and have my multiple misspelling highlighted for my review and correction.  But although convenient, is it permanent?

I have a long history of writing various things, and the one gap in this is all the digital things I have ever written.  When I was a pre-teen, I spent two years writing a fantastic story about fantasy warriors and the journey to destroy these evil beings that had held a castle hostage.  

All of those words and thoughts and plots and time gone.  Somewhere in the world a harddrive sits on a computer with an unreadable file, and a whole world is contained on it.  Other worlds are lost in floppy discs, on CD-R’s, on various harddrives.  Hours and hours of writing, and nothing to show for it.

By the time I had become a young adult, I had written thousands and thousands of words about music, my local scene, events I had participated in, hopes and dreams, and so on.  Some still remain tucked away in corners of the Internet, but others disappeared along with the servers and the dot com that ran the free service.  On the other hand, you get what you pay for.

I suppose the latest thing in my world is Google Docs, but it is still a webpage in the end, word processor though it might be.  It is an amazing leap for me to be able to write a thing on my phone, or any browser, and whatever I write or rewrite or comment on stays put.  I don’t have to carry anything with me, and I can still work on a thought without carrying a physical copy.

But again, is it permanent?  When the computer is off, does the file still exist?  What if the harddrive is corrupted?  Will it last as long as iron gall ink?  Will what I write last only as long Google exists as a company?  Or as long as the electricity lasts for my civilization?

Of course, at some point everything will be absorbed by the sun, but these are ideas worth wondering about.  People spent many, many years working on the permanence of the written word, to create copies, to make these ideas stay alive and outlive their originators, transcribers, copyists, publishers.

So there’s a dissonance between convenience and permanence that we can see in a couple different ways, as expressed through what we use to write, how what we use to write affect what we write, and whether or not any of it will stay around for someone else to read, to think about, to act on.

The part about quality relates to permanence in that the more effort put into a given thing, the longer it will last.  For example, those people who had to learn copperplate to write with their inkpots and dip pens spent years perfecting their handwriting so that what they wrote was more or less standardized and legible.  These skills lasted those people throughout their lifetime, whether they survived to see the dawn of typewriters or word processors.  Their words are still legible as well, and can be admired in their own right aesthetically.

Another example would be the typing skills involved in using a manual typewriter.  Physically, they can be challenging, but the amount of effort required to strike the keys against the ribbon and paper and the muscle memory gained from touch typing on one carries into using a keyboard on a computer.  The trade off being penmanship; with the keys performing all the work, whether you can write legibly with a pen matters less.

In a different point of view, there’s an egalitarian component to this thread of thought that I keep coming back to as I think about this aspect.  There’s a disposable nature to a ballpoint pen, but there’s also the quality that (in my part of the world at least) almost anyone can get access to a ballpoint pen and paper.  

There’s something inspiring here, a universal democratizing factor within this, within the easy access to print, word processors, the Internet.  That the whole of it all leads to more people being able to record bits and pieces of their lives, their philosophies, their thoughts, dreams, and deeds.  In short, more people than ever have access to the ability to create and to read other people’s writing.

The words are legible and clear, without the years of effort it takes a person to write clearly in copperplate, typeset, hit a carriage return, refill a fountain pen, cut a quill from a goose feather.  And again, this ability is now ubiquitous, accessible from anywhere.  

And the results, despite the physical quality of the ink and paper involved is offset by that universal access.  In the past, people put much more effort and thought into the quality of the paper and the ink itself; they affected the tools and the end result.  They affected the permanence of what they were writing.

Here again, we can revisit a quirk in quality and quantity with a twist at the end.  At several points in history (the Reformation, the American and French Revolutions, etc.), people published quickly & cheaply made pamphlets expressing their viewpoint on a given social/political/religious viewpoint.  
This could be compared backwards; the Reformation’s notes and missives to the scribes copying religious texts letter for letter, or to the historians sifting through the revolutions.  One is writing for the ages, the other for the moment.

Printed with cheap ink, run off on pulp paper, writings like these were made in the moment for the moment, with little consideration to permanence as you would have were you publishing a book intended to be read and reread.  The trade off in this case of permanence, of good paper and good ink is the speed of publishing, the quickness to get an idea to many.

I said there was a twist, which is that although surely writings furiously written were lost in bundles to the ravages of time, people still copied some of them, and preserved them (usually with commentary).  The point being that despite the quality of the original materials, that which was worth transmitting was still copied down, still maintained a permanence.

In the present, a person can rip through ink cartridges like no tomorrow, and simply replace the printer for a similar cost to replacing the ink.  I’m still not sure how that works out, and I’m not thrilled by the ravages of a decade or two from documents printed with inkjets, unless you happen to live in the desert or a climate controlled cave.  There’s nothing like trying to figure out what was written on a blurry bluish mess that’s gotten slightly damp at some point or another.

But at this point, why even bother with print; put up a blog and blah blah blah into eternity without any need for pulp paper even.  With pictures.  And video.  It will stay there forever, or until everyone has flocked to the next big social media whatever to set up a new outpost.  Until the company that became huge implodes and sells their servers, Intellectual Property, branding, and users to another company.

That question of digital permanence that was highlighted for me by the Google Docs situation, of having applied time and effort into thoughts and captured them with words, only to have them flit away.  The same applies for all the floppy disks, 3.5’s, CD-ROM’s, harddrives, and various digital media that has let me down over the years.  Because of these experiences, I have to think of digital as something I never really trust as being real--short of printing it (and losing that copy).

This thought that what is digital is not permanent is offset by the knowledge that I can go and look up a legion of thoughts I’ve posted on various email groups, forums, and a few social media sites from almost a decade ago.  They’re out there, for better or worse, the perspective of one person in a sea of people shouting in that place and time.

From my own experience with the Internet over the last decade, we leave bits of ourselves scattered around like Post-It notes and Polaroids, random thoughts and words and deeds that get shuffled into shoeboxes and remembered only when sifted through accidentally.  Or maybe obsessive fans once mass celebrity is achieved.  Or a court order.

If you want a present day glimpse of what the digital future will look like when the bills stop being paid, you could go look at the WayBack Machine when you’ve got spare time.  Its...different, and makes one realize how much the Internet relies upon pictures, and how often a picture (or the link to it) can go missing.  Still, a lot of text has survived.

Because digital publishing is a relatively new form, we’re not completely sure how things will work out in the long-distance future regarding all those blogs and forums and social media outposts--to say nothing of the email servers packed with correspondence, or Instant Messenger logs.  Although these digital formats seem today to be around forever, will they really be around for people of decades or centuries on to read and sift through?  

That which is loved, which resonates will be maintained by those who love it, just as various pieces of artwork, music, or thought have been replicated and transmitted on, long after even the author’s names had been lost and forgotten.  I’m not sure how that principle will apply to all the LiveJournals, BlogSpots, and WordPress sites in the world going forward to a century from now, but one can hope.  And then hope again for attribution for a while.

Here we come back to a different quality, different than physical permanence, the stroke of ink not smeared, the page not yellowed and brittle with time.  It is the quality of the thoughts themselves, in part their ability to be passed on--but in greater part the desire of others to want to pass them along.  How compelling or worthwhile are the thoughts themselves, how much others cherish them and they become part of their own lives is what truly makes permanence.

It is this quality of what is written that drives people to copy a text letter for letter, to memorize and recite it, to keep a book in circulation, to write one’s own commentary or reply years later.  This quality transcends the media itself, whether it is printed on pulp or pixelated.  

This is a quality which all artists of various media aspire to in a sense.  Partly that one’s name and work can be known for what it is and what one has done, but partly that people would care enough to not let that work be forgotten, to keep on reading, viewing, listening--and sharing that work because of its inherent worth.  

To think of a work in terms of its resonance puts it into a different light.  Not that a work is archival, printed on ink that will last generations with paper that will not grow yellow and brittle, but that someone would take the time to archive it, to take a picture of it, to make that picture their desktop or put a print of it on their wall.  

Such a thing cannot be forced or predicted.  An artist could spend their life perfecting a technique and still be washed away in a sea of similar artists with varying levels of mastery.  The technique and the media become superfluous to the idea itself; the plot or the character traits are more important than the font.

The differences between capturing a thought or a plot via ink and nib or qwerty keyboard become less important for their time’s sake and more important for what one can accomplish with them.  Even a brilliant thought misspelled and written in block letters with a crayon can captivate someone.

In that sense, those hours of time spent learning to write in whorls and loops, or to press keys to paper, or to fly through a document moving whole paragraphs about in seconds, these are elements that contribute to the strength of an idea.  The limitations of writing in longhand or editing a typewritten copy are what give the ideas their texture, their perspective.  

Still, I consider quality itself, however ineffable, to be a thing that is cultivated over time.  Perhaps although increasingly unnecessary, that time spent writing in cursive or touch-typing makes one respect the effort of a word, of a thought, of a sentence.

To compare to architecture (a most durable artform/media) each letter, word, sentence, paragraph, plot, thought, and tale is part of a brick.  Each finished and completed work itself is a brick, and the whole of an artist’s worth is held in the quality of those bricks and their placement.  Strong well built bricks placed well can last a long time, and so it is with words or sounds or lines strung out in time and space.

It is a poor craftsman who blames his tools; the true artist surpasses the tools completely and transcends time itself despite the means of the moment of creation.