Most writers are obsessed with pens, pencils, typewriters, and various other writing implements. I am no exception. I cannot walk into a stationery store without buying at least one pen and probably another notebook. It goes without saying that I certainly can’t walk past a stationery store. It’s the writer equivalent of stepping on a crack in the pavement.
Last week, a drinking acquaintance casually mentioned that he was looking for a new pen. “Got any recommendations?” he asked.
I whipped my pencil case out of my handbag.
“This one I use for quick note taking,” I said. “Because it’s clean. But I prefer this one for longer stuff because it’s fast and a little heavier. I like to have a bit of length and heft in a pen when I’m doing longform. It helps me to do this.”
I then demonstrated the one and only pen-flicking trick that I know to my astonished acquaintance.
I learned this trick way back in year seven at Sefton High School. It’s not very complicated, but I remember it took me some time to learn. Doing pen tricks was the height of coolness in my very nerdy school. 90% of my classmates were Asian, so I assume this is an Asian thing because pen flicking was not a highly regarded skill at any of my later schools.
My drinking acquaintance was genuinely surprised at the number of pens that I was carrying around. And as I explained the use of each one, I also was surprised at how much I knew and thought about my pens. It was almost embarrassing.
My favourite pen is a Mitsubishi Uni SA-S, which I have been collecting from around the world for more than a decade now. I first found it in a stationery store in Zagreb back in 2004. It’s hard to say exactly what I like about this pen except that I like it. It’s prone to blobs, which I have to wipe off on the corner of the page, and the blue has a lot of black in it. But I have written several novels (yes, with pen and paper) using these pens, as well as countless journals, notes, recipes, annotations, to-do lists, letters, phone numbers, addresses, directions, crosswords, sudoku, shopping lists, prices, feature articles, oh, and the occasional award-winning short story.
I do like my Mitsubishi pen.
They used to be relatively common, in that I could find my beloved Mitsubishi Uni SA-S in any stationery store in the world I happened to wander into. But they became harder and harder to find. Each time I was in Zagreb, I would go into that first store, hoping they still had them in stock. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t, and I would buy yet another handful – even though I probably had more than a few dozen back home in London. But London was one place I never could find my favourite pen, a fact which produced a kind of pen anxiety that only a fellow pen-thusiast can understand.
As they became less popular, the good old Uni SA-S, replaced by fancy gel pens and click pens and other pens which, while I appreciate them, just aren’t for me, I reached a point where I thought that I would have to find a new favourite pen. But I hadn’t quite given up on the SA-S just yet.
When I lived in China, I became convinced that my anxieties would be relieved, that I would be able to find millions of Mitsubishi pens. Surely, I reasoned, they are MADE here! I felt this way about many things in China and often I was wrong. For instance, you cannot buy a potato masher in China. My then girlfriend (Irish, desperately in need of a potato masher) and I walked through market after market looking for one.
“For fuck’s sake,” she said. “They’re fucking made here!”
Nevertheless, we could not find a potato masher the length nor breadth of China and had to enlist my parents to send one over from Australia.
Imagine my delight when walking into a department store in Shanghai, and casually walking into the stationery department, and nonchalantly scanning every shelf of pens, every box, every stand, coolly passing my eye over each and every counter – imagine my delight when I discovered a whole box of Mitsubishi pens. And beside them, something I had never seen before – Mitsubishi pen refills!
“I’ll take 20 pens,” I said to the clerk, and with her best English and my best sign language, I was understood.
At this stage I hadn’t been able to find my Mitsubishi pen for many months. It may have even been more than a year. I know that I had some acute level of anxiety (even though I still had dozens at home and in various suitcases and storage boxes throughout the world). And I earnestly believed at that moment that I had found the last remaining box of Mitsubishi pens in the world. Like an archeologist, I had uncovered the sole relic of a lost civilisation.
It was a bittersweet moment, though; I had finally, after months of combing department stores in China, rediscovered my perfect pen. But what if this was it? What if there would be no more pens after this? What if Mitsubishi had gotten out of the pen game to focus on sports utility vehicles? There can’t be that much profit in pens; they only cost a dollar, two at most, and not many people are still buying them, are they?
“And 20 refills,” I hastily added.
That was in 2006. In 2020, I still have at least 15 Mitsubishi pens here in the Philippines and almost all the refills. I’ve picked up a few extra pens along the way – that wasn’t the last box, although the design has changed slightly – but the majority of the blue pens that I am still using today are more than ten years old.
A curious side effect of this pen devotion is that I can’t throw any of them away. In the pencil case that I carry around with me, I will go through a few pens before I find one that works. The first one rarely does. It probably died many years ago but I still carry its carcase around. One day, I keep telling myself, I’ll go through my pens and test them all out. I’ll separate out the ones that don’t work… I won’t throw them away, though. I’ll let them sit on the sidelines for a bit and then test them again, just to double check… Oh, the lies we tell ourselves.
I’m not mono-obsessed, by the way. I do often try out a new pen and I have several other favourites. There are few things more enjoyable than trying out random pens in a bookstore, particularly when you’re travelling. In a new city, some people like to try out the fanciest restaurant. Others like to explore the gardens. My friend C likes to find the tallest building and have a cocktail at the top. My own personal jam is to find a bookstore, large or small, famous or obscure, and comb the racks of pens, looking for a new favourite. Or, sometimes, to rediscover an old one.
I was in Taiwan last year, back when travel was still a thing, and I went in to a store that looked a bit like a combination beauty/pharmacy. I needed some hair product, I think. But going upstairs, I found a whole stationery section. It was bustling with people, all carefully combing the shelves and putting small but satisfying products into their baskets. I saw the same scene in Seoul, and in Zagreb, here in Clark, and in countless other cities I have visited. Stationery stores are very much alive and well – and they are places of quiet joy and inspiration.
Who hasn’t picked up a new notebook and thought about the magnificent things they might write in there? And who hasn’t let that notebook linger on the shelf for years, too scared to open it, too scared that what they write there might not be good enough? And yet, we don’t have that same fear of the pen. You pick up your pen without hesitation; it’s the blank notebook that makes you doubt yourself.
The pen is mightier than the sword, not because it has the power to slay (although it does), but because it is full of potential. It contains multitudes – of to-do lists, notes, love letters, annotations, song lyrics, phone numbers, restaurant recommendations and yes, even sometimes, short stories or novels.
Writers are not obsessed with pens like some fetish. It’s not the objects we crave. We desire what we think we can do with them. We want what is contained inside.
Stationery stores will always be my rainbow. And every pen I buy is a potential pot of gold. And no matter what people say – mum, dad, ex-girlfriends, the girl who cleans my house – you can’t have too many potential pots of gold.