Get Inspired by the Pens of Great Writers - Part 1
(main image: Simone de Beauvoir: credit- Denise Bellon / AKG images)
Throughout history, great minds have left their mark not only through their ideas and accomplishments but also through the tools they used to express themselves. Pens, in particular, have played a significant role in the lives of many historical figures, serving as extensions of their creativity and intellect.
Writing is an adventure, a journey into the depths of one's imagination. And just like any great adventure, it requires the right tools to embark upon. For famous writers throughout history, their pens were not just instruments of writing, but extensions of their creative souls.
‘A pen is to me as a beak is to a hen.’
J.R. R. Tolkien
Next time you pick up your pen, take a moment to consider the pens that have been favoured by some of the most influential figures in history. Who knows, you might find inspiration in their choices and discover a new favourite pen of your own. Let's delve into the world of these remarkable individuals and discover the pens that accompanied them on their extraordinary journeys.
John Steinbeck: Palomino Blackwing Pencil
That’s not a pen, I hear you cry! Forgive me this indiscretion but our list would be incomplete without the inclusion of Steinbeck and his love for Blackwing.
‘The free exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world’ - John Steinbeck (1952). “East of Eden”, p.116, Penguin [2002 reprint]
John Steinbeck during his visit to Finland. By Olavi Kaskisuo / Lehtikuva https://d3gg7gh6znnt6d.cloudfront.net/thumbnail/25981449.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58854347
Born in 1902, John Ernst Steinbeck was an American writer of English, Irish and German descent who is probably best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and the novella ‘Of Mice and Men’ (1937). In his all too short lifetime he wrote twenty-five books - sixteen novels, six non-fiction books and several short stories.
Image credit :
Growing up in the Salinas Valley region of California, the rich migratory and culturally diverse communities imparted a strong stylistic flavour to his work with a distinct locationality and identifiable sense of time and space. Although Steinbeck briefly lived in New York City, his career returned him to California and much of his early work dealt with themes and subjects familiar to him from growing up in the area. Drawing upon direct experiences and the lives of those around him he was able to create the authentic voice in his writing that sees him revered many years after his death. He worked as a reporter for some time which led to his use of accurate historical conditions and events from the first half of the 20th Century in American and his focus tended to lay with struggling and hard-on-their-luck characters.
His work examined the lives of the working class and migrant workers during the Great Depression (1929-1939) and The Dust Bowl (1930-1936) and some of his later work delved into his wider range of interests including marine biology, Politics, Religion, History and Mythology.
Steinbeck was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 though he famously stated that he didn't deserve it ( a sentiment also expressed by some Swedish media outlets…his win is often described as him being the best of a bad lot - though this is a controversial statement in and of itself with many regarding him as one of the greatest of his time)
Seventeen of his works, including The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), and East of Eden (1952), went on to become Hollywood films, and Steinbeck also achieved success as a Hollywood writer, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Story in 1944 for Alfred Hitchcock's 'Lifeboat'.
Steinbeck despised yellow pencils, finding them distracting and had a preference for dark pencils with a dark graphite core - enter the Palomino Blackwing.
"I have found a new kind of pencil - the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too but it is Black and it is soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper" - John Steinbeck
Writers are often known to be meticulous and creatures of habit - John Steinbeck was no exception. Each day, he began his writing process by sharpening 24 blackwing pencils, placing them in a wooden pot on his desk. He would sharpen these pencils to the sharpest point possible and use each of them only for four or five lines of writing - at this point (pun intended) he deemed them too blunt for use and would place them tip down into a matching wooden box. Once each pencil was spent he would collect up all 24 and resharpen them and begin the process over again.
The number ‘24’ became the Volumes title for the Blackwing Volumes collection designed in consultation with John's son Thomas Steinbeck ( an accomplished author in his own right). The Volumes ‘24’ was essentially John Steinbeck's ideal pencil. Black, from barrel to eraser to avoid distraction and with graphite that could create “the hardest point you can find that still maintains some darkness.” “My father’s pencils had a firm, sharp point,” noted Thom. “They were surgically sharp. You could dissect a mouse [with his pencils].” - Thomas Steinbeck ℅ Blackwing (https://blog.blackwing602.com/volumes-blackwing-vol-24/)
According to Thom, some days he would use over 100 pencils. But every day started with 24 pencils and the almost surgical sharpening process.
As one might expect, The Volumes ‘24’ was incredibly popular and has now sold out…but if you are looking for a comparable experience to Steinbeck when using a Blackwing pencil, then here are some options for you…
The Blackwing 602 pencil - praised in the New Yorker and The Boston Globe, the Blackwing 602 features a firm and smooth graphite core that helps it deliver on its promise of "Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed". The Palomino Blackwing is the firmest pencil in the Blackwing portfolio and comes in a box of 12 pencils.
This special edition pencil is the third entry in Blackwing's Eras series and honours Blackwing's heritage with designs inspired by the unique history of the Blackwing 602. In 2020, Blackwing launched the first ERAS pencil celebrating 10 years of the Blackwing revival with a design pulled straight from the 1930s. In 2021, the second ERAS release paid tribute to the Palomino pencils that inspired the Blackwing revival. This ERAS pencil sports a retro design inspired by the arrow-punched ferrule found on Blackwing pencils in the mid-20th century. Each box includes 12 special edition pencils that feature a dark grey barrel, gold arrow-punched ferrule, gold imprint, red eraser, and Blackwing's extra-firm graphite.
Neil Gaiman - Lamy 2000/ Pilot 823/ Visconti
When Neil Gaiman came up on my list of writers who are known for favouring certain pens, I have to admit I couldn't immediately picture the author or his works…until I began my research!
Image Credit: Masterclass - https://www.masterclass.com/classes/neil-gaiman-teaches-the-art-of-storytelling
Gaiman was born in Hampshire although he is currently based in Massachusetts in the United States. As a child he devoured book after book and spent a lot of time in libraries. His family is of Jewish descent but are active in the church of Scientology… a ‘religion’ Gaiman himself does not associate with although themes around Theology are often present in his work. Authors which inspired him as a child included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, James Branch Cabell, Edgar Allan Poe, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. LeGuin, Gene Wolfe, and G.K. Chesterton.
His early writing career centred around his job as a journalist, conducting interviews and writing book reviews in particular. Journalism was more of a means-to-an-end, aiding him in learning about the world and making connections in the publishing world. He left journalism because he became disenchanted with British newspapers publishing ‘untruths as facts’
It is hard to pinpoint Gaiman’s ‘genre’, he is credited with being one of the creators of modern comics but he also produces works for children, young adults and adults of all ages, his works include fiction, non-fiction, film, poetry, song lyrics, sci-fi, drama, comedy, satire…you name it - he's probably turned his hand to it at some point!
Many of Gaiman’s works have been adapted for the big screen… probably most notably Stardust, which premiered in August 2007 and stars Charlie Cox, Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Claire Danes and Mark Strong. A stop-motion version of Coraline was released in 2009, directed by Henry Selick and starring the voices of Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher (it won a BAFTA for best animated film and was nominated for an Oscar).
He has also had huge success with adaptations for the (slightly smaller screen) with American Gods being adapted into an HBO series starring Ricky Whittle and Ian McShade and Good Omens (co-written with Terry Pratchett, 1990) now adapted into a tv series starring David Tennant, Michael Sheen and Jon Hamm!
It’s not just his books being adapted to TV and Film but he has also been employed to write on long-standing tv shows such as Doctor Who where he penned the 2011 episode ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, which is often cited as a triumph among fans of the show and even saw the Times describe him as ‘a hero’.
Neil Gaiman, Suranne Jones & Matt Smith - BBC
Gaiman is often cited as an avid fountain pen user. He himself states that he writes the first drafts of all of his books with a fountain pen. This practice stemmed from the process he employed when writing Stardust. In order to capture the feeling of the 1920’s he wrote the book using a fountain pen and enjoyed the experience so much it has become almost ritualistic. Gaiman is linked with a number of fountain pens, including the Lamy 2000, Pilot 823 (he has one that he states he has used for over a million signatures), TWSBI Diamond 580 and an unknown Visconti. In an interview with the BBC he said ‘My current favourite is a Visconti because it has a magnet in the lid which goes clunk when I put the top on – I am easily satisfied. I probably have between 40 and 60 fountain pens, which is a bit silly, but once people are aware that you like them, they like to give them as gifts.’
Walk in the footsteps of the profoundly creative multi-genre writer with these Fountain Pen stars:
Currently awaiting stock on the Lamy 2000 Fountain Pen, but if a Lamy 2000 is what you are after, you may be enticed by the ballpoint.
The LAMY 2000 has been writing design history since 1966. As a timeless classic it is still one of the most modern writing instruments today. Produced from stainless steel with a matt brushed finish, the LAMY 2000 Ballpoint Pen uses LAMY M16 refills available in black, blue, green or red ink and comes fitted with a black refill.
The Pilot Custom 823 is made of luxury crystal clear acrylic available in amber and black colours. This exclusive fountain pen has a large number 15 size 14ct gold nib (the equivalent of a European number 6 size) available in Fine, Medium and Broad widths. The pen features a superb piston filling mechanism that is visible through the clear acrylic and will hold a huge 2.2ml of ink. Ink flow to the nib can be shut off by tightening the piston end cap, ideal when on the move!
The TWSBI Diamond 580 is a piston filler type fountain pen that has a particularly smooth action. The crystal-clear plastic barrel reveals the pens inner workings and of course shows the ink level too. With the Diamond 580 TWSBI have fused the traditional mechanisms of the fountain pen with a modern industrial design resulting in a very usable, comfortable and practical everyday writing instrument.
The TWSBI Diamond 580 comes with the necessary tools and instructions to strip down the pen should it require a major clean or replacement parts, however, this should not be necessary with normal usage and maintenance.
Supplied with a polished stainless steel nib available in sizes Extra Fine, Fine, Medium, Broad, 1.1mm Stub and 1.5mm Stub.
The Visconti Mirage Fountain Pen features an unusual variegated resin in a choice of colours and a fluted design runs the length of the barrel and cap. The fountain pen is nicely balanced and comfortable to write with when the cap is posted or unposted and when not in use the cap has a magnetic closure system to keep the nib safe. The polished stainless steel nib which is pleasantly engraved comes in either Extra Fine, Fine, Medium or Broad widths. The pen is completed with polished chrome fittings and carries Visconti's signature arched bridge pocket clip.
Mark Twain: Conklin Crescent Filler
Most well-known for his classic (and often controversial) novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Mark Twain was a huge fan of the Conklin Crescent Filler.
Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, Mark Twain was not just a novelist, but also a (somewhat failed) entrepreneur, publisher, lecturer, essayist, travel writer and humorist. Raised in Hannibal, Missouri (later the setting for both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Twain served as an apprentice printer, a typesetter (contributing to his brother Orion Clemens’ newspaper) a riverboat pilot, a (short lived) miner and a journalist. His varied life experiences fueled his writings and sharp humour which made him popular among presidents, industrialists, celebrities, european high-society and artists.
By A.F. Bradley, New York - steamboattimes.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11351079
Living in both poverty and relative wealth during his lifetime, Twain had a unique perspective on the human condition. He earned a significant amount of money from his writing and lectures but invested and lost a vast portion of it on ‘unique opportunities’ such as the Paige Compositor (a mechanical typesetter which was far too complex and not precise enough to be of any success). He once filed for bankruptcy but managed to overcome his financial hardships with the help of Standard Oil executive Henry Huttleston Rogers and even though he was not required to (as part of his bankruptcy filing) he paid all of his creditors in full.
By Mark Twain - Internet Archives: https://archive.org/details/trampabroad00twai, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16379917
Something I have always found interesting about Mark Twain is that he was born shortly after Halley’s comet appeared and throughout his life stated that he would die when it returned…he did just that!
Near the completion of Huckleberry Finn, Twain wrote Life on the Mississippi, which is said to have heavily influenced the novel. The travel work recounts Twain's memories and new experiences after a 22-year absence from the Mississippi River. In it, he also explains that "Mark Twain" was the call made when the boat was in safe water, indicating a depth of two (or twain) fathoms (12 feet or 3.7 metres).
His life and adventures make for very interesting reading in and of themselves and I would certainly recommend taking a look at him as an intriguing historical figure, should you be so inclined. Back to pens. In 1903, Mark Twain is noted as saying (about the Conklin Crescent Filler), ‘I prefer it to ten other fountain pens, because it carries its filler in its own stomach and I cannot mislay even by art or intention.’ Twain eventually became a spokesperson for The Conklin Pen Company and humourously remarked that;’[...] it is a profanity saver; it cannot roll off the desk.’
On the 100th anniversary of Twain's death, Montblanc dedicated a limited edition to him as part of the Writers Editions collection though with a limited run of 12,000 and stunning features, it is difficult to come by.
His beloved Conklin Crescent Fillers are less troublesome to acquire;
Advanced for its time and featuring a reliable method for filling ink, the Conklin Crescent Filler attracted attention from many prominent figures of its time. In 1903, renowned American author and humorist, Mark Twain, became the official spokesman for the Conklin brand.
Handmade in Florence, Italy, each Crescent Filler utilises Conklin’s groundbreaking original design, one that still works as effortlessly as it did a century ago. Crafted from bars of solid, vibrant blue resin dapped with black flecks within and paired with polished silver accents, Vintage Blue is a beauty to behold and is tastefully engraved with Mark Twain’s signature along the band. Each pen still maintains the original Conklin spring loaded rocker clip that was patented in 1916, the perfect addition to any pocket, jacket, or coat.
The Conklin Crescent Filler fountain pen originates from a Conklin design dating back to the early 1900's. The innovative filling mechanism soon became a trade mark of Conklin giving instant recognition to their pens.
Produced from high grade resin, the Crescent Filler has all the features of the original pen but with modern day technology to give a reliable high quality writing instrument.
The Conklin Demonstrator Crescent Filler fountain pen is limited to 1898 numbered pieces world-wide, 1898 being the year that Conklin was founded. In 1903 Mark Twain, the legendary American author, expressed the virtues of this unique self-filling fountain pen and his signature is engraved on the cap band along with the individual limited edition number of the pen.
Produced from crystal clear acrylic, the writer is able to view the filling mechanism in action during filling and also to see at a glance how much ink remains before a refill is required.
Dylan Thomas: Parker 51 Fountain Pen
From prose to poetry and from Mississippi to Swansea! Who else but Dylan Thomas!
Rosalie Thorne McKenna, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
'Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.' - Dylan Thomas
Excerpt From The Poems of Dylan Thomas, published by New Directions. Copyright © 1952, 1953 Dylan Thomas. Copyright © 1937, 1945, 1955, 1962, 1966, 1967 the Trustees for the Copyrights of Dylan Thomas. Copyright © 1938, 1939, 1943, 1946, 1971 New Directions Publishing Corp.
Thomas was a captivating character and was often photographed with his Parker 51 in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he was known to enjoy a drink and was often characterised as the deep and brooding poet.
Dylan Thomas began his writing career at a young age, he left school at 16 in 1931 to become a reporter for the South Wales Daily Post where he remained for 18 months before becoming a freelance journalist for several years adding to his collections of poetry in his spare time filling notebook after notebook in his family home. Famously coddled by his mother, Thomas was very close with some of his extended family who lived in the area and was heavily supported in his private life allowing him to pursue his work.
Unlike many creatives, Thomas came to be highly celebrated during his lifetime but like many who came before him he found making a living from his craft quite challenging. He subsidised his income with reading tours and radio broadcasts which led to him becoming a known name in the public sphere off the back of his recordings for the BBC. He was frequently featured as an ‘accessible voice of the literary scene’ by the BBC.
The Dylan Thomas 'lost' notebooks - Swansea University courtesy of BBC ; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-west-wales-36103091
Many academics have dedicated their careers to unpacking Dylan Thomas the man and the poet so I shant dwell too much on the complexity of his nature and the discussions of his works. What can be said with absolute certainty…he had wonderful taste in pens!
The Parker 51 fountain pen was favoured by many for its quick drying ink and ergonomic design making it a great choice for prolonged periods of use. It is no surprise considering it was marketed in 1941 under the slogan ‘the world's most wanted pen’ alluding to the restrictions of consumer goods for civilian markets in the US during World War 2 - it was a pen of rebellion and resistance…perfect for a rain-soaked Welsh poet.
The ‘51’ was added to the pen in tribute to the anniversary of the company itself but also because it was a simpler way to appeal to global markets without having to go through the process of translating a ‘name’ into different languages…that Parker marketing team were good! Famously the late Queen Elizabeth II was known for being a huge fan of the Parker 51.
Replicated with thanks; inkstable blog - https://inkstable.com/queen-elizabeth-s-fondness-for-parker/
The Parker 51 fountain pen is as groundbreaking today as it was when first launched in 1941, Parker's 51st year! This unique writing instrument is inspired by the pen once hailed as the ‘world’s most wanted’ retaining its distinctive streamlined silhouette and iconic hooded nib, yet is made for the future. This pen is hand assembled and made from durable precious resin, benefitting from Parker’s expertise and reputation for superior craftsmanship. From conception to assembly, the attention to detail is second to none. The cap is decorated with a complementary metallic jewel and each finish is inspired by heritage colours of the past, a tribute to the original Parker 51 range. The Parker 51 - Inspired by the past, made for the future!
Simone de Beauvoir: Esterbrook J and Sheaffer Snorkel
French Writer, social theorist and philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir is perhaps best known for her contribution to the women's rights and feminist movements and being a proponent of Existentialism alongside her non-monogamous partner Jean-Paul Sartre.
De Beauvoir’s works extended beyond novels into essays, biographies, autobiographies, philosophical monographs and academic texts which would become foundational works across many of the social sciences. Probably best known for The Second Sex (1949) which (although she was reticent to label herself feminist until second wave feminism emerged in the 1960s - ironically a movement her work -in part- influenced) provided a core text for feminist academics and activists from the late 1950s onwards.
The founders of the second-wave read The Second Sex in translation, including Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, Juliet Mitchell, Ann Oakley and Germaine Greer. All acknowledged their profound debt to Beauvoir, including visiting her in France, consulting with her at crucial moments, and dedicating works to her. Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book The Feminine Mystique is often regarded as the opening salvo of second-wave feminism in the United States, later said that reading The Second Sex in the early 1950s ‘led me to whatever original analysis of women's existence I have been able to contribute to the Women's movement and its unique politics. I looked to Simone de Beauvoir for a philosophical and intellectual authority.’
Controversial in both her private life and academic writings, Simone de Beavoir made her mark on the world - and did it predominantly with a fountain pen. She was said to have a preference for the Esterbrook J and the more unusual Sheaffer Snorkel pens (with their extravagant filling process). The Esterbrook J was a more affordable (yet stylish) option which was more suited to everyday use and featured easily replaceable nibs and a hardy design which makes them one of the more abundant vintage pens on the market. Esterbook has an interesting history which you can read about in https://www.hamiltonpens.com/blogs/articles/the-esterbrook-pen-company-from-cornwall-to-the-moon-and-back?_pos=139&_sid=2f3f35367&_ss=r The Esterbrook Pen Company: From Cornwall to the Moon and Back…
The Esterbrook Model J - a timeless masterpiece that gracefully blends vintage charm with modern ingenuity. Crafted with exquisite ebonite from Germany, this pen showcases a seamless fusion of tradition and innovation. Its iconic design, inspired by the beloved 1950's vintage model, pays homage to Esterbrook's rich heritage.
Equipped with a Jowo size 6 gold plated nib, available in various sizes, including custom options, this pen promises an exceptional writing performance. Delight in the subtle yet distinctive barrel engraving, adorned with the R.Esterbrook signature logo, while the grip section ensures extended writing comfort.
The “J” was Esterbrook’s sleek and suave, classic pocket pen that appealed to the practicality of the times; it was a perfect pen for both men and women. Esterbrook's revival of this 1940’s and 50’s pen has all of the hallmarks of its predecessor, with a few new bells and whistles. The new “JR” is stylish and refined without being too fancy. It’s meant to match your style, as well as it graces your hand. With a refined design, that isn’t fussy, it is compact in size, so you can always have one on hand in your jeans or shirt pocket, purse, or briefcase. It can be with you on the go, wherever you go.
Fitted with a German JoWo nib engraved with the Esterbrook Eternity symbol and available in a range of sizes, this is Esterbrook's new take on the small, but mighty pocket pen! Supplied with one ink cartridge and an ink converter for bottled ink use and presented in an Esterbrook gift box.
To Be Continued...
Come back for part two to find out about the writing preferences of more great writers throughout history and a couple of special mentions!
Inspired? Explore our full collection of writing instruments at the Hamilton Pen Company and get started on your own masterpiece!