An ode to the historic relationship between writer and instrument

A man wearing orange trainers sitting on a white block.

Harvey James talks to a host of fellow writers including George The Poet and GQ's Dylan Jones, as well as Montblanc's Zaim Kamal, about the love of the perfect pen

By Harvey James   Above image courtesy of George The Poet   Tuesday 7 July, 2020    Short read

At The British Library’s pre-lockdown exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, the act was detailed simply as ‘a graphical representation of speech’. Speak to many writers, and it might better be described as The New Yorker’s Mia Mercado so eloquently puts it, as merely ‘rearrang [ing] your pencils on a table until the cafe closes.’ In truth, for any fan of the medium, it’s somewhere between these extremes.

For the creative director of Montblanc, Zaim Kamal, the experience of learning to write in a convent in Karachi was actually quite distressing. ‘They had this ruler that they slapped into the small of your back, because they wanted you to write in a perfect way,’ he says. But somehow he never lost his love for putting pen to paper due, in part, to ‘the flow that it brought’. ‘Flow’ is the term that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this trance-like altered state of total absorption and effortless concentration, resulting in a kind of ecstasy. It is a curious effect of writing, one echoed by the greats who often recall an out-of-body daze. It’s fair to say that a writer in a state of joy is the act of disappearing. 

I met Kamal as part of a panel for Soho House 76 Dean Street’s Joy Of Writing event, hosted by luxury pen-maker (among other things), Montblanc. Kamal shared the stage with the head of GQ, Dylan Jones OBE, and British spoken word artist, poet and rapper, George the Poet. Kamal may not feel as adept as his co-panellists at articulating the excitement and ennui of a writer, but actually his understanding of its machinations – both practical and emotional – are spot on. George the Poet agrees with the sentiment of ‘flow’, and adds that part of the joy of writing certainly lies in the point of contact between your mind and the page. ‘I remember learning joined up handwriting, and there was this feeling of a sense of art about it, both literally and creatively,’ he says. ‘That never really left me. It used to take me ages to write essays, because it felt like an artistic undertaking and I realise now that I was trying to make the whole experience as poetic as possible.’ Jones concurs: ‘It is a relationship between the creativity and the act. I write much better with a fountain pen, for instance. I’ve got a Montblanc rollerball, which makes the whole thing so much more of an experience. If I’m trying to write something, even a shopping list at home, I will try to find the right pen for it because, although it sounds pedantic, the wrong pen simply doesn’t work.’
All three agree on the need to reclaim the humanity of writing in the digital age, with Kamal profoundly pointing to a final and deeper connection: ‘When you write by hand, you create memories; when you write digitally, you create files.’
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