Writing is a dirty business.

First on the list: Tea.
Then, water.
Fourth place, beer.

But right in between,  on the list of liquids I consume most, has to be… ink. It’s a messy relationship so let me complain a bit about it to you, in confidence.

When I was very little, ink was forbidden. We were only allowed to write and draw in pencils until third grade or so. By high school, ink was mandatory. Teachers would summarily reject smudgy homework done in lead.

I started typing when I was about eleven. And I taught myself the worst job in writing: changing typewriter ribbons. Festoons of inky cloth would cascade all over the room, marking every surface, turning my hands into ebony mitts.

I got my first fountain pen not long after — another source of misery and mess. God, how I dreaded that moment when my pen would run dry. After scribbling the nib frantically back and forth over the page, praying for a reprieve, I’d sigh and begin the chore of refilling: unscrewing the pen, dipping the barrel into an ink well, pumping the little bladder, black drops flying all over the desk.

Decades later, the carnage continues. I have been carrying around a lovely aluminum fountain pen from Muji. It uses cartridges which you’d think would make it less of a hassle. I carry it loaded, with a spare cartridge waiting in the back of the barrel. This week, I discovered that the pen has developed a tendency to unscrew in my pocket (I guess the motion of walking slowly untwists it). I reach my hand into my pocket and find two short tubular shapes where there should be one long one. The nib remains protected inside the cap but the back-end is open and the cartridge is disengaged, open-ended and oozing ink into my pocket. And onto my groping fingers.

Whatever the ink is, it’s not waterproof on the page, but it is on my fingers. Ordinary soap won’t do. I have to pull out the special bar of gritty Lava® soap I keep under the sink and flay my fingertips until the black marks are a faded grey. My nails will remain rimmed in black for days, as if I was an off-duty coal miner or a grease monkey fresh from changing a transmission.

I‘m used to being inky. I often chew the ends of ballpoints and invariably one will start to leak onto my face so I walk around unknowingly sporting black lips or a blue chin. Most of my jeans have indelible spots around the pockets from sitting on pens or having them uncap in the darkness.

The biggest culprit, of course, is my dip pen.The nib catapults ink when I press too hard. The shaft of the pen is always messy. And each time I prod the pen into the well, the cork bulb above the nib sucks up ink too, right where my fingers rest as I write.  And, because I am an inattentive slob, I invariably bump into parts of the page covered with still-wet ink, then smear it and daub my cuffs.

Failing the test.

Recently a manufacturer sent me some sketchbooks to test out (I won’t mention the brand by name). I liked the size, the binding and the weight of the paper and have filled up a twenty pages this week.

Then I discovered that, no matter how long I leave the ink to dry, it loses its water resistance. The ol’ reliable India ink that I have consumed by the barrelful over the years, is now completely untrustworthy, muddying my watercolors and smearing across the page. The manufacturer tells me it’s a function of the sizing on the paper. Whatever. It’s messed up a lot of pages now and, for once, it’s not my fault.


I guess I should stick to writing on my nice clean computer. Except my printer needs a new cartridge. Here we go.