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.



19 thoughts on “Writing is a dirty business.”

  1. Ink…incredibly messy at times…but there’s nothing like it! I enjoyed this read very much Danny…I love the way you sketch and write…always captivating!


  2. Hi Danny , I am a newcomer to your website. This comment is not for posting, please. However, I would like to know more about your writing/ printing artfulness. And I would love to know the secrets of managing ink!! Suki


  3. You made me smile this morning, & I needed a smile. Also, a comment on your recent Self Portrait video. I especially loved it; it makes me want to pick up where I left off years ago, after doing a journal of self portraits. Thanks for being you.


  4. Danny, I have ventured into the world of fountain pens, cartridges, converters, Noodlers, etc. I found it all very confusing at first, but there’s a learning curve. I’m surprised when the pen runs dry a day or two after I’ve filled it, but that’s more a comment about my day and how I’ve processed it than the pen! I now have a bottle of ink at work and at home. I thought I would hate the scratchy sound, but I don’t. How is it possible that a pen makes my handwriting look better? I love my pens: two Lamy Safaris (white and Koosje’s favorite, pink) and a Lamy Joy calligraphy. Thanks for introducing me to this inky world!


  5. Another smile from you, Danny. I so remember pens like all these and have only now started to use them to draw and write. There is something wonderful about hand writing a letter to someone but drawing with ink is something else! Dip pen is in its infancy with me so something new (well new at this stage in life, the other seeming like centuries ago!) for drawing but I will persevere! The fountain pen is good for writing but I can’t get used to it for drawing as the ink runs everywhere! So its comforting to know that I can now, like you, laugh at these mishaps in good company!


  6. Oh my God, thank you for sharing that! For me first comes the Hunt for the Pen, for the last one that felt good to me. Where did I put it? A fountain pen — lovely when it glides. Now they all seem to need their cartridges squeezed between uses. Ah, for the days of Shaeffer!

    I recommend pink nail polish on nails rimmed with blue fountain pen ink for a fastidious look. Alas fountain pens make me feel like Hemingway when they work so I am continually sucked into trying them.
    I now have pens made in another country not known for its pens, as far as I know, and cannot tell which end of the ink cartridge should be facing which way in the barrel because both ends seem unsuitable and equally unyielding.

    Never had a fountain pen release all its ink in my pocket but will offer in commiseration the “hardboiled” egg in my purse to eat for lunch at school. Life is a dirty business.


  7. This is classic Gregory! One of the things that makes your writing relatable. Been there done that and sometimes I still do. Not sure I agree with the sizing of the paper part yet I am quite sure that inattentiveness on my part is probably the source of most of my “issues.” Thanks Danny.


  8. Ha ha ha ha ha only you could make the trials of inky mess funny. My favorite t-shirt from the Urban Sketchers in Chicago, now sports a line of permanent ink droplets from me shaking a pen that wasn’t feeding ink … but it sure fed in mid-air onto my white shirt… so a sketchers t-shirt with ink all over it… it works for me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hey, that sucks but your works are fabulous, anyway. I may have a solution to your dip pen dilemma. You’ll need a small ball of tack-it and tatoo ink caps… https://www.google.com/aclk?sa=l&ai=DChcSEwi5_eSx0urSAhVJcbwKHYi6AuMYABARGgJ0Zw&sig=AOD64_0eAgU1dNGAZwj_J4r1p8k_Z-OeQw&ctype=5&q=&ved=0ahUKEwjord-x0urSAhUS3mMKHcZ5DpAQpysIKg&adurl=
    And if you or anyone you know is diabetic you can use the plastic caps from the pen needles. Secure the ink cap on the table with the tack-it and angle the cap position in a diagonal position. Drop some ink into it and dip away. I hope that helps.


  10. Ah, Yes…..Inky stuff is messy stuff! Tip from your calligrapher friend, Elsie Hickey-Wilson: Windex!!!! Cleans ink off fingers, most table tops, and off pen nibs and even works well to clean out a clogged fountain pen! It does not work on getting ink out of clothes….alas! Cheers,


  11. I looked up Ink stains on an old booklet called “Nuttall’s fabric facts” (1977!)Federic Warne & Co. Ltd ., England:
    “rinse and wash as soon as possible; use propriatary mould remover; for white cotton or linen use oxalic acid; for wool, fine and man made fabrics use lemon juice” For Ballpoint ink use methylated or surgical spirit.
    I know its not the point of your post and is really about the love of ink, but hope it helps next time. I guess there was a point in being a book hoarder after-all.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I found your site via Steve Layman and I have been using fountain pens daily since 1994. Consequently, I have ruined more shirts and ties than I care to admit, but no cost is too great not have “jewelry you can write with”. Thanks for a funny story.


  13. And to think there could be a day where people don’t even know how to write with their hands anymore with pencil or pen. Since people will be so used to just texting on the electronic device of their choice. Even schools and colleges are becoming more open and open to just writing on an electronic device.

    Imagining handwriting itself to be a trait of a bygone era that is no longer common is quite depressing. And reading your blog on how much effort it once took makes it, even more, sadder.


  14. All I can say is I feel your pain. I even spill the India ink bottle from time to time. One on a celery green rug. Another time in the middle of an antique curly maple table top. Swore off it after that. I just bought new nibs Friday. Pray for my house. 😱😱😱😱


  15. You know now you’re going to get a lot of those plastic pocket protectors sent to you don’t you?


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