Last night, while reading Stefan Zweig’s memoirs, “Die Welt von Gestern,” I came across his description of Maria Ranier Rilke’s style of writing. Not the poetry itself but the actual way that he wrote with a beautiful hand, on only the best paper, with an excellent pen, and with never a cross-out. When Rilke made a mistake, he simply started over. He refused to send a letter marred by an emendation of any kind.
Naturally, I reflected on my own terrible script, and worse, that it had been years since I had written anything of length with pen and paper. In fact the last time I remember quite well, July 2008, when I took the California bar exam … with a pen. It was such a memorable experience that I took it again, only this time with a laptop. Thankfully, I did not have to repeat the fun a third time.
Reading about Rilke, and also about David Vogel, who crammed 75,000 words onto fifteen sheets of paper, made me remember that once upon a time pen and paper were the only writing tools that I owned. It wasn’t until 1983 or 1984 that I got my first computer and gradually dispensed with a practice that was cumbersome to employ and that resulted in a mostly illegible scrawl.
“What would happen if I tried to blog in ink?” I wondered. “And where would I even find any decent writing paper? Or a pen?”
The answer was too obvious: Del Amo Mall during Black Friday weekend. My first stop was a shop called “Typo,” certainly anathema to me; so much do I hate typos that I have a typo elf who reads my blog and faithfully corrects every misspelled word. Happily, Typo, a store devoted “all things writing,” had not a single notebook of quality paper and not a single decent pen.
It did, however have many laptop carrying cases, as well as diaries and journals with cutesy titles like “Write That Shit Down!” embossed on the faux leather cover. Having someone else’s slogan on the cover of your journal is like buying a canvas with someone else’s painting on it.
After leaving the shop for all things writing we went to a store guaranteed to have a huge selection of at least half the pen-and-paper equation, as the name of the place was “Papyrus.” Just imagine all the writing paper I would find at a shop named “Paper”!
Disappointment is of course the driving force behind any good shopping experience, and this one was no exception. Papyrus was indeed filled with paper, but only the greeting card variety. When I asked the clerk if she had any writing paper, she was confused. “Writing paper? For what?”
“For writing,” I replied.
“You mean writing writing?”
It was hard not to say, “No, I mean writing singing,” or “writing dancing,” but I simply nodded.
“The only thing we have are those little notebooks over in the corner. Unless you want a diary. Here’s a nice one.” She handed me a heavy thing with a lock on it that said “My Most Private Thoughts” on the front. I suppose it was for people whose most private thoughts were destined for publication, if only by a nosy little brother.
I selected the notebook she had pointed to, after paying the extraordinary sum of $11.37, and left. My next goal was to find a pen. As we wandered through the mall we passed a giant series of screens where children, mob-like, were playing a Super Mario game of some kind. Their parents enthusiastically egged them on, and as they did so I tried to imagine the same level of excitement when the kids brought home a book from school.
The mall was devoid of nice pens, and people were surprised by the question, “Do you know where I could buy a nice pen?”
A lady at Nordstrom’s crinkled her brow and shrugged; I’d clearly won the Batshit Crazy Stupid Ass Customer Question of the Day. “I dunno, hon. Have you looked over by the sunglasses?”
Finally I sat down at one of the strategic rest areas, where burned out husbands and boyfriends sat slumped over, utterly defeated by the shopping intervals that their wives and girlfriends were getting in prior to the main Christmas season shopping decathlon. I took out my phone and searched for “fine pens Torrance,” and immediately got the perfect hit: www.Scribespens.com in Lawndale, a mere twenty minutes away, which obviously wasn’t Torrance.
“World class pens and luxury brands!” it boasted, which was weird because Lawndale is most definitely the ‘hood, and not a major retail location for luxury items. We turned off on 156th Street into a densely packed residential neighborhood of small houses and burglar bars and curbside cars that didn’t look like they had many miles left on them.
“I think we’re in the wrong place,” my wife said.
“The Internet says it’s here.”
“The Internet is sometimes wrong.”
I ignored the blasphemy, because just as we reached the end of the street it curved around to a tiny industrial park, stuck behind a massive security fence and security gate. In the corner was a tiny building with a sliding glass door, which was itself covered in dust, and on the front was a poster that said “Scribe Pens.”
“They’re out of business,” Yasuko proclaimed.
“How do you know?”
“Look at all the dust. That door hasn’t been opened in years.”
“The Internet says they’re open right now.”
“Does the Internet say how you’re supposed to scale that ten-foot fence with the concertina wire on top?” She had a point. So I called the number on the poster. “Can’t you order this from Amazon?” she said while the phone rang.
“Gotta support the small local businesses.”
“No one else seems to be.”
Then someone picked up. “Yes?” he said, and sounded worried.
“Is this the pen shop?”
“Who is this?”
“A customer. I’m standing in front of the barbed wire fence. The Internet says you’re open.”
His suspicion turned to surprise. “A customer? Really?”
“Yes. I want to buy a nice pen and the Internet says you sell nice pens.”
He thought about it for a moment. “Well, I’m really sorry. I took the weekend off so I could spend Thanksgiving with my family.”
“No worries,” I said. “When will you re-open?”
This totally unexpected question threw him for a loop and a long pause. “Uh, Monday.”
“You should really buy your fancy pen off the Internet,” my wife said.
“Nope. I’m coming back on Monday.”
Back at home I took out the notebook and this really crappy pen, and began to write. My hand ached after a while, so I rested. I noticed that with a pen, which is slow, your thoughts run ahead, forming with plenty of time to write them down.
It felt wonderful. And as I looked back, I noticed that I’d crossed nothing out.
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