How to be a writer: Get a good pen

Whether you use a pencil, a pen, an old typewriter or something electrical is largely irrelevant to the result, although there is magic in writing by hand. It’s not just that it has been that way for 5,000 years or more, and has engraved upon our expectations of literature the effects associated with the pen—the pauses; considerations; sometimes the racing; the scratching out; the transportation of words and phrases with arrows, lines and circles; the closeness of the eyes to the page; the very touching of the page—but that the pen, not being a machine (it does not meet the scientific definition of a machine), is a surrender to a different power than those of mere speed and efficiency.

In short, a pen (somehow) helps you think and feel. And although once you find a pen you like you’ll probably stick with it the way an addict sticks with heroin, it can be anything from a Mont Blanc to a Bic. The same for paper. There are beautiful, smooth, heavy papers, but great works have been written on ration cards, legal pads and the kind of cheap paper they sell in developing countries—grayish white, almost furry, with flecks of brown and black that probably came from lizards and bats that jumped into the paper makers’ vats.

Your most important tools will be your honesty, labor, courage, practice, luck and utter concentration. Inspiration can be magnificent. Handel wrote his “Messiah” cooped up in his room for two weeks. No one saw him, and his meals were allegedly slipped under the door. (Either it was a very strange door or he survived on fruit leather and matzah.) Then again, Voltaire—”On Sunday I was seized by inspiration”—wrote “Phèdre” in six days flat, a play that made his audiences weep not from emotion but because they had to sit through it.