I am waiting for a pen to come from Japan. Not a fancy pen. Not a rare, expensive pen. I’m waiting for a Kuretake Zig Letter Pen, body in Strawberry Pink. You buy the body of the pen separate from the refill. My friend Donna put me on this pen, which she read about in Uppercase magazine. I tried hers and agreed it was the best writing pen ever.
Ordering the $5.00 pen and its $5.00 refill (shipped on a slow boat from Japan) went along with discovering a new type of notebook in New York last weekend. I was attending the SCBWI Mid-winter conference. The conference coincided with a fabulous exhibit at the New York Public Library, “ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.”
The exhibit made me glad I was a children’s book writer. Button-busting proud to be in the field. The original manuscripts and art reminded me why I loved books like Harriet the Spy (celebrating its 50th anniversary—I read it new) and The Cricket in Times Square.
I stopped, entranced, by a Mary Shepard illustration for Mary Poppins A to Z. I leaned forward, pressing myself into the glass case, trying to enter that cozy scene. I used to do that with all the black and white drawings in my beloved middle grade novels as a way to extend my reading experience. I didn’t just read books back then, I lived them.
On my way out, I browsed the gift shop, almost the best part. I picked up Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a delightful map-making kit called Make Map Art: Creatively Illustrate Your World, and an odd little notebook by Apica, captioned a little weirdly as, “Most advanced quality gives best writing features.”
Back in my hotel room, I started writing in that little red unassuming notebook and nearly swooned. My extra fine Pilot pen swanned across the smooth paper. No ghosting, no bleed-through. The paper made me slow down and write neatly, which in turn made me slow down my thinking.
The combination of the Kuretake pen and the Apica notebook sent me in a tizzy. I would be a much better writer with these tools! I’ll pitch my composition notebooks with chintzy paper that always bleeds through. I’ll order new colors of ink refills and different nibs for my new pen! Get the big Apica notebook with 96 pages instead of 28!
But none of this will make me like Jack Gantos.
Jack Gantos was the first keynote speaker at the conference. Nearly 1200 people were in the audience, eager, expectant. Jack is great speaker, funny, irreverent, smart, self-deprecating. I’d already chatted with the attendees in front of and next to me—they were new to the field. I envied them their fresh start on their journey.
I opened my notebook (composition with bleed-through paper, sigh) and took notes. Jack Gantos offered a great deal of his process in his slide presentation, along with excellent take-away tips. Everyone around me roared with laughter (I laughed, too), but they didn’t take notes.
What did I learn from Jack Gantos? Lots of things, but what struck me most was his work day. He gets up and packs his lunch. He stows his lunch and supplies in an L.L. Bean boat tote (complete with monogram) and off he goes to the library. Not just any library, the Athenaeum in Boston. He climbs what looked like five flights of spiral stairs to “his” table.
He unpacks his bag: a laptop that looked similar to my 2005 laptop, an older clamshell cell phone, a big plastic file with his notes, another plastic file with his project in progress. That’s it. On a good day, he works eight hours.
So why can’t I be like Jack Gantos? I even have a monogrammed boat tote to carry my lunch and supplies in. But I don’t know of a library near me that doesn’t have patrons tracking back and forth like turkeys and people yakking on phones.
However, I do have a nice office in my house so I don’t really need to go anywhere. More than location, it was Jack Gantos’s example of setting daily goals and ignoring distractions that hit home. He uses old-fashioned methods—writing drafts in longhand, for instance—and equipment that is hardly state of the art. He gets the work done without the frills.
That evening, I copied my scrawled notes from my composition notebook into my new Apica notebook. I wrote neatly and felt virtuous. I can’t wait for my new Kuretake pen to show up in my mailbox—my words will glide onto the silky paper. But will a new pen and notebook make any difference in my work? Will they make me write like Jack Gantos?
“Most advanced quality may give best writing features,” but stories come from the heart, not a special pen nib. New York was good for me. I met interesting people, heard wonderful speakers, saw gorgeous art. Best of all, what I heard and saw gave me back my ten-year-old self, the person I have to please first in my work.
Back home, I started putting into place some of the tips Jack Gantos generously gave us. I’ll never be Jack Gantos, but maybe I’ll be a better version of Candice Ransom.