Going Old-School

I am working on a script for a podcast, and I was utterly failing at it. I was writing too much, not focusing on what was important, getting lost in the text that I was working on. After trying to write the script in Google docs and failing, and trying to record without a set script and failing, I tried a trick that helped me before when I was stuck with a writers block.

I used a typewriter.

For me typewriters are magical machines that on the one hand force me to slow down and consider every word, and on the other hand let me get into a writing rhythm that other writing instruments just don’t allow for. There’s a beat to writing with a typewriter. It makes you earn every word.

If you’re a writer, get thee a typewriter, and earn every word.

Going Old-School

Vengeful Fortress: A Stillman and Birn Epsilon Sketchbook Review Adventure Part 1

A while ago a local art supply shop started stocking a wider variety of Stillman and Birn sketchbooks. I currently use the Stillman and Birn pocket Alpha as my daily sketchbook, but I decided to give the pocket Epsilon a try. The Epsilon features smooth, white 150 gsm pages which should work for pen, ink, dry media and light washes.

This sketchbook is in landscape format, which is what I normally prefer. I was planning to use it once I’ve finished with my current Alpha, but weeks stretched to months and meanwhile this sketchbook has been languishing away, unused.

So when I saw Liz Steel going on a virtual sketch tour in Italy, I was inspired to grab this notebook and fill it with a sketch tour of my own. I initially planned to sketch out my cancelled London trip, and I may yet do that, but something inspired me to take this idea to a completely new direction.

I’m going to sketch out a freeform fantasy roleplaying adventure for my regular D&D group, and use that as a way to test out this sketchbook, and to make good use of my fountain pens.

So without further ado: Vengeful Forest, a fantasy freeform adventure.

Sketch and writing done with TWSBI 540 Diamond F nib and Rohrer and Klingner Lotte SketchINK.

Blue lines done with PenBBS 500 Fine and Sailor Sky High ink.

Frying pan Rapunzel dressed in purple is probably copyrighted by Disney, but one of my players thought it would be funny to make my life interesting, so here she is.

I tried to give each character a distinct enough colour scheme so you’ll be able to recognize them from a distance. Each player had one sentence to describe their character.

The watercolours are Schminke and I used a Windsor and Newton Series 7 number 2 brush and a Rosemary and Co 772 brush

I’ll continue posting as the adventure progresses, but so far this has been a lot of fun, and the players seem to be enjoying it too. The Stillman and Birn Epsilon has been an absolute champ: it takes light washes beautifully, with very little buckling, allowing me to use both sides of each page. It also works well with fountain pens, especially fine nibbed ones, which are commonly used for sketching. The white paper makes everything pop, and even though 150 gsm isn’t much when it comes to watercolour, it did allow for some layering and reworking without turning into a messy paper pulp. This is a sketchbook that I’m definitely going to purchase again.

Vengeful Fortress: A Stillman and Birn Epsilon Sketchbook Review Adventure Part 1

Journaling: The Last Page

A handwritten journal is an artifact in a way that an app can never be. It’s tactile, endlessly flexible, there to be used and customized in every way possible. Tear out pages, glue stuff in, doodle, scribble, sketch and write whatever you wish however you wish. There’s no autocorrect, nothing editing or censuring your words. Analogue journalling is about freedom, flow and pure creativity.

This is my last day journaling in this journal, and tomorrow I’ll write up the last page and start a new one for the thoughts of that day.

Every time I finish a journal, I use the last two pages to summarize what that journal contains and means to me. Analogue journals are fantastic, but they do make searching for old entries a bit of a chore. Luckily I don’t find myself looking for an old entry that often, and if I do the last two pages help me narrow it down to the specific journal, and the dates and titles to the specific entry.

I also like taking the last few pages as a chance to reflect on the time the journal covers and how things have changed (and I have changed) as the time has gone by. There’s usually about three months in each journal, sometimes more, so that’s a good chuck of time to look back on: short enough to make it simple to summarize and contextualize, and yet long enough to have some impact and meaning. This journal contains two trips abroad, my decision to move into a new career path, and a pandemic that wrecked havoc on everyone I know (including me, of course). That’s quite a lot, even for a journal that covers a relatively long span of time (almost 6 months).

It’s also full of bits and pieces that I stuck in, to make the page come to life. So here’s part of the Diamine Inkvent packaging that I glued in after I opened the last window and before I tossed out the box:

I just ripped out a panel that I liked. This journal is for me, not Instagram, and it can be as messy as I need it to be.

Cool clothing tags also sometimes make it in, especially if it’s from a piece of clothing that I really like:

This tag came of one of my favourite sweatshirts.

I got a lot of Star Wars themedvinyl stickers as a gift near the end of last year and a lot of them ended in my journal:

Even the silliest of things can be used to brighten up a page:

See that bleedthrough? It’s fountain pen bleedthrough. I don’t give a damn. If I wanted to write with a Sharpie in here, I’d write with a Sharpie. Use what makes you feel good.

There are little drawings and illustrations everywhere:

Messy, messy handwriting. 

And bits and pieces of washi tape that were leftover from other projects:

The point is, tomorrow I finish another journal, a small analogue memory artifact that is entirely mine. I created it for me and me only, and it was worth every minute I put into it.

If there’s one habit that you can pick up during your time at home these days, pick journaling. You’ll end up getting quite a treasure in the end, and I’d be truly surprised if you won’t enjoy the process.

Journaling: The Last Page

How I Use My Notebooks: Yearly Goals (Resolutions)

Near the end of one year and the beginning of another various articles and podcasts about New Year resolutions start popping up. They either give tips on how to make resolutions, debunk resolutions in favour of something else, and almost all of them try to sell you something.

This post is about how I create yearly goals (i.e. resolutions), using things that I already have, in a way that has worked for me since 2015.

I wrote about the way I do “New Years Resolutions” in the past. I call them that because I like the non-business ring of “resolution” over the “business-jargon” sounding goal. My “resolutions” are, however, S.M.A.R.T. goals: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. I manage them using the least used notebook that I had lying around (a Baron Fig Confidant), and whichever pen I have at hand. They aren’t made for instagram, rather I use my plain ugly handwriting, and what marking are on the page are there because they’re useful. Over the past five years I’ve attained about 90% of what I set out to achieve, with even an annus horribilis like 2018 not putting me too much off track. My goals are tiered, much like Kickstarter stretch goals, with most goals having a fairly easily attainable first tier, just in case life decides to kick me in a tender place.

I’m going to go over this year’s goals, and last year’s goals (apart from a few that I’ve censored for privacy’s sake). I know that February is usually the month when people give up on their resolutions. I hope that this post will help and inspire people to give yearly goals or resolutions a chance.

My 2020 resolutions

Above you can see my 2020 resolutions. A lot of them are things that appear in almost every year. The professional goals are all new (I didn’t manage my professional goals with my personal goals until this year, and even now only a small part of my professional goals are here). 

Every goal at this point only has the basic, first tier goals set beside it. The first three goals for example, all reading related, will eventually have stretch goals. They’re interesting to note here because back in 2016 I only had one reading goal: read 24 books. Once I got back into the habit of reading, I started to challenge myself with longer and more challenging books. These are all my base reading goals. I usually stretch them to around 50 books a year.

Why don’t I start with 50 books then? Because the point of these goals is to build myself up for success. The basic goals are the “even if I have a horrible year I should be able to reach these” goals. They are there to remind me that there’s a tomorrow, and something I can and should do about that tomorrow, even if a family member is hospitalized (or worse). The stretch goals are then built in small increments, reaching to my my final goal for the year.

Why don’t I write my stretch goals down from the start? Because the point is to keep myself focused on the next small step. That’s why things are broken down to the smallest increment that makes sense: one book, 10k, one month.

There’s a reason for each goal on this spread. I won’t go into each one specifically, but they all fall into the following general categories:

  • Read more.
  • Write more (my writing goals are censored, because if I publish them, I won’t do them. I know myself well enough by now).
  • Use the stuff I own.
  • Challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone.
  • Social goals (partly censored).
  • Health goals (running, cross-training, bloodwork, dentist visits).
  • Professional goals (partial list).

Everything has to fit in on a two page spread, or I lose track of things. That’s why I spill over to other pages in the same notebook to track some of the details of my goals:

Tracking page for fountain pens, ink, tea and pencils.

Here are my 2019 resolutions. A pink check mark means that the basic goal is finished. You can see the increments things grow by (my stretch goals):

2019 resolutions

You may have noticed that the “fill triggers” goal isn’t filled up at all. This is the “relevant” part of the S.M.A.R.T. goals. I used the trigger system from Marshal Goldsmith’s “Triggers” book for a few months in 2018, and I decided at the beginning of 2019 to not continue with it. It was a conscious decision, and so I just ignored that goal. 

Here are my 2019 “spill” pages, just to get an idea of how the whole thing works together:

10 different fountain pen inks. Can you see where the stretch goal is marked?

Here are pencils, fountain pens, notebooks and races tracking:

And my largest tracking list, books:

The Baron Fig Confidant that holds this list has a bright cover and sits right in front of me, on my desk, at all times. I set up my goals that at every day or two I crack the notebook open and update the lists. Once there, I scan everything and check if there’s something that I can do to get it done. The point is to have this list on the top of my mind as much as possible, or else I’ll just forget about it, or it becomes something that I avoid checking out.

This is a system that supports me every day, giving my goals and aspirations much needed structure. I hope that this will help you build a personal system of this kind for yourself.  

How I Use My Notebooks: Yearly Goals (Resolutions)

Spoke Pen Review

My Spoke Pen Orange Crush arrived a week ago, and I’ve been using it exclusively for journaling and meeting notes since then. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

First comes the colour, because there’s just absolutely no way to ignore it. It’s nothing like I would have expected orange pen to be: it’s like an amalgamation of gold and bronze with a dash of copper. This is a rich and SHINY finish that sparkles and glows. You cannot ignore it, the very opposite of subtle, and yet it isn’t gaudy and doesn’t look cheap. Orange isn’t a colour that I’m overly fond of, but I’m glad that I picked it out for this pen: it’s perfect.

The second thing you notice about this pen is the weight. It’s super light, though it appears to be a solid and heavy looking pen. It shouldn’t have surprised me, as it’s made of aluminum, but the Spoke Pen still looks like it a heavy pen because there appears to be so much metal in use in it that it seems impossible for it to be so light. The first time I picked it up it really surprised me. It’s lighter than my beloved Ti Arto, even though it looks like it should be heavier. At first I had to consciously remind myself to use the Spoke Pen and not the Ti Arto when journaling, but now it’s become the pen I turn to for long writing sessions because it fatigues my hands less. Could it replace my Ti Arto as my favourite pen? Time will tell, but it’s entirely possible the way things stand now.

The Spoke Pen was designed entirely around Brad Dowdy‘s beloved Uni-ball Signo DX refill (UMR-1), but also accepts the Uni-ball Signo UMR-85N (my favourite refill), UMR-87N, and other refills of the same size. To change refills you unscrew the section, take out the old refill, and then the magic starts. When you put in a new refill it will appear to jot out quite a bit from the pen body. “There’s no way this thing will close back up again,” you think to yourself. Have faith, it does: there’s a hidden spring in the back of the pen, and you’re going to have to apply a tiny bit of force to push the section back close to the body, but once you start screwing the section back everything fits snugly back in place. The tolerances on this pen are flawless, as I’d expect from a pen with this provenance.

Machined pens seem to be divided into two schools of thought when it comes to branding: either the over the top, in your face, you can’t miss it branding style, or the barely branded one. The Spoke Pen belongs to the latter group, as there’s a discreet stamp of the Spoke logo on the top finial and that’s it. Very classy move.

The third great thing about this pen is the magnetic closure. I actually thought that this would be a more significant feature than the colour or the weight of the pen, but after using the Ti2 Techliner for a while the novelty of magnetic cap closures must have worn off for me. If the most important thing for you is the magnetic closure, then I recommend the Ti2 Techliner instead, as its magnets are significantly more powerful, and you can both cap and post the pen with them, even from a distance. The Spoke Pen’s cap magnet engages only halfway through capping the pen, basically functioning like the click at the end of a regular pen capping. It’s fun to use, and fun to fidget with, but I don’t think that it’s the pen’s main selling point.

Are there any cons to this pen? Of course, rarely anything in life is perfect. You may not like the Spoke Pen’s tactical aesthetic. If you carry the Spoke Pen in your pocket lint will probably get wedged in its “fins”. The clip looks like a determined person with something to prove could bend it out of shape (for normal use I think it’s perfectly fine). These are not issues for me personally, but they may be issues for you.

As it is, the Spoke Pen Orange Crush is one of my favourite (non-fountain) pens ever, and is looking to replace the Ti Arto at the top of my list. Kudos to Brian Conti and Brad Dowdy for creating such a great product out of the gate.

Spoke Pen Review

Two Years of Daily Journaling

This week I celebrated two years of daily journaling. While I’ve been keeping journals for years, until the last two years I’ve only done so sporadically. Journaling was something that I did only when things got really rough, to keep myself going, or when I was travelling, to preserve the memories of my trip. I used pocket notebooks for my sporadic journals, as it was more important for me to capture things than to reflect on them. It was a utilitarian process, not an enjoyable one. I knew that once I decided to really start a journaling habit, that would have to change.

These are all the journals which I’ve used during the past two years.

So the first thing I did was pick a notebook that I knew I’d want to use, and use daily. The only rules were that it had to make me happy, and that it had to be large enough for me to be able to actually write in it, not just jot things down. I wasn’t looking for the best notebook with the best paper in the best format (I don’t think that exists, actually, but for us stationery geeks the search is always on), just a good enough notebook for me.

My notebooks of choice.

I also decided very early on that I couldn’t use a fountain pen for this, because I wanted a pen that I could write with even not under the most ideal circumstances. I was also planning for both the notebook and the pen to bash around freely in my bag. These were going to be used and look used.

Can you see how bloated these notebooks are? Moleskine makes them sturdy enough to take a beating. 

I chose Moleskine large ruled hardcover notebooks as my notebook of choice, and the uni-ball Signo RT 0.5 gel ink pen as my pen/refill (UMR-85N) of choice. I wanted a sturdy lined notebook that I’d enjoy using and looking at once it was done, and after years of neglecting the Moleskine for other notebooks I came back to it because of some of their limited edition designs. I knew that I was going to use the uni-ball Signo RT 0.5 as my pen or refill of choice (inside a BigiDesign Ti Arto or Ti Arto EDC), so I didn’t need fountain pen friendly paper. I had decided to pick up the steady journaling habit by starting with a travel journal, which I already had some experience with, and then carrying on from there. On the first evening of a trip to London I happened to walk by the Moleskine store in Covent Garden, and I decided to go in and check out what they had. There was a beautifully designed Batman limited edition notebook in exactly the kind of format I was looking for, and it was only available for sale at the Moleskine stores. I bought it, unwrapped and stamped it with the Moleskine Covent Garden stamps, and I haven’t looked back.

That pen and notebook combo has hardly changed over the years. What has changed is the format I use to journal, and the amount of daily journaling I do. When I started out I was used to only jotting a few lines down here and there when I journaled, so I knew I couldn’t expect to write 4-5 pages per day right from day one. Starting with just a paragraph to half a page a day, I pretty quickly moved to one page per day of just writing.

Then I saw a Neistat Brothers video on Youtube and realized that I could use my journal as a visual capturing device as well, and anything could go in it, so long as it made me remember a moment or a place.

Limited Edition Cola Zero tab created for the 2019 Eurovision song contest in Tel Aviv. I don’t even drink Cola Zero, but this little piece of metal is still totally evocative to me.

That’s when the notebooks really started to get bloated. From clothing labels to business cards and ticket stubs, if I can put glue on it and it’s visually appealing or evocative, it goes in. I almost always also write a little note for future me, to remind myself what I’m looking at and why it’s there. That change really made these notebooks a kind of personal artifact for me, and I can’t say how precious they’ve all become.

A bit of cat themed washi tape and a Uniqlo shirt label. Sometimes things go in because I find them visually appealing or they make me smile.

At a certain point I started getting ambitious, moving from writing one page a day to two pages, then four pages, then six. That’s when I had to take a step back and make sure that I wasn’t burning out on journaling for all the wrong reasons. I enjoy writing and I enjoy journaling, but I’m also trying to write fiction, and my journal can’t become something that consumes that, an excuse for not writing. It’s also easy to get carried away and want to finish the notebook as fast as possible just so you can open a fresh one, or brag (even if it’s only to yourself) that you’ve finished a notebook. Nowadays I write one or two pages a day for most days, moving up to more pages only if I really have something special to write about.

Doodling seasonal fruit in the margins.

Life also happens, and oftentimes it’s scary and ugly, a black hole that threatens to consume all that is good in your life, including journaling. My mom got unexpectedly and very seriously ill last year, and we’ve been struggling with her disease ever since. When she was in hospital I couldn’t bring myself to journal. I backlogged those (thankfully few) dark days, and I realized that I would have to accept that as much as journaling is important to me, family comes first, so backlogging is going to have to become acceptable. I try to backlog as little as possible, but some days just demand that.

If I want to remember a good meal I’ll sometimes draw it.

I also draw a little in my notebook, tiny thumbnails of things that I want to remember later, or that I just feel like drawing. These are usually food doodles, as I don’t really like to photograph my food.

I still use my journal in trips, and ticket stubs and bit and bobs like these make it more interesting.

If you’re looking for some journaling tips, I wrote two posts on that subject here and here. If there’s one thing I can leave you with it’s that if you want to journal, you need to figure out a way to it make it work for you, and be ready to adapt as your life changes over time. There is no perfect journaling system, or perfect journaling notebook, there’s only what works for you.

Go write.

Two Years of Daily Journaling

Ti Arto EDC Review

While the original Ti Arto is my favourite machined pen, the newer Ti Arto EDC comes in at a close second. Like its older BIGiDESIGN brother, the Ti Arto EDC is a machined titanium pen which can accept hundreds of different refills with no need for hacks or spacers and with no tip wiggle. Unlike the Ti Arto it comes in three different finishes, accepts many more refills, and can be adjusted in length.

The Ti Arto EDC looks a lot like a slightly slimmer version of the Ti Arto, with a bigger step down in the end section, and almost no gap between the section and the body.

Those looks are a little deceiving, because this the Ti Arto EDC has a completely different build. The end of the pen can be extended or retracted, unlike the Ti Arto, where it is static. In the Ti Arto EDC the end of the pen is also what you unscrew to change refills, unlike the Ti Arto, where the grip unscrews. If you assume that they’re the same, as on a cursory glance it looks like the Ti Arto EDC’s grip section unscrews (and it really, really doesn’t).

The body of the Ti Arto EDC is slightly slimmer, and the entire pen is slightly lighter than the Ti Arto. It comes in a machined raw finish (like the Ti Arto), in a stonewashed finish (which you can see in the pictures) and in a midnight black finish (which you can see on my Ti Click EDC). Of the three, the stonewashed finish has the best grip and feel, and it also shows wear and tear the best.

The trick with the extendable end section is where the cleverness of this pen lies, and that’s what allows you to use more refill types in this pen, and to extend or compress this pen’s length (to the limits of the refill size). The two o-rings make the end section action super smooth, and the same dual thread design allows you to cap and post this pen super securely. Nothing on this pen is going anywhere without your permission.

The Ti logo, elegant and understated, is the only branding on this pen. You can see how substantial the clip is and how the pen wear in the photo above. It’s like an old pair of jeans, so the stonewashed name for this finish is totally appropriate.

Fully extended, the Ti Arto EDC is the same length of the Ti Arto. However, depending on the refill you use, this pen can get pretty tiny.

I use the Uni-ball UMR-85N refill in this pen, and this is as far as it will contract. If you use a Parker or Schmidt refill the end section can be screwed in almost all the way. However, even partially extended the Ti Arto EDC is a more pocketable pen than its predecessor.

So why do I prefer the Ti Arto more? For longer writing sessions the Ti Arto’s wider girth makes it more comfortable to use than the Ti Arto EDC, although the difference is minor. The Ti Arto is also slightly less ungainly than the Ti Arto EDC, having a more streamlined design, with no step down. I don’t mind the Ti Arto’s gap between the grip and the pen body, and I don’t need a pen that accepts more refills than the Ti Arto. As you may have noticed by now, the choice between the Arto and the Arto EDC is likely going be one of personal taste and preference. Either pen is an excellent choice for a machined pen, an EDC pen, or a titanium pen.

Ti Arto EDC Review

Writing Update

  • I’m still editing my novel after getting notes from my beta readers. Most of the notes are super helpful, and it’s good also to go over the book after a while.
  • I’ve tightened the prose in places, plugged a few plot holes, and clarified a few scenes — which is not something that I expected to do on the third or fourth draft.
  • Scrivener is life. Thankfully my novel was split to scenes, so it was easy to move things around to restructure the narrative after the feedback I got. It was also easy to split the scenes into new chapters, and take quick snapshot backups of each scene before I edited it.
  • As usual, the first third of the novel is the part that needed the most editing. I’ll give it another once over once I’ve finished editing the final chapters.
  • It took me a long time to get into the editing mood, but things are going pretty fast now. I’ve started using a task list in Drafts and it’s proven useful in keeping me organized and motivated, without allowing me to be sucked into productivity pr0n.
Writing Update

Blackwing 811 Review

It’s the insane, glow in the dark Blackwing, and I managed to snag a box!

OK, enough with the hype. Plenty of other reviewers have given this limited edition pencil a spin, but my experiences and thoughts about “The Library Pencil” seem to be different enough to warrant a few quick words about the Blackwing 811.

First of all, the pencil is attractive. It’s darker than a banker’s lamp (I have one, so I checked), and the gradient is very well done. This could have looked cheap and tacky but it doesn’t. I would have liked a darker ferrule and I think that the pink eraser is ugly, but even so it’s a pretty attractive pencil.

The lighter part of the gradient disappears for the most part on the first sharpening, so that’s a shame. The coating on the pencil is grippier than the coating on the Blacking 54, 56, 24, 725 and 530 (and lacquered pencils in general), but less grippy and gritty than the coating on the Blacking 4. It has a matte feel.

It’s got a “firm” core, which means it has the Blacking 602. I absolutely hate that Blackwing doesn’t write its firmness on the barrel, or use “standard” hardness ratings, or makes it easy to see what the core grade is on the box or on their site. That’s like buying a fountain pen and not knowing whether you’ll get a fine or a broad. It’s bad enough that manufacturers play fast and loose with pencil grades within the standard 10H-10B range. Having a company invent its own grade and not even have it make sense, and then not even make it visible is a big no-no in my book.

Here’s a sketch of my banker’s lamp (which is a bit wonky after my cat dropped a giant pile of books on it) done with the Blackwing 211. I’d say it’s a B or a 2B, depending on the maker, but in no way is it a pencil that I’d call “firm”. It’s great for quick sketches, but I wouldn’t recommend it for under-drawings.

Blackwing 811 Review