Tag Archives: writing

a new obsession

conkline-duragraph-my-photoConklin Duragraph “Cracked Ice” fountain pen


My first love was writing. The sheer physical act, filling up line after line, page after page, first in pencil and later in pen, entranced me. I undertook any writing assignment in school with a passionate sense of purpose. My writing instrument of choice, all the way through graduate school, was the ubiquitous see-through plastic Bic ballpoint pen with blue ink. Their blue plastic caps were usually indented with tooth marks, from my holding them in my mouth as I thought about what to write next.



Edison Collier “Persimmon Swirl” fountain pen


Then, this past year, my writing life took a major new direction with my discovery of fountain pens. Oddly, I had never before written with one of these instruments, considering them an affectation, even though my mother had always written in blue ink with a fountain pen. Even when one of my classes of Chinese university scholars gifted me with a black Parker Urban fountain pen a few years ago, it rested mostly unused in its box until this past June, when I decided to rescue it from neglect.

The impetus, I think, for this new-found passion was my revived interest in dip-pen calligraphy. As a child and teenager, I had collected Speedball calligraphy nibs, occasionally trying may had at complicated Old English lettering. I still have those nibs, stored in a plastic box.


Platinum 3776 in “Chartres Blue,” 14k gold nib


My fountain pen obsession was instant and all-consuming; I pored over fountain pen blogs, bought several pens on eBay, and read online reviews of pens and inks. On occasional forays to Hong Kong, I discovered pen shops where I could indulge my passion. After buying an assortment of cheap Chinese fountain pens, I turned my attention to more expensive high-quality models: a Platinum 3776 in “Chartres Blue,” an Edison Collier, and a vintage 1946 Parker Vacumatic.

The good thing about my collection of pens and inks is that they take up little space. My creativity , however, knows no bounds: I am improving my handwriting, learning to appreciate what makes a good pen nib, developing an appreciation for good writing papers (Clairefontaine and Maruman are favorites), and experiencing how the same ink will perform differently depending on different nibs and feeds, nib width, and paper. I’m learning what shape and length of pen is the best “fit” for my hand and writing style. Surprise: the skinny, weightless Bic ballpoints and narrow pencils of my youth were all wrong for my grip, causing discomfort, cramping, and requiring too much pressure. I find that wide-barreled fountain pens, well-balanced, are not only more comfortable for my hand but beautiful to look at as I write with them.

Perhaps best of all, this new hobby is portable: pens and notebooks can be conveniently carried anywhere, and any coffee house or comfortable place to sit can be a venue for my creative self-expression.


a selection of my pens

Some recommended blogs

Rainy day reflection, Tibetan countryside


I like to share good blogs that I come across, especially ones that are exceptionally well-written. Good writing and photography inspire me to further develop my own talents.

Here are some recent excerpts from some of my favorites: 


On travel:

I have learned much about myself in the last few weeks. Traveling has a way of doing that to you. You are on an emotional roller coaster where one minute you have everything under control and the next minute you are completely lost and chasing after a bus. That is the beauty of traveling, sometimes it’s fun to not be in your comfort zone. Getting used to being unsure of where you are and where you are going is half the fun and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is the path to success or at least sanity.

Being Comfortable with the Uncomfortable, by Sarah Curl, KF12 Uganda


On Tibet: 

Since the moment we arrived in Tibet 4 days ago I have felt utterly mesmerized.  The impossibly harsh, jagged, and seemingly lifeless peaks that dominate the landscape are punctuated with valleys filled with technicolor fields of wildflowers and wide mountain streams that perfectly reflect the sky not so far above.  The colorful traditional buildings and colorful local dress are all the more alluring against the bleak, rugged landscape.

I Smell yak Butter! by Sarah    http://passedports.wordpress.com/


On Tibet: 

Tibet is not just remote, it looks like another world. The Tibetans call their country ‘Bo’; the Chinese say ‘Xizang’; no one knows where the word ‘Tibet’ came from. The mountains are spectacular, the glaciated valleys are wide and the horizon is vast and empty. No houses, trees or towns mar the landscape. Here, in this infinite land, the mind reaches out to the horizon. Against this immensity, yaks and people move like tiny ants. They are busy, industriously plowing the frozen earth but it seems hopeless trying to scrape a living from this barren soil. Under the blue heavens, the whole weight of the universe seems to press down upon them.

At Nyalam, it begins to snow, at first a flurry, then a blizzard that whites out the sky. The chorten, decorated with prayer flags (lung ta or horses of the wind), is almost obscured by the driven snow.

Triniview:  Friendship Highway – Khatmandu to Lhasa, by Jiang He Feng  http://www.triniview.com/India/FriendshiphywayText.htm


On architecture / preservation:

Nothing good will come of this. That is: the destruction of the old alleyways – hutong – around Gulou (the Drum Tower) neighborhood in Beijing.  I understand the complaints of local residents, who have to put up with substandard housing, but a more organic, grass-roots process would yield a better combination of preservation and improvement.  Unfortunately, Beijing city authorities are acting like jerks: not releasing plans, disrupting a local preservation organization.  I share the fears of those who look at what the Qianmen district has become and see that as the future of Gulou: 

Critics say the most egregious example of this trend can be seen just south of Tiananmen Square, where the city’s most fabled shopping district, Qianmen, was replaced by a soulless but expensive facsimile of its former hurly-burly self.

“The renovation of Qianmen wasn’t about preserving history, but about creating a fake Hollywood version of it,” said Mr. Yao, the urban planning professor.

  Nothing good will come of this, by Sam Crane  http://uselesstree.typepad.com/useless_tree/


On Chinese culture:

Sometimes you can get to the cutting edge by going back to your roots. As one of China’s most celebrated musical craftsmen, Liang Zhirong has traveled the world, filling his passport by creating beautiful traditional hand crafted folk instruments. The instruments are made from memory without any templates, using instincts born by 300 years of family history. Liang is 43 and hails from Sanjiang County in Guangxi Province. Growing up in the Dong minority region, his upbringing was steeped in tradition. Starting with his great-great-grandfather, the Liang family patriarchs have long been recognized as great musicians and artisans. His father was called the King of Lusheng by the locals, and it was his father who and taught him to play, handing him his first instrument (a traditional bamboo flute) at the age of 7.

10 Minutes – Liang Zhirong, by Michael  http://expatriategames.wordpress.com/

Let’s do it again … backwards



But if, baby, I’m the bottom
You’re the top!

-Cole Porter, You’re the Top

Don’t go getting any funny ideas about today’s post: it’s about essay writing.

Today I felt like I was almost back among the living. I made it through my two morning classes after getting up at 5:30 AM to catch the school bus. I explained to my students that I was suffering from allergies and that my voice might give out at any time, but as luck would have it, I ended up talking more than I usually do. That’s not always a good thing.

The topic today: the topic sentence. It’s always a tough one to teach, because a truly kick-ass topic sentence is notoriously difficult to write; I should know, because I’ve struggled with enough of them myself. My mistake in the first class was in talking too much about the topic sentence and its virtues, instead of just letting it evolve through student practice. By the time the bell rang for the mid-class break, the students’ eyes were glazed over. If it continued like this, they would be catatonic by the time I got to discussing essay writing.

It isn’t that I lacked a good beginning. After all, I started with my favorite analogy: the sandwich model of essay-writing (good stuff in the middle, introduction and conclusion on the top and bottom).

It’s not original, but it’s better than using the “cheeseburger” simile that I’ve seen in others’ lesson plans. I then explained my reasoning:

My purpose was to illustrate the linear style of English-language academic writing: beginning – middle – end. During Class #2, though, I looked at this diagram again, and it hit me: I had it backwards. If you make a sandwich, you don’t start with the top slice of bread; you start with the bottom. Then you pile on the good stuff, and only last do you apply the top slice. Why, then, not teach the essay backwards, or at least start in the middle? After all, when I was a student, it was always easier for me to write the opening sentence or paragraph after the rest of the essay was complete. English writing may be linear, but it doesn’t have to be taught that way.

I quickly improvised a paragraph that lacked a topic sentence:

…For example, you can recycle plastic, metal, and paper products. You can buy products that are good for the environment. Many people also join groups that help to save endangered animals.

Then I told the students to work in groups, and come up with a good topic sentence. One group came up with this amazingly good opener:

To help reduce pollution, there are several things that you can do in your everyday life.

My problem seemed to be solved. Now my direction and purpose in life are clear, and I’ll let you know how the lesson evolves through the rest of this week. I’ll relax now by opening a good book – in the middle.