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June 2004: Pulp Preferences

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • Few people know that Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes’ Hugo-winning tale, first appeared as a novelette in the pulp magazine The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. That was almost a decade before he expanded it to a novel and won a Nebula award. Soon after, actor Cliff Robertson won an Oscar for Charly, the big-screen adaptation that debuted in the month I was born, July 1968.

Even fewer people know that Keyes typed the first draft of the story — about Charlie Gordon, a retarded man who temporarily becomes a genius through a medical experiment — on the junkiest, pulpiest paper he could buy. The wise author felt then (and still feels today) that his (or anyone’s) first drafts are literally not worth the paper on which they’re printed. As Keyes’ successive drafts got better, so did the quality of paper. At least back when he still used a typewriter.

Daniel Keyes feels that his (or anyone’s) first drafts are literally not worth the paper on which they’re printed. Extra Fine Points

How do I know that? I had the good fortune to study writing under Keyes’ tutelage at Ohio University for several years before he retired in 1992.

No one will ever mistake my extrafine for those of Daniel Keyes. If they saw all the different papers I use with my fountain pens, however, they might think I’m as fussy about it as he is. They’d never think that about Richard “Don, what on earth is wrong with these Ampad Legal pads?” Binder, let me tell you.

See, I’m left-handed. The paper on which I’m writing has to suck the ink into the paper fast, so fast that, as the heel of my hand sweeps past the line I’ve just writ, it won’t smear the line and it won’t leave an inky smudge on the heel of my hand.

The paper can’t be slick, for the above reason. And to make matters worse, I like my nibs adjusted wet.

Anyone who’s read at least a quarter of one of my essays can also tell from my verbose ramblings that I’m the type who almost always needs to use the back side of a sheet as well as the front. That means my paper can’t bleed through to the back side.

Which leads me to two recommendations: One, for at-home rants or just plain jotting, pen/ink testing, and general recording of events du jour that seem as if they’re worth putting down on paper for posterity, the monster-sized (8"×12", about 400 pages) “Journal” books with the big “J” and no brand name whatsoever — you get them at Borders Books (buy one, get one a couple times a year at their big sale) — work splendiferously.

They are the parallel to Keyes’s first-draft pulp. Except they don’t feather or smudge with most of the pens I’ve used. Yes, if you fill a pen with a wet, broad nib with watery ink, you’re asking for trouble with any paper, and this stuff if no exception. But give this working-class paper a break; those who seek perfection in their paper should not be sniffing around the remainder tables at Borders.

For going on the road, there’s this 6"×9" edition with 192 pages that fits much better in the carry-on bag:

Cheap but great blank journal

For formal correspondence and other writing that “counts” — as in, when you give a whit about neatness and presentation because someone other than yourself will be reading it — I can’t do much better than Crane’s Silk Laid, which possesses all the qualities I list above, and which also possesses one other important trait: Most of the time I can get it on sale with matching envelopes at the outlet in Lee, Massachusetts.

This paper is thin, silky, and elegant, and it comes in several shades. The luxurious feel it imparts to fountain pen writing makes me slow down and take my time writing. As a result, my normal chicken-scratch writing becomes more respectable and neat.

This paper doesn’t work for everyone; in fact, the aforementioned Richard “Ampad” Binder turns his nose up at my favorite Crane stuff as “that raggy junk.” But for me, it’s the bee’s knees. I would encourage other lefties to try it out, first with an F or XF nib and then moving to wider points.

That’s it, you say? Yup. After trying myriad papers (including some downright putrid homemade varieties) I’ve narrowed down my everyday paper selection to these two.

That doesn’t mean I’m done exploring. In fact, I would love to hear from you about your favorite papers you use with your favorite pens and why — and perhaps I’ll be inspired to try something new and different.

If I get enough responses to my poll [no longer available], I’ll publish the responses in a future article. And don’t be shy if you have different papers for different pens — because any collector worth his salt knows that writing with paper X is just great when using pen Y but can be terrible with pen Z.

cover Further Reading: Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer's Journey, by Daniel Keyes

If you’re interested in how the Hugo-Award-winning short story, Oscar-winning movie, Broadway play, and remade-for-TV-in-1999 movie Flowers for Algernon came together — and how successive drafts changed the story from its rough early prosaic sketches to a full-blossomed novelette — check out Keyes’ 2000 book.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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