True motivations

A friend of mine just put his Pelikan Ocean Swirl up for sale (incidentally, he originally bought it from me). I raised my eyebrows: this was truly a grail for him. I remember his joy, his gratitude, his pride when he acquired it.

And now to sell it — a bold move. I started to question his motives. Why sell this pen in particular of all the pens he owns? Is he in desperate need of money? Is he simply leveraging his greatest pen assets for an even higher grail? Or has he looked deep inside and realised, with sinking dread, this didn’t change my life the way I expected it would?

I don’t have much to add to the overall analysis of the term ‘grail pen’, or its alternatives (my post on ‘exit pens’ might be a good place to start). I still use the word, and I still find it useful for summing up how the pens we want make us feel. The hunt, the desire, the obsession, can be intoxicating.

But with any intoxication there’s always a hangover. Many times I have looked in my pen tray keenly aware that I’ve overextended my budget, or felt that I have too many pens, too much duplication, too many impulse purchases… or with a general nagging sense of disquiet that things aren’t all they cracked up to be. That’s when I try to work out which pens to sell.

The question is easy: which of these pens do I really love?

The answer is not as easy as you might expect.

Often, truth be told, I can’t work out my motivations for wanting to keep any particular pen: the mess of associations and expectations is too tangled. And what’s more, I don’t trust my assessments to be true and unsullied.

What I struggle with is things like this:

Invented narratives

The Montblanc Agatha Christie is of course an excellent pen, but it writes the same as a much cheaper 146 of the same vintage. I don’t find myself writing with it much and the nib isn’t to my current tastes. So what makes it ‘special’ and worth taking up one of my slots?

The immediate answer is that it has sentimental attachment for me as a future inheritance for my eldest daughter (also called Agatha). This is such a compelling concept that more than a dozen people have emailed me in the past month to support it.

But dig a little deeper: am I inventing this heritage/inheritance story because the idea appeals to me, because that’s the kind of thing you get marketed (eg “you never really own a Patek Philippe”)? Am I buying in to the lazy commercial narrative of inheritance to help calm my fears of getting older? Am I assuaging my guilt about not giving my kids enough of my time by promising to give them things instead? My daughter doesn’t care about fountain pens — am I forcing her to caretake a mass-produced piece of plastic for the rest of her life, just to fit into my image? That seems awfully egotistical of me.

Would I be better off selling it and using the money on a family holiday to make new memories and strengthen my relationship with my daughter? Or, as many have suggested, keep the pen until it has appreciated in value still further? (Never mind that there are 30,000 of these sticks of plastic out there).

Public image

Or another current case: do I really love the look of exotic materials, such as arco (my ASC Gladiatore Medio). Dig deeper: is part of the reason I own these exotic materials simply to appeal to the folks on Instagram? Will I not be taken seriously as a pen collector if I don’t own any celluloid? Do I just want to be judged as a person with great taste by the limited audience who will recognise arco when they see it? These motivations are not great evils, but surely I can aspire to be more than just a poseur. At this rate I’ll be doing Rolex wrist-rolls on TikTok.

Speaking of Rolex and its insane market bubble, you may start to notice a touch of the familiar FOMO creeping in to these decisions too: am I worried that the prices will continue to rise and I’ll lose out? (Arco Oldwins are trading at 3k now; I passed on one at £1,200 and feel like a fool). The same goes for any hyped limited edition (such as the Ocean Swirl). Does it really speak to me, or am I just afraid that I won’t be able to find another one if I sell it then change my mind? Do I actually like the pen, or do I like being able to show off that I have something that others don’t, in our performative status-driven culture?

Prestige markers

Imagine a bottle of wine: is tasting it enough to decide if you like it? Or do you need to know that it’s old, rare, expensive, prestigious to enjoy it? Does knowing that a wine is all those things increase your level of enjoyment? All the research says it does. We use proxy indicators of quality to assess things, and there’s no more potent indicator than price. If something is priced high, we assume it must be better than something priced low. We can’t help ourselves.

It’s the same with pens. If we’re told that this pen took months of urushi work instead of being cast plastic, do we like it more? If we find it has a gold nib, do we believe it to write better than a steel one? If we know it’s expensive, do we believe it to be better quality? The honest answer to all of these questions is yes. It’s why every pen in my tray has a gold nib, even though I’ve written with plenty of wonderful steel nibs.

How am I meant to rationally assess my love of a pen when I know I’m being bamboozled by the same psychological tricks I fall for when drinking a glass of expensive wine?

Can there be an objective assessment in a human communal activity?

Whenever I do my collection soul-searching, these kinds of issues of motivation pop up. Essentially they boil down to whether I have this pen because of the enjoyment it gives me, alone in a dark room at my desk, or because of externally imposed reactions: fear of missing out, pride of showing off, and so on.

And then it becomes painfully clear that for me as a collector, as part of a community, those externalities are a big part of why I’m here. I feel proud when people like my collection (can you be proud of something and not want to show it off to someone?). I get a thrill when I bag a limited edition that will surely sell out, because who doesn’t like winning? I enjoy sharing my expertise (expertise I’ve mostly accumulated by buying and selling lots of pens), because who doesn’t like feeling valued by others? If I was dumped on a desert island with no internet access, and purely writing my journal for me, I don’t think urushi and arco would be so important to me.

It’s almost impossible for me to excise a single pen from this web and decide whether it’s adding value to my life. It’s all about perspectives and the stories we tell ourselves.

In fact, the only reliable indicator I’ve found is one that my friend with the Ocean Swirl used in his ‘for sale’ listing. “I’ve not written with it for a year”. If you find a pen looks great, gets lots of likes on Instagram, makes you feel like an aesthete, wins at all those social factors… but you still pass over it day after day when picking a pen to actually write with? That’s your subconscious telling you something important in a very private moment. Will you listen to it?

11 thoughts on “True motivations

  1. I know what you mean, especially around the exit pen. I’ve come to the conclusion that if I had to give them all away, I could do it with everything other than the Lamy 2000. It just writes perfectly, fits my hand perfectly, holds enough ink, and while a bit wet and firehosey, it’s not bamboozled by my handwriting (1.1mm TWSBI stub, I’m looking at you).

    Of course I’ve bought into the clean line Bauhaus function first aesthetic (because if I were truly going for function over form, a Bic Cristal would write perfectly well), but I also feel that everything else in the pencil case gets held to the standard of the Lamy.

    Perhaps that’s the thing – find the pen against which you compare everything else (wetter than, bigger than, heavier than, more or less expensive than…)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this honest reflection on what motivates us to make choices. Utility has very little to do with what we crave in this world of collecting, being watches, pens, or anything else. We look for being recognised as connoisseurs or just plain wealthy so we can afford what others can.
    It is important to remember this bias but on the other hand a rational approach will mean no collection of any kind other than just the basics. Mind you, there is a lot of pride and show off in those who brag about their simple lifestyles.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for your kind words, I still adore and treasure the aforementioned pen that is why I priced her to the size of the hole it will leave in my soul when/if she departs.

    This article definitely made an impact on my collecting and I shall speak more with you.

    Happy New Year my friend.


  4. Thankyou for a thought provoking post as always!
    Personally, I don’t own any celluloid or Arco. Even my only celluloid Delta Fantasia Vintage was sold. 90% of my pens would not turn many heads at a pen meet but the best “quality” I look for and cherish in a pen is how it writes, then how comfortable it feels. I do enjoy a great looking pen too…my Aurora 88 is the most handsome, I think.
    I still like to buy new and different pens to try, even though unlikely to offer any significant improvement in writing performance.
    I still struggle with temptation to buy expensive new pens. Your old black Duofold workhorse is my “defence” against the temptation to buy an Onoto Magna! But I like to think that when I do buy a pen for myself it is not with the aim of impressing anyone. You only need to look at my motley hoard to see that 🤣.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As always Rupert, you are a shining example to me! I am always impressed at how you judge each pen on its own merit and find the joy. I wish I found it easier to follow your example without jumping on all the hype trains or giving in so easily to temptation.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You, sir, are the philosopher of the pen-world! Thank you for this thought-provoking essay, which, as essays go, is also a model of style.


  6. In my case, the Agatha would have a really good chance of being my desert island pen. First, it balances perfectly in my hand, and its nib is outstanding, even for a Montblanc. I also appreciate it for its vintage appearance, which is the main reason I bought it, but when I wrote with it, I felt that it had been made just for me.


  7. Pingback: Fountain Pen Quest Trail Log – January 2, 2022 | Fountain Pen Quest

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