Real writers need real pens.
For a brief time before the pandemic, my son, then 7, ran a pencil-sharpening business out of our apartment. At just five cents a sharpen, business was booming (if you consider a net revenue of $2.05 to be a viable business).
The problem was, once our friends and neighbors marauded through their desk drawers for anything Leo could possible sharpen — including a few stubs and a fair share of pencils used to keep track of strokes on the golf course — business screeched to a halt. Pencils, it seems, are mainly used these days to bubble-in multiple choice questions in school.
When he asked me what “real writers like you” use, I opened my own desk drawer and pulled out an object so precious, so special, and so emblematic of my craft, I’d held onto it for nearly two decades, taking it out only on special occasions.
“Real writers use a Montblanc,” I said, holding the pen like a model on “The Price is Right.” And then I said, “Look with your eyes, not with your hands,” because no other human than me had ever touched this pen, except for the person who’d gifted it to me, Ed, my old boss from the ad agency where I worked as his — and about 14 other copywriters’ and art directors’ — assistant.
At the time, I don’t remember telling him about my dreams of becoming a writer. For all I knew, he thought my greatest ambition was to be the person who worked for the creative minds who thought up, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing. (You ate it, Ralph!)”
Or maybe someone told him that while he was on vacation, I used his office to conduct my first-ever celebrity interview, with the musician Moby, who, when I called him at his home in New Haven, mistakenly thought I knew what I was doing and asked me if my tape recorder was on before he started talking.
Or maybe I’d told Ed on my first day in the creative department, when he took me to lunch at an old-school Chinese restaurant on 57th Street in NYC and revealed that he was once a longboard-surfing champion in California.
It was all so long ago. But what I do remember was this: On my birthday three years later, while the other people in my department chipped in to give me a big tube of this exact hand cream, Ed took me to the very same Chinese restaurant and presented me with a slim box wrapped in plain white paper. Inside, to my astonishment, was a classic burgundy colored Mont Blanc pen.
“This is the kind of gift you give to a real writer,” he said.
Sometimes, seeing your first byline is all the evidence you need that you’re a “real” writer. Sometimes, it’s getting your inaugural lambasting in the comments section. And sometimes, it’s signing the contract on your debut book deal.
But for me, that pen and those words from a former surfing champ with a knack for crafting headlines was all the proof I needed. And, thanks to the hand lotion, I sure looked good holding it.
Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and the author, most recently, of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.