Finding Happiness in the Dark: The Aesthetics and Beauty of Stationery

By Michael W. Harris

Pen, paper, and coffee…what more do you need?

I was a late user of Instagram, and it was only when I had found myself largely abandoning Facebook that I decided to dive into the photo-only world of the platform. I needed something beautiful and happy in my life. I needed something to bring me joy amidst the dumpster fire of the rest of the world.

I needed a purely joyful aesthetic experience.

I know that I am not the first to discuss the purely visual aspect of Instagram as it compares to the text forward medium/misery-pit of Facebook and/or Twitter. However, I have never considered myself a person to be driven the visual or even the beautiful. Yes, I appreciate beautiful artwork, a well-designed building, and so on, but to be so fully drawn into a purely visual aesthetic experience like Instagram was something I never considered to be “for me.”

And yet, after getting an account and settling on a name (ofpensandgins, assuming that would be what I would primarily post…we’ll get to that later), I found myself using my phone’s camera more than I ever had outside of my hikes. I enjoyed seeing what my friends and other interesting people I followed were up to. The space was exactly as I had heard it described to me: happy, pretty photos, with only the faintest whispers of the unrelenting cycle of awfulness that is the rest of the modern world. It is a medium that, for better or worse, allows a degree of escapism while also reinforcing a rather unhealthy focus on physical beauty and novel experiences, especially among a certain set of so-called “Instagram Influences” that are the cliched “beautiful people” that post perfectly posed photos of themselves in expensive clothes and scenic locations. Essentially, they make the rest of us feel awful for our humdrum, normal lives.

But those are not the people I follow.

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Pretty pens…

One of the reason I joined Instagram was to follow many of the “Penfluencers” (if you will allow me such a neologism) that I was hearing about on various pen blogs and podcasts. I also wanted to follow various brands and creators so I could see their work and learn more about them, along with some of the content creators I was listening to and reading. And if I picked up some gin advice also, then all the better. But I was not going to follow or use hashtags to boost my own visibility. I do not want lots of followers or to follow lots of people. I want my Instagram feed to be a carefully curated, beautiful aesthetic experience that makes me feel happy.

And looking at and writing with pens and other fine stationery makes me happy. The beautiful materials that modern pens are made from are stunning. The feeling of a glassy smooth nib and wet ink on a high-quality paper is a sensation that is wonderful to feel. And the knowledge that what I am writing down—via a system of letters, ink, and pen—is part of an unbroken human tradition stretching back millennia. Sure, many of the specifics have changes, but those are simple upgrades to the tools, the basic idea is the same. And this makes me consider a lot more than just the words on the page whenever I pick up my pen. It is more than just a pen, it is one of the fundamental tools that has been used to transmit human knowledge across the whole of our written history.

The aesthetic experience of writing with pen and ink, even going so far as to choosing and pairing pen with ink, is an exercise in finding beauty. Like laying out your clothes the night before and designing your outfit for the next day, choosing a pen and ink that expresses “you” is not only picking out what is beautiful, but also what expresses you to the world—such is how I paired my Opus 88 Picnic in blue and paired it with Papier Plume’s Peacock Blue.

Of course, the fact that these are things that I even think about is fairly new to me. I used to be someone to whom the aesthetics of dress were among the last things I considered. I was all about the simple and utilitarian. And while I still hew closely to having a small number of clothes that are easy to mix and match, actually trying to find time to dress well, look good, and find space for beauty in my life is something relatively new.

Yes, some of that is the new physical me and the mental changes and new outlook on life brought about by it, but there something else at work: resignation and escape.

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I sometimes have too much fun staging gin photos….

It is odd, I think, when things seemingly cluster together. I had been thinking a lot about resignation and my own exhaustion at the world, and then Wisecrack published a video on just that topic as it relates to the newest season of South Park. I had also been thinking a lot about pens and aesthetics after reading Dr. Jonathan Deans’ epic post on the topic and then Kurzgesagt published a video on the importance of beauty for our emotional health.

You see, I was well aware that when I started my Instagram account that I was using it as an escape hatch from Facebook and the toxicity of so much social media. I also knew that it came at a time when I had largely crawled my way out of the pit that I had worked my way into in Virginia and wanted something to help reinforce my newer, more optimistic outlook on life.

The bottom line is that Instagram provided me a more hopeful window on to the world. One devoid of links to outrage inducing articles. One free of partisan rancor and bias. I had had enough of that over the past…oh…six to infinity years and was not only resigned to its inevitability, but also wanted an alternative. Something that could bring me joy.

I wanted a positive aesthetic experience. One drive by the two (nearly) uncomplicated and joyful things in my life at the time: pens and gins.

But my Instagram posts have not exactly turned out that way. More often than not, my photos are of nature taken on my walks or daily commutes. Interesting light and shadows. Sunrises and sunsets. And lens flares. All the lens flares. I make J.J. Abrams look like freaking amateur (OK, not really, but you catch my drift).

I like nature. I like light. Maybe it is because of the opening forest scene from Rashomon, or maybe there is something innate that drew me to that movie. Regardless, beyond stationery and the purely joyful aesthetic experience of writing, I love nature. Forests. Mountains. Clouds. Light. The beauty of the world around us—what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, because of course Japan has a word for it. I even love the beauty of a well-designed building and how it interacts with nature—think Frank Lloyd Wright or I.M. Pei.

In a battle between man and nature, nature will always win because nature has all the time in the world. Man is finite. That is why he has to create joy in his inventions and monuments. Nature is joy. Nature is a pure, spontaneous aesthetic experience. Nature is beauty.

Nature just is.

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“Back in the day” I used to take a lot of joy in the aesthetic experience of media: TV, movies, comics, etc. But that has largely become more chore-like. Feels like an obligation to keep up with certain shows or is something I have to watch for a research project. This has clearly changed as I have tried to take care of myself: mind, body, and soul. I want to allow in only those things that nourish me—people and media. And with that so to have other habits changed. Writing this blog has nourished me this past year, providing me with a space to write, work through my experiences and emotions, and also share my thoughts and notions with my friends and the world. Thus, writing, and all that goes with it, have become important. Likewise, walking outside (for health and commuting purposes) have become a huge part of what nourishes me and as such photography of those activities have likewise become an expression of myself.

Media can nourish me in some ways, and I am currently trying to find a healthy balance of media in my daily diet. Short run TV shows (mainly anime and BBC productions), and probably more movies. Something with a low time commitment but high mental engagement. It is that last factor that is more important. I need media that feeds my brain. That makes me curious, thoughtful, and/or reflective. What else is the point of art if not to create a positive experience in the consumer?

I know, the cynics start quoting Adorno or similar cultural critics and theorists, but even media like TV, movies, books, video games, and music (even of the popular mainstream) can create these experiences. And it is to all of our benefit to mindfully engage with them. Allowing only that which brings joy and happiness, a sense of beauty, along with mental engagement, into our world. And yes, trashy TV and bad movies can and do have their place in this pantheon. I love roasting a bad movie with friends, but in that case the experience is less about the movie than it is about the people watching it with me.

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The Opus 88 Picnic really is a good design.

Bringing this all back home, though: pens.

I find pens to be beautiful objects, even the seemingly more mundane ones like the Opus 88 Picnic I am writing this post with. It is a transparent blue pen, but I love the contrast between smoky and clear sections, the more pointed end and rounded cap, and the proportion of nib size to pen. It is well-balanced and designed, and I must say that I liked it even more once I saw it in person. Seeing it brings me a sense of joy that is increased once I put nib to paper.

I know that most people will not get this, and even more will roll their eyes when they think of how much time I waste writing this draft out long hand only to then type it up. (N.B.—it is a great workflow for editing purposes!) But we all have our things that we do that are seemingly nonsensical.

I have spent a lot of my 30s pruning things that I thought I enjoyed but was doing out of a lack of energy to change: obsessively watching/following sports, watching sit-coms, checking Facebook 10 times a day, and reading every spinoff of every Marvel Comics cross-over event. No judgement if you genuinely enjoy any of these things, but for me I realized that my reason for doing them did not bring me joy and, if anything, actively hindered my well-being (either financially or mentally).

I guess what I’m saying is that one should occasionally take stock of what you do, ask why you do it and if it makes you happy. These are dark, troubling, and disturbing times. And while we can’t ignore the darkness, we are no good to the fight if we are all miserable and resigned to a bleak future. Joy reminds us of what we are struggling to change. Or, as Samwise said: “[T]here’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo…and it’s worth fighting for.”

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