12 Pen Reviews Nobody Asked For

It is one thing to have a personal brand. It’s another thing to have a strong brand. Recently, the strength of my brand was demonstrated when a few people reached out to me because they thought of me when they saw this tweet: 

I don’t have a lot of stuff, but I do have an absurd surplus of pens. I rarely leave the house with only one pen on me, and I officially have too many pens in my home to keep them all on one desktop. Once, in middle school, a would-be bully who was dumping out my backpack made a horrified face at the amount of pens I had on my person. Until that moment, it hadn’t struck me that this might be weird.

The only thing that I have more of is opinions on pens. Without thinking, and without wondering if I should stop, I sent a detailed judgment on these pens to my friends. Read on to find my refined reviews of the pens in Chris Grosse’s tweet, plus a few more everyday pens that deserve commendation.

uni-ball Vision Rollerball 

My original review of this pen was pretty uncharitable - I called it a “dirty, lying cheat who will be flowing fine (if not too well) one moment, and then dry as a bone the next.” One grace I’ll give this pen is that Jason Polan used to draw with them, and the texture on the barrel and feed are a little more luxe than your average rollerball pen. It’s about as close as you can get to the feel of a fountain pen with an entry-level rollerball. Still, the blotchy ink bleeds through some really thick papers, and the amount of clothing I’ve stained with these pens over the years has led me to remain harsh in my judgment. 

Rating: 2/10

Pilot Precise V5/V7

I’ve used these pens for a long time. I especially love the green ink, and the dusty grey-blue barrel on the blue version. Not only are they great for a pleasant note-taking experience, but they’re also excellent for drawing. The Precise’s unique needle-point tip perfects the fountain-ish experience that the Vision tries to achieve. Sadly, I can’t sign on to having this pen as my ride-or-die because the tip gets clogged easily, and if they’re left in disuse for long enough, they’ll clog and dry up permanently. This is all the more unfortunate when you can see the amount of ink in the convenient window on the barrel, even when it has nowhere to go. Truly heartbreaking.

Rating: 9/10

Sharpie S-Gel

When I first saw this tweet, I confused this with the Sharpie Pen, which I’ve never willfully purchased, but is a handy leftover pen I’ve found at the post office time and time again (5/10 for the Sharpie Pen which is really just a teensy Sharpie and not a pen). Upon further investigation, I’ve found that the S-Gel is a standard gel pen. My friend David told me that the S-Gel changed his life, so I went out and bought a pack of white ones. I found it remarkably like the Pilot G2 with quicker-drying ink, and without the cons I’ll outline about the G2 below. The grip on the white barrel is comfy, and the click on the retracting element is slick. I can’t find very much to gripe about with this pen.

Rating: 8/10

uni-ball Vision Elite Rollerball

This is so similar to the uni-ball Vision, I’m surprised it was included in Chris’s tweet. This is an upgraded version of the Vision, with a more satisfying scratch and a slightly sleeker, darker body. Very similar engineering, though, at the end of the day, and subject to the same pitfalls as the normal Vision (drying and/or bleeding out unexpectedly). 

Rating: 3/10

Pilot G2

I’ll admit, I’m torn about this one. Several people told me this was their favorite pen. Pilot’s own website boasts that the G2 is the #1 selling pen in America. I’ve used G2s often over the years. The bodies can take a real beating, the clips are some of the strongest non-metal clips in the business, and the flow of the gel tip definitely makes one’s handwriting nicer. The ink is water-resistant, and it’s a great pen for taking speedy, smudge-proof notes. 

That said, the cons are not to be ignored. On the surface, the ink is a little sticky, and the design is a little too old-fashioned for me. This is, however, because the pen is almost as old as I am. The fact of the G2 being a hardy pen means that they’re most often found in various unseemly places (car seat crevices, classroom corners, communal locker rooms). Because they last a long time, there is a nonzero chance that this hardy pen will be at least slightly sticky on the surface when you unearth a fossilized one. Is it a pen that’s useful to have in a pinch? Absolutely. Is it the first one I reach for? Absolutely not.

Rating: 5/10

Paper Mate Flair Felt Tip

I feel the urge to reject the Flair’s inclusion in this tweet, because there are no other felt tip pens in the listing. To me, this is like asking someone to pick between six apples and an orange. The Flair feels more effective as a marker than a pen, and when you get a good (brand new) one, they’re a lot of fun. Sadly, if you’re finding one out in the wild, there’s a 75% chance it’s bone dry. 

Rating: 4/10 general usefulness, 9/10 for fun marker drawing right out of the box. 

Bic Cristal

Pack it up, other pens. Since their first release in 1950, over 100 billion Bic Cristal pens have been sold worldwide. This workhorse is so ubiquitous, it’s in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The Cristal is the ur- ballpoint pen, and for this, I have no choice but to pay my many respects.

In addition to its staid range of ink colors and widths, the Cristal is also the Nokia cell phone of pens. If the G2 can take a beating, the Cristal can take on a proverbial Persian army. The only time I’ve seen this pen’s effectiveness come into question is when it’s been run over by a car. Simply put, this pen endures.

When it comes to ink, the above “six apples and an orange” comparison of the pens in Chris’s tweet would actually be five apples, an orange, and a kumquat. All of the above pens have either water-based or gel-based inks, whereas the Cristal (and many other ballpoint pens) have oil-based inks. Where lighter, watery inks are great for quick writing, there’s a resistance on the page with true oil-based ballpoint pens that you don’t get with thinner inks. It’s divisive, but I find it very satisfying. Oil-based pens are also the only pens that work on carbon-copy forms, which are almost as boring as a too-lengthy review of everyday pens. Nevertheless, the Cristal continues to demonstrate its excellence. 

Rating: 11/10 - one additional point because the cap is fun to chew.

The Unsung Heroes
Below are some everyday pens that merit being mentioned in the same breath with the pens from Chris’s tweet. 

uni-ball Signo Gel 207

If you like the G2, there’s a chance you’ll like these. I love the grip and the clip on these, and the barrels come in a range of great colors. I don’t rely on them because, while the tips start out fine enough, they will get dull after enough use, not unlike a Sharpie marker.

uni-ball Onyx

If you’re a fine-point rollerball lover like me, look no further. Before uni-ball released the Jetstream Edge .28mm, I’d have said these were the thinnest ballpoints on the market. They last forever. I have about fifteen of these that were complementary pens from an old job. For a thicker option, try out the Pentel Rolling Writer.

Bic Atlantis/Glide

The newly minted Bic Glide is to the Cristal as the uni-ball Vision Elite is to the Vision: darker, sleeker, some might say sexier. As an added bonus (or not, depending on your preference), the Glide is retractable. 

Bic Round Stic / Clic Stic

The Stic brings the accessibility of the Cristal into the next generation, forgoing the beveled crystal edges for a utilitarian matte barrel. You know exactly what you’re getting when you pull the cap off of a Round Stic, or click a Clic Stic to sign a restaurant check. It won’t dazzle you, but it’ll be there for you, without the grunge or the grime of a G2.

Pentel R.S.V.P.

The longer barrel, the ergonomic grip, and the delicate fine point all contribute to making this elegant but oft-forgotten pen a total joy to write with. 

Paper Mate Write Bros

I want to include an elegy to my favorite everyday pen. The Write Bros I’m talking about are not widely sold anymore, but were ubiquitous when I was young. This pen has the thinnest barrel on the list, which is an added bonus for people like me with small hands.

On the original Write Bros, the Paper Mate logo is etched into the body of the pen, which is only shared by the Bic pens mentioned above. Where the Cristal is a wide-legged trouser, my preferred Write Bros is a tapered jogger - its tip graduates, svelte, the same way a 747’s nose tapers to a point, and its other end curves off like a regal chess piece. The only con I’ll note about this pen is that the clip is far more fashion than function, but very few people purchased a Bang and Olufsen phone for the way it feels in their hand. Perhaps TMI: the end of the cap is also an excellent toothpick. 

The body on the black variation is a glossy obsidian that calls to mind classic cars, rolling dice, and Mia Wallace’s shiny bob. The red version is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about my high school essays being graded. The body of the blue version is the same dusty blue as denim on a quintessential American road trip, the same blue as the color of a stormy sea. 

With the exemplary comes the heartbreaking. The Write Bros you’ll find in stores nowadays was first released in 2020. In the interest of space, time, and letting the stark difference in design speak for itself, I will simply describe its redesign by quoting The Godfather

I was told that liking this pen is the same as when Lutz, on 30 Rock, chooses to eat Subway over all of the other food available in New York City. I’ll stand by my devotion. If I had to use only one pen for the rest of my life, it would likely be this one, but because they aren’t manufactured anymore, the Paper Mate Write Bros is not meant to be mine eternally.

If this wasn’t enough to convince you, let me speak plainly: I won’t sign on to just one pen for the rest of my life. As much as I love them, pens aren’t people, and there are far too many options for me to settle on just one forever. If you’re a one-pen-forever person, I wish you and your uncluttered desktop a long and prosperous life.I’m happy to settle into my ever-growing pen den in the same way that Scrooge McDuck dives into his swimming pool of gold coins. 

Mario Wings to the Sky… Or Does He?

I have been playing Super Mario 64 for as long as I’ve been able to write my own name. I’ve gone from playing the game alone in the basement of the house I grew up in, to playing it on my laptop in college on Sixtyforce, a Nintendo 64 emulator, to a console I bought on Craigslist from someone who was about to move to California. The advent of Super Mario 3-D All Stars  and the eventual Nintendo 64 Switch port made it possible to play the game in transit, the ultimate dream for someone like me. As I grow older and understand what the trajectory of someone’s life looks like, I hope I will be able to play it as much as I want if I enter an old folks’ home, or if I end up in hospice at the end of my life. It is perhaps an odd thing to tie oneself to, but being able to kick ass at Super Mario 64 has been integral to my personality for long enough that I’m not sure what it feels like to be without it. 

During lockdown, I played levels I’ve never, or rarely, played. In the last few years I’ve avoided playing any levels where you have to use the wing cap to collect stars, because the wing cap mechanics don’t follow physics at all. It is possible that my devotion to trying to learn how to make Mario “wing to the sky,” as one level requires, is why I can’t throw a ball with any coordination. Nevertheless, the wing cap is perhaps the most iconic emblem of my childhood. You break a brightly colored box, catch the winged hat that falls out of the box, hear the inalienable Power Star theme, jump in the air three times, and all of a sudden, you can fly

What an absolute joy, for a kid - and unprecedented, for Mario, up until this point. Wing-capped Mario signifies everything fun about Nintendo 64 video games, and was probably created in order to show off the then-novel 360-degree mechanics that Super Mario 64 featured. There’s a reason that the Super Mario 64 box features Mario in a wing cap. Paired with the Power Star theme, which is iconic on its own, the wing cap is very fun the first few times you wear it.

Most of the time that Mario is airborne, he follows a wavy flight pattern: down and up, push and pull. Again: excellent for kids. However, once you have to reach an actual destination with the wing cap (i.e. flying directly straight at something or reaching a higher plane than you would be able to on foot), things get a little hairy. 

The most painful irony is how difficult it actually is to fly high with the wing cap on. This makes me question its purpose: if I can’t actually vault as high into the sky as I want to from standing on the ground, am I actually flying? This is supposed to be wing cap Mario, not lazy-plywood-airplane-cap Mario. Yes, this issue is addressed with the subsequent Mario game, Super Mario Sunshine, but it’s absent in Super Mario 64.

When I first started playing, I would try and make Mario dip down low to get higher. I thought there was a slingshot effect to Mario’s flight pattern. This theory was bolstered by the fact that the whooshing wind sounds would in fact get louder as I’d tip Mario up out of a rapid descent. However, if I dipped Mario three inches on my CRT TV screen, he’d only rise up an inch and a half. The logic I thought of at age six still seems as though it should hold true as I enter my late twenties - the lower you go descend, the higher you can ascend.

Anyone who’s earned a star in Super Mario 64 would say, “just use the cannons.” This generally works, except that the speed with which the cannon propels Mario into the air is not maintained once the flight mechanism kicks in. Basically, you can fire out of the cannon at 60mph, but once the game realizes you have the wing cap on and the flight pattern takes effect, you’ll slow down to 45mph. Add to that, the fact that the flight pattern naturally dips and dives the way it does means that as soon as you stop being a cannonball, you’ll dip down. Cannons should solve the wing cap problem but in fact they throw another wrench in the works. 

I would like to point out that, even though I am not exceedingly good at too many things, I am good at playing Super Mario 64. I can cannon to stars in midair and I can wall-kick my way to any height I want. I know how to defeat the most bullish of bullies and my ability to navigate the dumb slide mini-games is second to none. I’m no speed-runner, but I can kick ass controlling Super Mario 64’s titular character. When I have to put on that wing cap, though, everything, for lack of a better term, is up in the air.

As I meditate on these facts, it becomes clear to me that the wing cap feature in Super Mario 64 is a metaphor for life. If collecting the stars and completing the levels symbolize achieving one’s goals in life, then the wing cap symbolizes pleasant distractions that can be roadblocks to success. Sure, it’s all fun and games when you’re flying around, but shit tends to get real when you hit a wall. Hitting a wall is often a fatal mistake in Super Mario 64, but given the fact that Mario has multiple lives, it’s more accurate to liken Mario tumbling to his doom to a “low” in life, rather than one’s actual demise. 

I didn’t always rag on the wing cap in my free time. I used to think it was the most fun you could have in the entire game. I didn’t know about wall kicks, or how to use a fast turnaround to my advantage, or how you can cheat a couple of edges in harder levels to make your life easier. I wanted to hear Mario shout ”Yahoo!” when I sent him on a Z-jump, and to tug that red winged cap on with a triumphant ”Here we go!” I wanted to be the Peter Pan to Mario’s Wendy and send him on aerial adventures through the low-resolution skies of Super Mario 64

In my memory, this devil-may-care attitude towards Super Mario 64 is directly linked to my childhood. I have a vague memory of being somewhere between five and eight and my older brother, to whom the game and Nintendo 64 belonged, specifically running Mario up to the rainbow-laden, floor-less wing cap levels, so that I could fly around with impunity. It was one of the nicer things he’d do for me - that, and the time I got glass in my foot from playing around alone out back, and he pulled the glass out of my foot and bandaged me up. I still have the scar, and I mostly stopped playing in the backyard after that. My brother would set me up on those levels to give me somewhere to play, to make me happy (and to prevent me from ruining his save file).

Once I was older, I wanted to be able to say I’d fully completed the game. This meant getting more stars than I’d gotten before: I’d beaten Bowser, which requires the player to collect 70 stars, but there are 120 total stars in the game. As I started to pursue more stars, I realized that the wing cap was more of a handicap than a feature. The wing cap is not forgiving when it comes to levels without floors. If you don’t properly land on the platform you’re aiming for (if you slide off the edge with a nosedive-landing or if you hit the side of the platform), you’re doomed. Just tonight, I tried to collect the red coins in a floor-less level in order to get a star, and I kept failing. 

This was, however, outlined from a player’s first experience with the wing cap. The level where you unlock the damn thing involves being dropped into an open sky area with a large platform in the middle. The level’s designed to look like the turrets of Peach’s castle have reached up into the stratosphere, where this magic switch lies. It’s a little more fantasy-RPG-themed than the other Mario games, but the real fantasy is revealed when you figure out that you have to collect the eight red coins that are present in every Super Mario 64 level. This is fine, if you just drop into the level from mid-sky, but you need to hit the switch on the platform, and you can’t actually reach the coins in the sky from the place where you’re standing. If you don’t believe me, read the comments on the video linked above.

This was one of the first platformer games to feature 360-degree movement (though not the first!), and the astounding 3D mechanics were enough for the general public at the time. Forget that the fun part of flying around with a winged Mario cap makes you feel like you’re drunk behind the wheel. As easy as it is to complain, and as much as I want to leave it at being a hater, the actuality is that I am just bad at flying around in this game. 

So now, I try to approach the game’s wing cap requirement in a healthier way. It doesn’t just have to be a dangerous distraction, or a gigantic pain in my ass. I am in fact able to earn the stars that require the wing cap. It is not an actual fault of the game; I’ve just been complaining for this long because it is the part of the game at which I am the worst. My therapist did not actually tell me to take this attitude towards a 26-year-old video game, but if she knew how much trouble I’m having getting all of the stars, she probably would.

Even if I’m the worst, it doesn’t mean I’m incapable. Just because I’ve failed up to this point doesn’t mean I’m going to continue failing. The way I need to look at it is that the wing cap is just an added challenge. If you were meant to spend the whole game with the wing cap on, it would be a different game. My inability to fly uninhibited speaks more to my own flaws than it does the game’s design. Loving the wing cap as a child and loathing it as an adult stems from being more focused on the objective of the game and not reveling in the excitement of being able to fly. It’s my very adult and fear-based need for control that keeps me from flying the way I need to fly. Anytime I just chill and enjoy the experience of being in the sky, I’m usually able to get the coin or the star or the nebulous invisible rings (looking at you, Mario Wings to the Sky). 

All of which to say, I know the wing cap and its mechanics very well. The game, as mentioned, is about as old as I am, and as we enter into the era of VR and what I’m assuming in ten years’ time will be game chips implanted into our brains, the effect of Mario running AND flying in 360 degrees proves to be less exciting than it once was. Still, the metaphor holds some water - there is space in adulthood to enjoy moments of whimsy, even if it means you get from place to place a little less efficiently. 

What it Means to Try

It’s been a good ten months since my last newsletter, a long-form essay about 2020 and the books I read over the course of the year. Unless I put down all of my other distractions (including finishing Deltarune, trying to roller skate while it’s still vaguely warm, and reading various other newsletters), I will not have read sixty books by the end of 2021. It is also worth noting that many of you are following this newsletter because of my photographs. I am working on a very cool book project with a critique group I’m part of, and I have been thinking for a while about doing my own small book of grass photographs. Stay tuned for more info on both of those; future newsletters will not be this lengthy.

The main thing I have been doing with my free time over the last ten months (besides staring at my phone) has been writing. I have written by myself and in writing workshops, including the NYWC and a monthly writing workshop with friends I met during the pandemic. I have been (trying to) write 1,000 words a day per the inimitable Jami Attenberg’s advice. I haven’t stopped photographing, but I’ve ended up spending far more time writing this year.

During the beginning of the pandemic, I, like many people my age, hit a big wall with my artistic practice. There was no going to Virginia to photograph, anymore. There was no going out at all. There was going back and looking at all the images I’ve made over the past seven years and realizing that I throw myself through the same hoops when it comes to art. Among many other reasons from the early part of the pandemic, I felt useless.

I went back to what I did for my professional practices class in 2016 (thank you, Julie), which included writing a Strategic Plan for the following years (capitalization necessary). I expected to see something like what I thought I was telling people at the time, that I wanted to pursue a graduate degree in visual art to teach at the college level and make art in my free time. A worthy path, a path I could imagine for myself having an art degree. My sister had a mild panic when, after my bachelor’s thesis show, I said, “maybe I will apply to Yale’s photography graduate program,” which I mostly did in jest.

However, I opened my Strategic Plan and saw that I’d written what I have been subconsciously manifesting since I was probably eight years old. I wanted to make a career out of being a writer. I remembered, then, being eighteen and realizing I was not cut out to be a capital-F Fine Artist. I remembered being twenty-one and hitting the same wall I have always hit, not wanting to hate the artistic practice that I love by overworking it. I read the words of my past selves calling out to my then-present self, in the grey morning of the global pandemic, and felt a sense of relief.

The only deviation from my Plan was what I would write about, and how I would go about making money from it. I wrote about wanting to become the next Janet Malcolm. Other references that I only learned after college were Hilton Als and Claudia Rankine, whose work I have come to admire as much as Malcolm’s. The only deviation from my Plan is that I have written more fiction than nonfiction (I am about 50,000 words into what I have affectionately been calling my “gay space book,” about which I will give no further information) and I am currently still largely making money off of my photography-based experience.

Moving forward I am interested in doing more non-fiction work, and more art-related writing specifically. I was very glad to write about Sam Wrigglesworth’s work last year, and I’m looking to do more conversations and interviews with other photographers, writers, and artists. I would not be the writer I am without the images I make or look at, or the other art I take in while working at my creative practice - the ten-hour playlist I use to drone while I write, the work I look at on Instagram while I’m on the subway. The exhibitions and the live shows and the books and the books and the books.

I love Garth Greenwell’s writing in general, and I was introduced to his writing from his text that appeared in Mark McKnight’s Heaven is a Prison, a monograph of lush, grandiose photographs. I was able to ask McKnight what he thought about Greenwell’s writing about his photographs. This was during one of the last in-person photo events I went to, pre-Covid, the January 2020 edition of the Marble Hill Camera Club. As I go back and research this I am finding that Greenwell also interviewed McKnight.

After that talk in 2020, I went home and had a big trauma-laden cry about how I’ll never be as good as any of the people who showed their work that night. I knew then that I would never be as good as anyone I admire - Greenwell, Malcolm, McKnight - because I wasn’t trying. What took a long time to believe, and what I still have to regularly convince myself, was that trying, whatever it means, is worthwhile.

Since reevaluating my Plan I have looked at the intersections between writing and photography with a less critical eye. I learned that Greenwell is not best-known for his art writing, and that he has had a multifaceted career within his one chosen medium. I learned that Douglas Stuart, author of Shuggie Bain, spent years in the fashion industry while writing the book that won the Booker Prize last year. I was surprised to learn recently that Alexander Chee started out pursuing a degree in studio art, too. It seems like an obvious realization to know that notorious, successful writers have their hands in other mediums, but it’s given me some comfort to know that I don’t have to pick one creative pursuit over the other. While notoriety and success aren’t what I am after right now (see: gay space), without the trying, there isn’t even an outside chance of it happening.

This is what it looks like for me to try. I would like for “I am trying” to come across as less of a plaintive whinge, because it’s something I truly believe, and something I find myself reminding people around me constantly. Sometimes trying looks great, like the first Polaroid at the top of this email. Sometimes it’s more like the second Polaroid in that, no matter how hard we try, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. I had set the goal to finish a manuscript by the end of the year (the idea was to work on it all year; changing jobs five times over the last ten months got in the way of that). Even if I don’t get there, even if I do not write exactly 1,000 words every single day, I am trying. Even if I do not read my ambitious early-2020 goal of reading seventy books this year, I am trying. Even if I only lace up my skates one more time in 2021, I am trying, and if you are reading this, so are you.

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