watching in dry flash fiction feature

Watching ink dry

Sometimes we think change occurs at an incredible pace. Other times it’s too slow–like watching paint dry. But what about watching ink dry?

This week at the Carrot Ranch, Charli Mills challenged writers to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about wet ink. It can be artistic, writerly or something completely off-the-wall. Go where the prompt leads.

Where would I go? To school–where else?

In my first year of school we wrote on slates (no, not on stone tablets as my children may tease).

In subsequent years, we wrote in exercise books and special handwriting books with lead pencils (which contain graphite rather than lead).

As we moved up through the grades, we still used pencils for most work, but were also introduced to pens with nibs which we dipped into inkwells recessed in our desks for handwriting or “copybook” lessons. It was important to get just the right amount of ink on the nib–too little and the nib would scratch but not sufficiently to make a readable mark–too much and the ink would run, blot and smudge.

In upper primary, we graduated to fountain pens for our copybook work. It was just as difficult to get the right amount of ink, even with the cartridge variety. Should we err and make a blot on our copybook, it was treated as a most serious offence. Luckily, our trusty blotting paper was at the ready to soak up any excess. We always had to begin writing at the top and continue down the page. There was no going back and inserting or altering something at the top, unless we were absolutely certain the ink was dry, lest we smudge the writing with our hand.

Although ball point pens, commonly called biros in my circles, had been invented–as early as 1888 according to this history, would you believe–we were not allowed to use them in school for fear our handwriting skills would deteriorate. They had their own set of ink issues too–some would fail to write, other would supply too much thick ink. Others would leave ink all over hands, or leak in pockets or bags.

Over the years, ballpoint pens improved in quality and have now replaced dip nib pens except for specialist writing, and fountain pens are considered more a luxury item. Now the concern is that the use of digital devices; such as, computers, tablets and phones will have a harmful effect upon children’s handwriting skills. I wonder were there similar concerns when papyrus replaced stone tablets; and what those concerns will be in the future, should handwriting have a future.

I didn’t wish to “blot my copybook” by responding to Charli’s prompt with a story unrelated to education or children. I hope you enjoy it.

A blot on whose copybook?

Ever so carefully, she dipped the nib in and out of the inkwell. Her tongue protruded, guiding the pen as she copied the black squiggly lines dancing across the page.

“Start at the top. Go across; then down. Lift, dip…,“ the teacher droned.

“Start at the top!” The cane stung her knuckles, sending the nib skidding across the page.

“Now look what you’ve done!” The teacher grasped the book and held it aloft, sending ink in rivulets down the page. Her thumb intercepted one, smearing another opportunity for humiliation across the page.

“Girls, this is what not to do!”

Thank you blog post

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.

56 thoughts on “Watching ink dry

  1. Pingback: Out of respect, not fear | Norah Colvin

  2. Pingback: February 1: Flash Fiction Challenge « Carrot Ranch Literary Community

  3. robbiesinspiration

    So interesting, Norah. My Mom also learned to write on a slate. You can tell your children they had slates as far back as 1890 in the US [so no stone tablets for quite some time now – wink!] I enjoyed your story and am very glad I did not have to write with a fountain pen.

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  4. Michael B. Fishman

    This was a sad piece and unfortunately I remember a time when teachers would shame students and, while not using a cane, use a ruler or a paddle to make a point. It’s also sad that handwriting and cursive seem to be things of the past but I guess that’s progress, huh?

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Michael. That shaming was common “back then”. I’m not sorry to see it go. I’m not sure about the demise of handwriting, though. While I use the keyboard more often than a pen, there are many times I prefer to use a pen.

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  5. Pingback: Wet Ink « Carrot Ranch Literary Community

  6. Charli Mills

    Blotting paper was something I knew for taking care of facial “shine.” I’m enthralled at your knowledge of ink and copybooks from school. I had a big lightbulb go off in my head — now I know what those circular depressions on old school desks were for! I always wondered but didn’t think of ink because the one-room schoolhouses used slates. I didn’t get the knuckle-wrapping nun-teacher, but I did have one who humiliated me in a similar fashion. My middle daughter had a former nun as her elementary school teacher and she was the kindest woman, and a clever teacher. Your flash captures that old regime. At least the corporal punishment has gone.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi, Charli. Now, that use of blotting paper is unfamiliar to me!
      Ha! I’m amused that you didn’t know what those depressions were for – you young thing, you! 🙂
      Funny you also mention a nun who was expert at humiliation. I was at the optometrist this morning and the assistant started telling me about her life as, for some reason, people are often inclined to do. (I think I’m a good listener.) Anyway, she started telling me about nuns humiliating her in school. I couldn’t believe it. What sort of coincidence is that! I gave her no indication of my flash story, but I did tell her afterwards. Sadly, the story is all too common, all over the world.
      I’m so pleased your middle daughter’s teacher was much kinder. If not, she wouldn’t have stood a chance against you! 🙂

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      1. Charli Mills

        Sometimes I wonder if the women who were nuns felt trapped living a life that perhaps they really didn’t want because there are so many stories of mean nuns. My daughter’s teacher quit the order and perhaps felt more satisfied in life. She was devout, though. I recall her going to the Cathedral (which was across the street from the elementary school) every day to pray during lunch. Makes me want to write a nun story. And as for the inkwells, I’ve been curiously asking around today and it might be that they were only used during the 19th-century in the US. I think ink an Australian experience!

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        1. Norah Post author

          I often wondered about that too. Many were expected to enter the convent and had no choice about their future. Perhaps others joined to escape society and other fearful things. The fear of God and of everything was a big part of religion back then, as it is in other circles now, so I guess fear drove a lot of that negative behaviour. Also conformity and disdain of questioning was a big part of it – don’t dare be different – don’t step out of line (or on the crack and break your mother’s back). Your daughter’s teacher sounds delightful, filled with love – the true Christian. Seems to me most of the nuns I knew didn’t have too much of the love of Christ in them. Nun stories – don’t get me started! 🙂
          I can’t believe inkwells went out of use in the US in the 19th century! What replaced them?

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          1. Annecdotist

            I love nun stories! I wrote a short story set in a time when convent life was harsh, but for many preferable to the slavery of marriage. But the nuns who have a very small part in my WIP are more like the nasty headmistress of my primary school.
            Maybe a 99-word story prompt, Charli?

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            1. Norah Post author

              It is. There were the lovely ones, but it’s the mean stories that surface most often. I guess that’s the way of the world and stories – niceties are ignored and wrong-doing publicised. Or maybe it’s the negatives that are most memorable in their impact.

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                1. Norah Post author

                  Oh dear. Now what have we done! Actually, I was talking with my Vietnamese hairdresser today, having a wonderful conversation, as we do. She mentioned the nun at the temple – a Buddhist nun. I meant to ask her if they were nice or mean, but the conversation drifted and I forgot. That would be interesting.

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                  1. Annecdotist

                    I remember meeting a very disgruntled Buddhist nun in Kathmandu – but she was American! I imagine that with their more accepting philosophies Buddhist nuns would be nicer. Catholicism is quite psychotic in its splitting of good and evil – lots of harm can be done when the grey areas are denied.

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                    1. Norah Post author

                      Interesting encounter, Anne. I wonder what similarities and differences there may be between the lives of Buddhist and Catholic nuns. I think you’re right about denying the grey areas. There’s not much left when you do!

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  7. Patricia Tilton

    That was a tough topic for flash fiction, but you nailed it.
    Never used pens with inkwells — that was before my time and I’m older than you. We had fountain pens and I loved them because your could buy colored ink cartridges — purple my favorite. I missed them when ball point pens arrived.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you, Patricia. I’m pleased you consider my story successful. I am becoming a little more confident with my stories, but it usually takes a lot of work to get one to where I’m “happy” with it.
      I’m fascinated that you didn’t use inkwells. They must have gone out of fashion over there before here, that’s if, indeed you are older than I. I don’t think I ever had coloured cartridges for my fountain pens. I would have loved them. I think we used blue dipping ink. I don’t remember any other.

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  8. julespaige

    I don’t think I ever used a fountain pen in school. When color inks in ball point pens came out most teachers said to only use blue or black. Then just blue because when they photo copied something (which only rendered black and white images at the time) you knew if a page was copied elsewhere… Also blue for checks and important documents.

    But some teachers let you use other colors except red – that was for grading papers.

    Now I think it is funny when you sign electronic Credit Card translation screens with your index finger!

    Kind of sad that teachers didn’t realize that mistakes where /are a natural thing and as long as you understood the lesson that the notes or ‘copy’ didn’t have to be perfect.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for sharing your memories, Jules. It was fun to have different coloured ball point pens, wasn’t it? But all those rules we had to have. I guess there are still rules in school. Even I had some. I wouldn’t allow erasers. I liked to see the children’s first attempts. It helped me understand their thinking. (In year one, only lead pencil was used for writing or number work.) I guess that’s almost the opposite of your last point. I was more than accepting of false starts. 🙂

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  9. Annecdotist

    I love where the prompt took you – and us – this week. Makes me wonder if I still have my fountain pens at the back of a drawer somewhere. I remember trying different nibs to get the right one. My handwriting is still quite neat, but rarely used these days.

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    1. Norah Post author

      I’m pleased you enjoyed the post, Anne. It’s easy to forget sometimes, how much things have changed. I’m grateful to Charli for prompts that spark memories. My handwriting was never particularly neat and it changes a lot. I can change styles numerous times in one piece. (As a teacher, I’ve taught quite a few different styles, which differ again from what I learned in school.) I don’t know what a handwriting expert may make of it. Maybe what any good psychologist would! 🙂

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  10. Camie

    I really enjoyed this! It made me remember how I learned to type on an actual typewriter and the extent of my computer education in school was playing Oregon Trail. As far as handwriting, my cursive had to slant just right and I was the best in my class at it because I would practice at home. So the teacher always made an example of my cursive. When I wrote in pen, I was obsessive. If I made even one mistake, I would start all over again, even if it was only notes for myself. It was good when erasable pens came out!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Camie. It’s interesting to see how they differ from mine. I taught myself to type after I left school. Typing wasn’t an option for me as I chose the “academic” path to continue on to tertiary education. There were no computers and definitely no computer education when I was at school. 🙂
      Ah, I’m so envious of your handwriting ability. I love to receive a beautifully handwritten note. I remember one of my teachers talking to my Mum about my poor handwriting. I blamed my Mum. I practised at home – copying my Mum’s handwriting. 🙂
      I don’t think I ever used erasable pens. I can see how helpful they would be to a perfectionist.

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    1. Norah Post author

      That’s her! She “taught” (terrorised) you too! I’m so pleased those days are long gone. I’m just sorry there are still some little ones suffering in similar ways, even if the cane and corporal punishment are no more.

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  11. thecontentedcrafter

    Norah, you are not that old you couldn’t have written on slate surely…… even I didn’t do that 🙂 I do recall the WHOP across the knuckles though that was mostly the boys……. I did get whopped once but don’t recall for what – possibly not paying attention 🙂 While we learnt life long skills it’s still good the disciplinarian regime has died out 🙂 I do think it’s a shame most of the young people I know can’t write cursively anymore – I don’t think it’s fashionable here now. Your acute observation placed the tongue in exactly the right place for writing practise – but my goodness that teacher was never based on you 🙂 It’s nice t be back visiting your blog again – I know I’ve missed a lot!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Not that old – Australia must just be behind the times! 🙂 🙂 🙂 Yes. That old! I don’t think I ever got whopped with the cane. I was at an all girls’ school. I remember when some of my classmates got the cane though. They had done something so bad it was unspeakable. I never did get to find out what. I think they may have talked to boys after school! 🙂
      Attention to handwriting does seem to fluctuate in schools, doesn’t it. It’s a long time ago that I taught a grade high enough to teach cursive writing. Our handwriting in Queensland, and I think all of Australia, begins as a print, then entries and exits are added, and then finally they are joined up. I think it’s a lovely neat form of handwriting. I still tend to combine both print and cursive when I write. I start off all pretty with decorative writing but it soon deteriorates into illegibility.
      You’re right. The teacher wasn’t me – nor was the situation mine; but the general circumstances were quite pervasive back then.
      It’s nice to have you back. I’ve missed you too. Does this mean you have functioning devices again? I hope so.

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    1. Norah Post author

      I sense that you may have experienced similar situations, David. “Petty revenges” sums it up very well, I think. It’s tragic the way having power over the powerless brings out the worst in some people, particularly in those who should be supporting and protecting. Thank you for the comment and hugs. Hugs back. I hope you are feeling better – will get over to check on you soon. xx

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  12. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    Nicely paced flash with effective use of dialogue. Good flash, horrible situation, canes and all. Say it ain’t so, Norah.
    Still… how’s your handwriting? For many kids -oh, and me- it is deplorable. And how much does it matter is debatable.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks, D. I’m pleased the flash worked. It’s funny how long these flashes can take and how much reworking they demand.
      Sadly it was so. I don’t think I ever got the cane, and certainly not for handwriting, but the humiliation was part and parcel of my schooling. I think the nuns went out of their way to find opportunities, which is what I was trying to show here.
      Fortunately, it’s not so any more. At least I hope not.
      Yes, my handwriting is deplorable. I was never praised for neatness. I have read debates about the value of handwriting. While the amount of handwriting I do is now greatly reduced, I still hand-write certain things and am not prepared to give it up yet. I think the fine motor skills developed by crayon and pencil control are still good ones to have. But as you say, it is debatable.

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