Big ideas can have odd and sometimes questionable origins. A few years ago I bought a giant-sized ballpoint pen at a museum gift shop. It came in a plastic sleeve with two additional refills included. This pen was built for durable, long-term use, and I’m still using it.


Big ballpoint pen beside a No. 2 pencil.

Ever since I’ve owned this pen I have kept it on my desk to cast an air of robust, heavy thinking to anyone who may venture into my workspace and notice it. Any writer worth his salt must cultivate that air in some fashion, and the oversized ballpoint pen is one way I do that.

This particular pen is also intended to provoke questions about why I have it. In each of those actually rare instances when I’ve been asked about it, my standard joke in reply is to say I use it only to write big ideas—things like solutions to world peace, hunger, poverty, abundant cheap energy, and the like.

The following photo shows an array of pens on my desk that more accurately—and embarrassingly—hints at how I go about my work and serious thinking in general. I have an outdated stack of business cards that I use as scrap paper for small miscellaneous notes on the back of them. I also use two sizes of Post-It notes and various odd-sized scraps of paper that I gather from various places where I’m struck by an unexpected idea. Some of these notes have been on my desk for months. Others are fleeting in their longevity.

Large pen among regular pens, over little paper notes.

Large pen among regular pens, over my little paper notes.

It may be instructive to see the contents of some of those little notes on my desk. Watch for big ideas jotted down with that large ballpoint pen.

  1. A note to call a relative on October 16 on his 92nd birthday. An added part of the note says ask him about a neighbor from my youth who he had told me had personally sat on a batch of fertilized chicken eggs nearly non-stop for several days in an effort to hatch them in his bed. If he corroborates my memory of the story, more details about the egg-sitter will appear in a later blog post.
  2. Notes to order a copy of what some consider to be the best-written memoir of all time, James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. I still should get the book.
  3. A note to update Adobe Air so I can read the latest articles from The New York Times on Times Reader. I could have done that in less time than it is taking me to write what’s on the note, but I just don’t have time to do it right now.
  4. Another note to order a book, suggested by my next-door neighbor, on tips on shooting pool by Willie Muscani. This means my neighbor thinks I need a lot of improvement as a pool player, and he’s right.

After carefully looking over these and the other even more mundane notes, never in this fashion before, I don’t see a single big idea among them. That oversized ballpoint pen that I’ve reserved for jotting down big ideas will last me a very long time.

So much for big ideas.