28 August 2008

Write on Wednesday - calligraphy

The challenge: write about a time in your life when you were learning a new activity... and how you went about practicing it.

It's no secret that I write letters, I keep a journal, I collect fountain pens, and I get high on the smell of ink. What you may not know is that my handwriting is atrocious. It is cramped, it alternates between printing and crude cursive, and its slight backward slant could easily be interpreted as a mild sense of alarm at having to be viewed at all.

(It is, after all, the handwriting of a recluse.)

Years ago, in the months that followed the end of my first marriage, I grasped for words that might express the betrayals of trust that howled around me. Emily Dickinson knew.
Safe despair it is that raves -
Agony is frugal.
Put itself severe away
For its own persusal.

I copied lines of poetry into my journal and sprinkled them into letters. As my new life began to materialize, I decided that the words that sustained me could be better served (and less painful to descipher) if they were written in a prettier, more respectful hand.

Calligraphy was a popular adult-ed class in those days before choose-your-own-font allowed anyone to generate a perfectly-lettered document. I bought a cheap Sheaffer calligraphy set and joined a class. After the first week, our numbers plummeted. Many of the would-be scribes probably had expected calligraphy to flow, as if by wizardry, from their nibs. It doesn't.

Learning calligraphy is like learning to play the piano. Your fingers must learn basic movements - how to hold the pen, create the serif, the downstroke, the ascender, the descender. Then, just as you begin to string notes together to play a scale, you begin to assemble the pen strokes to create a letter.

I spent weeks on each stroke, each element, filling pages with black strokes, practicing at home, on tea breaks at work, anywhere I could uncap the Sheaffer. I was as happy to do nothing but practice these strokes as, years before, I had loved to play Hanon exercises.. In fact, I almost was reluctant to move on from the fingering exercises. They felt safe. But just as I gradually began to make music, I gradually began to combine letters to form words, words to form sentences, sentences to form stanzas.

The course ended before I was, in any sense, proficient, even in the most basic Italic alphabet. I never did learn the Bookhand that still charms me. But the practice itself gentled my emotions, soothed my aching world, and led me to pen more hopeful words.

"Though all levels you've been changing, getting a little bit better, no doubt," wrote Donovan in his "Epistle to Dippy." Indeed.

(Thanks to Penny, whose resurrected interest in calligraphy led me to recollect and write for this exercise.)


Becca said...

What a beautiful reflection on learning this artform - and I really appreciate the way you compared it to learning piano.

I've always wanted to learn calligraphy - I play around with it a bit, and have some calligraphy pens, but now you've reawakened my interest.

Thanks for participating with this lovely piece of writing.

Bridget said...

I love calligraphy! I had a hard time learning it, since I am left-handed, but I did put it to good use, and was able to make most of the money I needed for my last two years of college tuition.

Back then people would pay almost anything for nice lettering on invitations, etc. ...

Carrie K said...

Lovely descriptive post. Care to pen and post a sample of your style?

La Duchesse said...

I still hope to learn copperplate... thank you for sharing these recollections and offering inspiration. :)

Paula said...

I loved your post!
I always thought hand writing could be compared to music.
I tried to learn calligraphy long ago but the class I wanted to take was full and so I tried to teach myself then of course became side tracked with something else in a short time.
But I did discover that I enjoy writing with the medium blunt nib and still use that one on one of my favorite fountain pens.

I dream somedays of being a recluse and if I lived alone with an independent income then I would surely become one!
Karma must know that too.

Amy said...

There is a certain comfort, elegance in fountain pens :o)

teabird said...

I never attempted copperplate, La Duchesse - but someday, maybe...

gautami tripathy said...

This is a very inspiring post! I am reflecting over it!

Practising writing

Roggey said...

This was a delight to read!

Every year that calligraphy is offered through CommEd University here, I take the course. It's only four weeks long, but I really enjoy it. It keeps me in tune with my calligraphy, especially in years that I've not done much on my own =)