How Calligraphy Rekindled my Love of Writing (or, Why the Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard)

Practicing calligraphy helped me rediscover my love of writing long-hand.
Practicing calligraphy helped me rediscover my love of writing in longhand.

Recently, I had the strange urge to take up calligraphy. And it revolutionized the way I write.

Perhaps it’s from admiring the amazing manuscripts posted by Erik Kwakkel on his Twitter and blog feed. Or perhaps it’s from watching Harry Potter for the umpteenth time and thinking how cool it would be to write with a quill. Or maybe it’s the giant feather my son found for me last year that has been begging to be turned into a quill… if I only knew how to use one.

Calligraphy is not a new thing for me. As a girl I used to beg my mom for calligraphy sets, and would spend countless hours a day switching out nibs and ink cartridges, my fingers stained purple as I dutifully traced the outlines of each letter, only to lose interest a few days later due to my slow progress. The difference today is, I now have the benefit of experience to know that short, concentrated bursts of deliberate practice a few times a day can will produce amazing results over a few weeks.

So I bought a nifty little iPad app called Calligraphy Art ($2.99 on iTunes) and borrowed a cheap stylus from my mother-in-law to get a feel for making the strokes with a writing instrument. Every day, I would practice a single letter from the bold cursive font. It became meditative. Each letter had a rhythm, a unique stroke pattern. After a few weeks, I could write out the whole lower case alphabet from memory, no tutorial strokes needed except for the rhythms in my head.

It occurred to me that the stylus couldn’t capture the angle of the pen on the paper, or the feel and sound of dragging a pen across the page. So I bought a basic calligraphy set with interchangeable nibs and ink cartridges from Michael’s, and smiled at the return of purple-stained fingers from my childhood.

From there, I took the leap of faith to a dip pen– a minimal wooden stylus with a clamp for a metal nib that, when dipped in a jar of ink, would glide across the page like a skater glides on ice.

It was heaven.

20140121-124651.jpgFor a while, I amused myself transcribing favorite biblical passages onto scraps of torn résumé paper and tacking them to my bulletin board. But it seemed a large investment of time for such a small outcome (attach nib, open ink jar, carefully dip and scrape off excess ink, write short passage, rinse nib, dry nib, close ink jar, etc). I needed a larger project. So I decided to use the smallest nib and tried my hand at regular cursive. It was… different. Technically, calligraphy nibs are supposed to be used only in down strokes and horizontal strokes (left to right). Each letter is actually made up of several short down- and across- strokes to make a seemingly continuous curve. But cursive requires you to occasionally push the pen across the paper- a no no in calligraphy.

Comparison of penmanship after 1 page (left) and 5 pages (right)
Comparison of penmanship after 1 page (left) and 5 pages (right)

As an exercise, I started writing out some notes for a short story I was working on (and by “working on” I mean sitting and staring at a blank computer screen several days in a row, not writing anything.) The long-hand writing was rough and unpolished, crooked and uneven. Ugly. Just like a rough draft should be. The nature of the writing implement required me to slow down, take my time, think about what I wanted to write before I wrote it. I was able to play around with the angle of the nib and my hand pressure to avoid unsightly scratches and blobs. Then an amazing thing happened. I kept writing. I kept looking for an excuse to keep writing, to enjoy the penmanship. And the words kept flowing, just like the ink. By the fifth page, the lines started to approach parallel, the words required fewer scratch-outs, and (most amazingly) I had met my word count for the day- something I hadn’t done in months.

How long will this continue? As long as it’s productive. Yes, it’s time-consuming, but it’s never tedious. Yes, it’s more expensive (ink and paper not being free and all) but it’s not as expensive as hours wasted staring at a cold, glowing computer screen. The paper seems to beg for ink in a way the keyboard never did for typing. Even if the words are crap, they look good in manuscript, which encourages me to write more.

Knowing I’ll revise later, once I transcribe the manuscript into the computer, gives me great freedom to write whatever I feel; no self-censorship here. It’s as if the ink itself reassures me, “Don’t worry about clichés and lapses of POV… we’re only a rough draft.” Handwritten words on a page are so obviously in rough draft form, there is no internal editor trying to tidy them up.

The end result is pages and pages of glorious words. It’s as if somebody turned on the tap and walked away. I can’t write fast enough. But maybe that was the bottleneck this whole time. I’m a fast typist… oftentimes my fingers would get ahead of my words, giving me the sensation of lurching forward and writing in fits and starts, like a hose with air in the tube. But with a dip pen, the release is controlled and steady. My words come out at the pace of the pen, no faster. And maybe that was the secret all along.

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