Should I lose all my important writing, I’d prefer being able to say it died in the flames of an unquenchable fire, or the merciless gusts of a tornado, or rapids of river water beating down the front door during a flash flood. If the writing matters at all to me, it deserves something a little better than, “I forgot to press Ctrl-S.”
Before this week, my penmanship had stayed slow, stagnant and terrible for the entire two decades I’ve known how to write. I never thought to improve it. I never even thought it could be improved. I figured I was predetermined to have terrible handwriting.
First of all, around the age of ten I developed a love for computers that had me trading pen and paper for keyboard and mouse whenever possible. That I could type quicker than I wrote and that it was always legible gave me all the reason I needed to abandon handwriting altogether.
On top of that, I’m a man. All but a few of us are destined to have shitty penmanship, I thought, and I certainly wasn’t the exception. I’ve heard that the quality difference between female handwriting and male handwriting can be accounted for by girls having more finely tuned motor skills at the age handwriting is taught. I don’t know if that’s true, but a quick glance at my unevolved chicken scratch seems to confirm it.
The older I get, though, the less appealing the computer is. As the digital world gets bigger, more social, more crowded, I have gotten far less interested. I use the machine mainly to write in Ulysses, read a few of myfavoritewriters and manage my homestead. But back in September, my hard drive bit the dust and I was left computerless for nearly three weeks. In that time, as a paper notebook became more appealing than ever, I began to wonder for the first time in my life whether or not I could make my handwriting not only more beautiful, but also more natural and effortless.
My handwriting is heavy, clumsy, and (as you might expect) cramped. Every stroke carries so much weight and is made with such incredible deliberation that it somehow looks completely faithful to the intended shape and also horribly deformed. When you write as I do, there’s only so much time you can handle it. The muscles in my hand get tighter and more sore so that the already ugly words I manage to spit out of my pen get even uglier and less legible.
I was recently taking handwritten notes for a great book I’m reading—The King’s County Distillery’s Guide to Urban Moonshining–and I could barely make it thirty minutes. There was plenty to write, and I was slow and tense enough to make it all a miserable chore. But these were notes I desperately wanted to take, and not on the computer. They had to be taken and they had to be in a physical notebook. This was around the time I first heard about The Cramped. This site and my need spurred me to attempt to fix my handwriting. It could be faster and more practical, if not more beautiful.
After hours of writing and rewriting the same few phrases, testing different styles for each character, different techniques for the strokes, and a variety of other things, I think my handwriting is fixed. I happen to think it’s much prettier now than ever. I might even go so far as to say that with a little more polish it will be the exact handwriting I’ve always wanted.
But whether or not you agree with my aesthetic sensibilities, this new handwriting is fast, painless and legible, which is all that really matters to me.
Here are a few of the ways I improved it:
Let Loose of the Pen
I’ve always recognized my terrible penmanship, which is why I’ve always grasped the pen way too tight. I think it was a subconscious attempt to form better shapes, but it only makes it worse. First, because the best handwriting is light, free flowing and effortless. Second, because it destroys your hand. You exert so much effort just holding the damn thing that after a while you abandon it for a keyboard.
Shapes are better when they just happen, not when you try hard to make them happen.
The letters in my writing were always straight up and down. I always hated them. It made it feel boxy and stiff. One of the features of good handwriting, in my opinion, is that it looks like the writer is hurriedly dragging a line across the page, whether it wants to go or not. This results in a bit of a slant to the letters. They bend just a bit into the direction of the writing.
Open It Up
If you think cramped handwriting is ugly and impractical, then simply stop doing it. Start making letters a little bigger and increasing the space between them. Your hand will hurt less and it will be more legible.
Change Your Grip
Growing up, I recalled that the best handwriters I knew held their pencils funny. They would bend their wrists at a 90-degree angle so that they ended up writing from above rather than hovering over. So, I tried it and it worked. It doesn’t feel natural yet and getting used to it slows me down a bit, but I like what it does for my handwriting.
As with all things, the most important way to improve is to practice. For people so steeped in the digital, like myself, just showing up might prove to be the toughest part when you’ve got that nice shiny keyboard to bang away at. But the more I write by hand, the more I enjoy it. The more I write, the more often I surprise myself by forming lines that are nearly beautiful, which makes me want to write all the more.
In the end, handwriting is becoming more than just practical. It is actionable poetry. It is meditation. And for the first time ever, I like it.
J.D. Bentley writes at jdbentley.com on the topics of tradition, self-reliance, and the strenuous life. Join his mailing list to receive your free daily shot of the good stuff.
On a ride this weekend I finally got to see one of the fabled Phone Box Libraries. Classic, but now obsolete, red phone boxes are being converted into small independent libraries for communities lacking in a such a facility. In this case of this one in Gawcott, Buckinghamshire, it’s a book swap.
Lovely reuse. As an aside, just about every other block where I live in Saint Paul, MN has a Little Free Library. My family avails ourselves of this convenience all the time. It’s a great way to discover new books and to share ones you no longer need with others.
Instead of feeling the need to go to the store, pick out a card that someone else wrote, and then buy the card, they choose to write a special message to one another in the journal. This way, these thoughts are kept together in a special place for them to reread and refer back to. Like any journal, it is also a history of where their relationship was at various points in their lives. They also use the journal as a place to write random notes to one another outside of holidays or special occasions.
Not sappy at all. Friggin’ brilliant. A wonderful idea and replacement for occasion cards that are often fleeting. I proposed this idea to my wife and she immediately was on board with this idea. Probably a good thing since we got each other the exact same card this past Valentines Day.
I’ve asked myself why I’ve been using only fountain pens for almost twenty years – A throwback to simpler times? nostalgia? grace? charm? class? style? All of them, I guess – it’s a heady combination of all of them, that turned me into a dedicated fountain penman. There’s just something about a nib with its wide and narrow strokes giving individualty to what is written and read which we just don’t get with anything else.
Another new page added to the site — What We Use. This is where we will catalog (with brief reviews) what tools we, the site contributors, are currently using. This is one you should check out from time to time as we will update and change it as the tools change.
Only Patrick’s are there for now. Harry’s should be coming soon Harry’s are up there now.
These older, simpler tools, with all of their baggage and inefficiencies, compel us to front-load the thinking process. They necessitate a certain concentration and cognitive abstraction. They force us to measure twice. Error-correction becomes a vaguely burdensome eventuality, as it should be, rather than an omnipresent part of the creative process. The slower pace of authorship throttles the hands, allowing the mind some extra breathing room and thus more effective oversight.
A characteristically lovely post from Matt. It echoes a lot of why I choose to use analog writing tools these days. Their very nature forces me to be mindful and measured in my craft.
I’ve been on the hunt for a while for some great stationery paper to use for my increasingly regular correspondence. Reader and longtime Internet pal Joe Lebo recently sent me a sheet of Clairefontaine Triomphe paper to try out.
My main requirements for such paper is that it be smooth, take fountain pen ink well, and have a certain air of “this matters” to it. I think the Triomphe hits all of these notes. It is beautiful paper — both to use and receive. The pad also comes with a lined guide sheet to help you keep your writing straight. It’s not cheap at $5.00 for a pad of 50 sheets. But, then again, if cheep is what you want then just use a legal pad. Good tools are rarely inexpensive.
If I had any quibble at all it would be that the paper is only available in bright white. I would love it if there was a cream option. My old, tired, eyes would find it easier to read.
Goulet Pens offers it in two sizes (A4 and A5) and also has matching envelopes on offer. I’ll be ordering some up today.
This post was first drafted on a sheet of Clairefontaine Triomphe stationery paper using a Lamy Studio (Black) with an EF nib and Pilot Iroshizuku Kon-Peki ink. A scan of the draft is available for download (PDF).
Cherrell Avery, once a calligrapher-in-residence at the V&A, gives handwriting lessons to adults, and believes it is perfectly possible, even in adulthood, to change your style completely and adopt, say, an italic hand – although all I’m after are techniques to improve its legibility, make it more attractive on the page, and lessen the discomfort. In a 90-minute introductory class, Cherrell assessed my writing and set me homework. It made an immediate difference, but real change takes daily practice. Here’s what I learned.
Some great tips behind that link. My faves include choosing the right pen and slowing down. I know this is something many struggle with.
There are a collection of antique shops here in Minneapolis that my wife and I find ourselves near once a month. My daughter takes a monthly class in the area, so we are left for two hours with not much to do other than check them out. We often find cool old wonderful stuff in these shops (the Royal Typewriter photo I posted a few days ago was from one of these) but today I came across a fantastic Correspondence Desk that blew me away.
The handsome blond oak was accentuated with an British green leather writing pad.
Lifting the writing surface reveals ample storage underneath with small drawers.
Underneath the top is storage for inkwells, pens, stationery, envelopes, etc. I especially loved how the inkwell compartments were stained with ink. This was a piece that saw years of practical use.
And even more storage drawers along the side.
It is things like this that the phrase "they just don’t make ’em like that anymore" seems best fitted for. In today’s world, there is no reason for such a beautiful piece of craftsmanship to exist. Very few in this modern age would dedicate a whole desk simply for the act of writing by hand. A computer on such a desk would simply slide off. Only weirdos and freaks such as I (and I suspect many of you) would see the elegance and endless utility of such a piece and be willing to pay top dollar to preserve and use it.
Unfortunately, the shop owner had just received the item and had not yet had a chance to discuss pricing with the owner. So, all I could do was leave my contact information and let him know I would be following up on it in the near future. And, walking out the door of the shop a part of me felt I was, in no small way, walking away from a fate.