Lately I’ve been on a bit of a quest for a creative outlet (said the lady with the blog), though this isn’t necessarily a new pursuit. I seem to hit bottlenecks of pent up creative energy and have frequently found myself in this quandary. The problem isn’t wanting to do something, it’s trying to figure out what in the hell do to, and, as it turns out, there’s a fine line between exploring new things you might like and desperately searching for ways to reinvent yourself.
I’m not a firm believer in talent, which is to say that I feel the idea of talent as some magically divined quality is largely bullshit, and the art of being good at anything is simply doing it consistently and thoroughly, acknowledging, perhaps, that we’re “naturally” inclined toward certain things for whatever reason. I’ve always been an active person; “play” for me as a kid was almost entirely physical, and these days I run with intention, i.e. I train for distance events. I also did a fair share of musical things as a young person, and I suppose you could say I had an inclination for it. Picking up new instruments was never too difficult, or perhaps it was just a challenge I enjoyed and was willing to undertake. But as I’ve come to understand my success as a runner largely as consistency and habit, I also have a much different understanding of my failures as a musician. The only thing that ever actually differentiated myself from more skilled musicians was simply more practice. I was also a crafty kid. I like to make things/food myself, much to the chagrin of my mother once I discovered that she owned a candy thermometer. The pinnacle of my youthful creativity was the year I made my dad a snow globe out of an empty plastic pantyhose egg. It may not have had snow, per se, but there was a mini replica of him sitting in a tree. I mean, who doesn’t want themselves recreated in miniature sitting in a tree with cotton ball snow for Christmas? (If you do, you can hit that magical “contact me” link at the top of your screen.)
At any rate, a couple of years ago I decided it would be awesome to be a cartoonist, and while I’ve had some success in the graphic design world, I was never exactly a doodler or anything like that. My handwriting is atrocious, so generally speaking I wouldn’t say I feel a great command over writing/drawing instruments. This is kind of a rough place to start from, but I decided to give it a whirl. As it turns out, manipulating vector shapes on my screen is much more up my alley, though not for lack of trying. I practiced basic shapes/strokes, and I even found my way to things like Skillshare where I sat through entire courses on human figure proportions, 3-D perspective, etc. So, at least no one can say I didn’t approach this experiment without some gusto. The conclusion of this project was a lot of hair pulling and a general sense of it feeling completely foreign to me no matter how much practice occurred, though the few times I’ve pulled out my sketchbook, I can’t say my work was all that terrible. The challenge was that I could never really “see” things on my own and relied heavily on copying other people’s work, which didn’t exactly feel like artistic freedom. I’d stare at my blank page until I gave up and resorted to Pinterest for inspiration. (Admittedly, this is also how it goes for me in the digital world too.) The silver lining, however, was a serious improvement in the quality of my subsequent doodles on our kitchen white board.
More recently I had a wild hair to try my hand at calligraphy. It initially started as a resolution to improve my handwriting, but I kept stumbling on these much more impressive samples of curly lettering, and, well, it just seemed like much more fun. My rationale was that it would be more structured than drawing, and perhaps a halfway creative point. I do find that keeping my hands busy is relaxing, and all tutorials emphasized that the key to success was simply daily practice, even for people with lackluster handwriting. This seemed like a no-brainer for runner/musician/craftster me. Finally, a true artistic calling that was founded in dedication and not some sorcerous idea of creativity! Determined to largely forget my experience with drawing, I imagined myself busting out beautifully scripted love notes and holiday cards in a week, effortlessly picking up dip pens, brush pens, whatever. As it was suggested, I spent some time learning “faux calligraphy,” which is basically just lettering with any pen (a ballpoint did the trick). You fill in the lines where your dip or brush pen would create a heavier downstroke not unlike a coloring book exercise. This proved to be a good way to learn the calligraphic alphabet, and mostly happy with my progress, I moved on to fancier tools, i.e. the elusive dip pen.
I’ve not spent a lot of cumulative time with this beast of a tool, and my practice with it has happened in fits in starts. I’ve been at it daily for almost two weeks now, but still—it’s more reminiscent of my drawing experience, than, say, knitting or baking (other hand crafts I’ve had more ease with). I’ve never painted, so varying pressure for stroke width is new, and I always seem to get blobs of ink on my sheet after I re-dip (a newbie problem, I’m assured). There are letters that I struggle mightily with, like super loopy capital G’s and J’s, and others that I can bust out with meditative ease (capital F’s are my favorites). While I know it matters not at all how “good” I am at this new endeavor, but rather how much I enjoy the process, I suppose I’m trying to determine whether or not this is a process I enjoy. Should I know already? Am I forcing something that I want to love, but might not intrinsically? Truth be told, I can easily get lost doing it for hours at a time, even if so far I’ve been mostly repeating individual letters over and over and over again. Actually stringing them together uniformly to fashion whole words still alludes me. Nothing looks terrible, but you can tell that something is off…namely consistent proportions and angles.
In writing this I started to think about learning to play the violin, a very technical process of learning finger placements (no frets like a guitar) and proper bowing technique, i.e. drawing your bow evenly across the strings in a straight line and less like a chicken flapping a crippled wing. From there you move on to different hand positions, and then the ultimate sign of advanced skill and musicianship—vibrato. The benefit to learning skills like this when you’re young is that no one, including yourself, expects you to know these things and it would be insane to hand a kid a violin and then be frustrated at their lack of proficiency. Furthermore, there is a very intentional progression, especially if you follow the gold standard of the Suzuki method. New skills are added gradually, allowing you time to master them before moving on. Perhaps it’s just at this advanced age of thirty-something I feel like I have less time to get where I imagine I want to be. At 10 it’s noble to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star for eight hours a week until your fingers hit the neck with laudable precision. At 37, it’s kind of depressing.
So, am I a master calligrapher in training? Time will tell. I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel or let the inkwell dry up just yet. It’s possible that I’m searching for something I’m not going to find in a loopy flourish, and it’s equally as possible that if I simply let myself enjoy the process I might actually get better, maybe even good, at this new-to-me art form. I am too eager to get to the vibrato for reasons I know have nothing to do with calligraphy. I don’t think the 10 year old me asked myself repeatedly how learning to play the violin defined me or gave my life purpose. I liked it, so I did it. As my skills expanded, so did my opportunities to play new music with new people. But, I did have start with those couple hundred hours of playing nursery rhymes.
I do find practicing hand-drawn letters to be very meditative, and I suppose that’s something great in and of itself. I’ve started to think of this grand adventure more as, well, an adventure. What happens if I do just keep practicing, doubts and all? Will I actually get better and produce writing that looks like legit calligraphy? Who knows. In the meantime, I’m avoiding social media (another benefit of learning to play music at 10, and in an era that predated both the internet and social media). Sometimes it’s inspiring to see what other people are doing, and sometimes it’s an inky pin to my balloon. Can we invite the pink elephant out of the corner? Not everything tagged with #beginnercalligraphy actually is. There, I said it.