Rediscovering the Fountain Pen and Penmanship

I’m completely amazed that I still remember writing like this.

When I was in school in the early/middle 70s, my favorite pen was a low-cost Sheaffer fountain pen. This was a luxury even a schoolkid could afford and was my go-to writing device. Unfortunately, it really wasn’t designed with a moving-from-place-to-place teen in mind and after a few years it had a leak problem. I bought a replacement, but they’d “upgraded” some of the design. While the differences were subtle, I didn’t like them. Influenced by that decreased enjoyment, before the start of high school I switched my standard to less esoteric tools for writing than a fountain pen.

For decades, I’ve missed that first pen. It wrote so smoothly it was almost like ice on PTFE. Without it, my handwriting soon devolved, as it so often does with teens, from the boring script learned in elementary school, to the chicken scratch designed to make letters so ambiguous that teachers weren’t sure whether or not a word was spelled incorrectly (though I’m sure they assumed they were — it’s not like adults don’t know that trick). Unfortunately, that quality of writing was also all but impossible for me to read as well. So I switched over to printing. Given the decades I’d be devoting to programming and the typographical precision that requires, printing thus became my mainstay for a bit longer than my adult life.

I tried to recreate my teen scratches, but this is actually still sort of legible which it wasn’t at the time.

Since my cursive/printing schism, I have occasionally visited the art of calligraphy as employed by dip pens. But these have only been brief diversions. I’ve persisted in my everyday writing being printed…with even that being supplanted over the years by the speed and precision of the keyboard.

A bit over a week ago, I bought an inexpensive fountain pen (a Lamy Safari F). Not only did I want to rediscover my memory of writing with liquid ink passing through a metal nib, I also wanted to rediscover the societally atrophying skill of cursive handwriting.

As years have gone by, I’ve gained an appreciation of how we used to share and preserve the written word. Diaries from centuries past have not only endured without change but exhibit more conscientiousness of expression combined with more care in execution. As someone who appreciates history and tradition, and as a writer who appreciates the nuanced difference between typing your thoughts versus taking pen to paper, I wanted to touch that activity that has been a literacy touchstone for as long as there has been writing.

Now I find myself practicing letters and penmanship to a degree not seen since elementary school*. Over the years I’ve come to like some of the older everyday handwriting styles as well as many of the styles to be had from the world of calligraphy. I want to combine the two in such a way that the writing is legible, attractive, and can be done at a reasonable speed. While there will undoubtedly be some minor stumbles by readers due to some of cursive’s inherent ambiguity (even of the words I don’t goof up), I want that to be the exception and not the norm it was with my old illegible scratches.

Not quite ready for public consumption, but it’s getting there. Practice, practice, practice.

My new hand has a few features that I’m trying to incorporate. One is flourishes. One of the things I most loved when I was learning cursive in the 2nd grade were those majuscule (or capital) letters that had fun loops — a cap “L” having always been my favorite. While these sorts of big, showy loops don’t really add to the content, I think they’re fun to do. I like writing them and often like seeing them because they really don’t show up very often nowadays.

Another aspect is that I have my minuscule (or small) letters being about 1/3 the size of the majuscule ones as opposed to the 1/2-sized that is commonly taught. This is simply a personal quirk that I acquired when I was a teen and has never left me. I feel it’s a little more in the tradition to the calligraphic style exhibited in professionally done 18th century documents than how it is taught these days.

I accept the fact that some might not like the patchwork style that my handwriting is quickly developing so I can deploy it on an everyday basis, but I think I’m old enough now that I don’t much care. I like the loops. I like my writing not consuming large tracts of space. Mostly thought, I want to rediscover something that is being lost: careful, legible cursive handwriting. If nothing else, with nib and ink in hand I feel a little bit more connected to the writers of the past upon whose shoulders I strive to stand.

 

* The last straw came in sixth grade. I’m described by many as being profoundly right-handed. I’d broken my right wrist during football practice. That minor fact didn’t absolve me of having to participate in our penmanship lessons. The design of the cast prevented me from writing with my right hand, so I had to practice handwriting with my left — something I’d never even tried before. The results, and grades, were less than stellar (as you can imagine). It soured me on handwriting practice from that time forward.

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