It all started so innocently. At a time when technology was annihilating everything I knew and everything I was comfortable with in photography, I went grasping for the old ways. The more I moved forward the more I wanted -- no, I needed -- to go backwards to a time of greater comfort and familiarity.
So, in the midst of high-speed Internet lines, instant messages and the digital-photography revolution, I decided to stop and begin hand-writing business letters. That alone would cause some people great pause, but I went way beyond and scribed these letters with a flexible gold-nibbed dip pen. This was my rage against technology!
I've never considered myself a calligrapher, nor has anyone who has tried in vain to read my chicken scratch, but there was something magical about this old way of writing. Suddenly, I was teleported back to an age of Bob Cratchit's beautiful flowing script. By the very nature of the pen, my writing slowed down and thus became not only legible, but elegant. People who were once too busy even to answer an email stopped and telephoned when one of my letters arrived. They were shocked that someone took the time to actually write a "real" letter.
Amy Rajakovic, an art director for a large local advertising agency, took keen notice of my first letter and picked up the phone to tell me how beautifully I wrote. She said that of the hundreds of promotional pieces and postcards she receives every week from photographers across the country, this stood out as "something special." She added that she had been passing the letter around the office "so others could see the pretty writing." As a promotional piece, the letter worked quite well, as she recently hired me to shoot an ad campaign and do the calligraphy on the primary piece.
The more people who took notice, the more I wrote. One day a good friend came to my studio and saw the pen, inkwell and blotters on my desk. He questioned what the heck I was trying to do. After a long explanation he smiled and asked why I wasn't using a fountain pen.
I grew up in a family who used nothing but ballpoints and #2 pencils. I knew nothing of this "fountain pen" thing. That was the day I saw the light, and later that week he presented me with my first true pen -- an Inoxcrom.
The fire was now kindled and it soon burned red-hot. Unfortunately what I loved about the antique dip pen was the line it produced, something the Inoxcrom couldn't duplicate no matter how hard I tried. Thus commenced my quest for the Holy Grail of Pendom -- a nib as flexible as those dip-pen nibs.
My first true flexible nib was on an unassuming no-name black chased hard-rubber pen purchased from Jack Price, a vintage pen dealer in Columbus, Ohio. There, I discovered the world of pens and collecting. As he spoke of the variety of beautiful antique writing instruments in his cases, I listed with awe. When he wrote with one especially flexible nib, I knew he was truly a wizard, for I had never before seen such beautiful handwriting. I walked out that day with two pens, ink, several books on Spencerian and Copperplate scripts and, most important, information about a strange gathering called a "pen show."
Today, as a "seasoned" collector of three years (a mere babe in the woods to the real collectors in this hobby), I've amassed hundreds of pens with nibs of great variety and different degrees of flexibility.
Along the way, I discovered an important lesson -- not all pens write the same for every hand. I'd been told many times that if I sought the true joy of flex, I needed a Waterman #7 with a Pink nib. When I finally acquired the pen of so many dreams, I was elated -- until I began to write. Yes, the pen had flex -- wonderful flex -- but the girth was too much for my hand and so I could not control it well. My heart sank, for this splendid pen was for me a useless rod of rippled hard rubber.
Today, my favorite and most-used pens are the Waterman 52 series in all its grand variety, from the simple, unpretentious 52 with nickel clip to the 452s and 552s in their gilded splendor. Like Goldilocks, the 52 is not too big, not too small -- but just right. With the legendary Waterman #2 flex nibs from the 1920s and earlier, I can scribe flowing script that nearly equals that done with a dip pen. But there are others, too -- oh, so many others! Wahl, Eversharp, Conklin, Osmia, Vacumatic, Sheaffer and a few no-name pens make up my cache of flexible pens.
My newly attractive handwriting didn't come to be overnight. I've spent many hours practicing. Doodles, scribbles, figure 8s and thousands of signatures later, I have adequate control to write attractively most days. I followed the lessons of the Palmer method, the Zaner-Bloser texts and many other books on handwriting. Practice, practice and more practice. I may never be a true calligrapher, but in an age when you cannot read most people's signatures, my handwriting stands out.
"It doesn't matter what the pen looks like; it's
how it writes," says Roger Cromwell of Penopoly. "Speed isn't
what you want. It's all about control of your handwriting. It's not a
ballpoint! If you want to write with a lot of depth, use a flexible nib.
According to nibmeister John Mottishaw, an important
consideration in flexibility is the gold content. "If they have too
much gold, they don't have the springy quality that we know of as flexible.
They'll most likely be bendy and dull, without the responsiveness that
makes a great flex nib," he explains. "Proportion has a great
deal to do with what makes one nib into a super flex and another just
mildly flexible. But size doesn't guarantee flexibility. We all know about
the Sheaffer Lifetime and Parker Senior Duofold nibs that are big and
stiff. So thickness also comes into play.
how did I, a child of the 60s and 70s, not know about fountain pens?
As she described the pen in vivid detail, my heart sank -- she unquestionably destroyed a Parker 51 double jewel in Buckskin. No wonder it was my grandfather's prize pen! She said that after the pen broke, her next "experience" was so painful she never wanted to see another one of those things again! From that day forward she refused to use anything but a pencil, so I grew up in a world devoid of a real pen.
Today, when I pick up my favorite Waterman, I'm instantly
carried back to a quieter, more peaceful time, without email, computers
or cell phones. For the few minutes it takes to scribe a beautiful letter,
I'm at peace, meditating on what this lovely pen may have engrossed over
its 100-year life. I'm holding history in my hand, creating written art
-- or, as one sales clerk said to me, "You don't write, you draw