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Arts and Letters

For a writer, I don't actually write much. I type all day, but the physical act of writing words on paper, with ink, is one that is mostly reserved for checks and birthday cards.

Today was a notable exception. I attended a calligrapher's conference with my lovely bride, and we hung out with the writerly set. These are people who spend on pens, paper, and ink the kind of money I reserve for software or game supplements. I fell prey to a book called Fraktur Mon Amour (glorious blackletter!). shellyinseattle found pen nibs and materials obscure to me, and explained some of the basics. I was among an almost entirely female subculture, but a very friendly and literate one.

And I had a great time, because I got to participate in three mini-workshops, each about 2 hours long.

Bamboo Pen: The bamboo pen wrote the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, Sanskrit verse, and Roman records. It is still in wide use among Islamic calligraphers and a few canny Westerners. Take a big knife and a small piece of bamboo, file it to a chisel point, and you have a writing instrument that will outlast any quill and draw a sharper line than any bamboo brush. I enjoyed both making a tool and working with it, and I'm delighted that my bamboo pen writes REALLY BIG. Letters inches high are pretty good.
Biggest surprise for me with this pen was how smooth it was, and how it seemed to improve my usually crummy scrawl. While writers do obsess over pens and keyboards and notebooks, your tools do matter. And it's just fun to write with real ink instead of some miserable, soul-sucking ballpoint piece of junk.
Oh, and I got to handle a functional quill pen. It had been tricked out with a modern grip and speedball-style reservoir, but even a hot-rodded quill is a feather at heart.
Gold and Gilt: There's something about letters written in gold that elevates them above the run of common language. I've always wanted to have a book or text of mine illuminated, but, well, it's out of fashion. Now I know how to do it myself. Real gold is yours for the asking; working with it is .... easy to explain, but hard to master. I managed to gild a chocolate for Shelly without difficulty. Gilding wood was much more difficult, and gilding paper was even trickier (and can be done in at least three or four ways, depending on your style of adhesive).
The thing about the gold is that it does shine in a way that is impossible to scan or photograph well. In person, it is pure light and reflection, but capturing it kills the joy in it. I can see myself working up a capital or two, but it annoys me that I could not share it.
Seals and Wax: I have always love cylinder seals and way, ever since I took away a reproduction Babylonian cyclinder seal from the Field Museum as a young lad. I never quite got it to work with traditional sealing wax (which is brittle and hard to work with). This class let me play with fire, blowtorches, proper modern waxes, and a wild array of seals, from Hadrian to Aphrodite to beautiful letters, birds, skulls, and wolves rampant. The wax smells great when it chars, and I have a sense of what might work with props or my own correspondence. It doesn't take much practice ot make these work.
I think I could spend a lot of money on antique signet rings, seals, and the like. They certainly provide a deep satisfaction to finishing a piece or letter. "I have written, and now I have sealed it, and it is done." Yeah, if I could put a seal on email, I totally would.

I'm not sure any of this makes me a better writer of prose. But it might make my letters, cards, and contracts more interesting in the mail. Lots of fun to make things with substance, color, and heft when so much of a writer's life is pixels and bits. Oh, someday I shall have my own scriptorium, and my inks shall be lapis lazuli, oak gall, and madder rose.


( 5 sutras — Your wisdom )
May. 4th, 2008 04:24 am (UTC)
Very neat. So, where does one get bamboo?
May. 4th, 2008 05:10 am (UTC)
The silly answer was "steal it from the neighbor's yard". The more serious answer is "as close to the equator as possible", because tropical bamboo has thicker walls, which make stronger, wider pens that hold more ink.
(Deleted comment)
May. 4th, 2008 05:11 am (UTC)
Hurray, Shallow Calligraphic Details lead to SFD!

Um, a whole company that makes signet rings? This could be very, very bad for my pocketbook.
May. 4th, 2008 05:03 pm (UTC)
Thanks to Shelly I recently purchased a couple of inexpensive fountain pens. What a difference! I'm not going back to ballpoint or even gel pens -- they have no soul. Enjoy the bamboo, and report back after you've used it some more!
May. 5th, 2008 06:06 pm (UTC)
There is something wholly different about writing with a fountain pen and dip pens. I'd love to spend an afternoon with your wife talking about calligraphy and illumination. :D
( 5 sutras — Your wisdom )

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