I know a lot of you won’t believe me, and will think I’m being humble, but I have the worst natural handwriting in the world. In primary school, I and a mischievous boy called Francisco (incidentally, my childhood nemesis…when I was 7, I chased him with a knife and got into a lot of trouble) were held up to the class as examples of incorrigible, unreadable scribes. Never stated, but plenty implied, was that our penmanship indicated psychotic tendencies.
I could not have cared less about penmanship when I was 7, but as I reached the end of high school my terrible handwriting distressed me. I had fallen in love with literature, and was nursing small dreams of becoming a writer, but the cheap notebooks filled with my first essays, poems, and stories—written in my demented, unlovely hand—fell woefully short of my belletrist ambitions to pen flourishing and graceful pages, worthy of the British Museum’s archives…
I taught myself how to write. I bought a dip pen and a set of roundhand nibs, and used them every day…even at university. I probably presented a ridiculous image, sitting in the library, writing notes in italic with a dip pen and a bottle of burgundy ink…there must have been sniggers, and lots of eye-rolling. *sigh* Whatever. We are so affected when we’re young. But my college notes are fabulous; I have them still.
Using a dip pen has become second nature to me, so it’s not such an affectation, anymore. This doesn’t mean that my real handwriting has changed, though. Give me a ballpoint or a felt tip pen, and my handwriting is as illegible, psychotic, demonic as ever. It hasn’t been transformed, only concealed.
It was always the kind of pen that made the difference. Fussy pens, like dip pens with calligraphic nibs, or those very fine, delicate points on expensive technical drawing pens, have to be held a certain way, manipulated slowly to avoid damaging them, have to be used correctly or they won’t work at all. Their finicky temperaments impose order upon my handwriting.
Now I am teaching myself Copperplate script. I bought the strange-looking Mitchell’s Copperplate Elbow oblique nib at work, and have been using it at every opportunity…copperplate To Do lists, copperplate journal entries, copperplate appointments in my datebook, copperplate letters to friends (and their addresses on envelopes)…
I have barely started, and already I can see that I will need an oblique nib holder, because the Mitchell’s Copperplate Elbow, while set at the right angle for Copperplate, is not as flexible as I’d like it to be. I have a Gillott’s 303 and 404 nib, they’re so springy-sproingy that it’s like writing with cat’s whiskers (and it’s the difference between the superfine point of the nib, and how far apart the tines will spread when you apply pressure, that make for some of my favorite Copperplate examples on the internet) but the nib has to held at an oblique angle to the lines on the page to get the thick-and-thin areas in the right places.
I probably wouldn’t pick Copperplate to begin using dip pens and nibs…go for Roundhand, or Italic, first, and when you’re comfortable with using a nib, you can venture into the fancier scripts. It will be many years of writing in ‘plain vanilla Copperplate’ before I will feel game enough to tackle the sort of scrolling and ornamental work you see in this video: