The Practice of Practice

Every Monday night I huddle around a desk in the basement of a government building with 10 other people. We pour over sheets marked with complex guidelines and symbols. Our leader sits at the desk writing silently, and we hold our breath in anticipation, knowing that after her last pen stroke she will issue us a new challenge.

It’s calligraphy class.
In January I began taking a pointed pen calligraphy class taught by an accomplished calligrapher named Lee Ann Clark. Her work is stunning, sought after by celebrities, politicians, and international clients. I don’t know if the 2 ½ hours she spends with us every week are agonizing for her -- the patience it must require for an expert to watch neophytes collide with her discipline! -- but for me, they are a treat.

We’re learning Copperplate script, and some of the letter forms are so strange that Lee Ann demos each one before letting us attempt them.  We crowd around to watch, so quiet and focused that you could hear a pin drop. We follow her pen as it slowly rounds each curve, building shapes that are so counter-intuitively beautiful and balanced. There is a collective exhale of delighted awe as she finishes, and we return to our work tables ready to attempt to emulate the strokes of a master.

It’s the same English alphabet we all learned years ago, but in such a slanted, narrow, graceful form that studying it is a bit like being a child all over again. We are training our hands to absorb these strange sequences into muscle memory and trust that they will mean something. Each letter is broken into multiple strokes carefully connected, and it’s a rhythm that feels awkward at first. Even the seemingly simplest letters have gotten the better of me as I struggle to keep lines perfectly slanted and oval shapes consistent with each other.

But we’re told that there is reward in becoming like a child, so I try to push through the embarrassment of missing the mark and being exposed to critique. Adults are prone to grumble against repetition, but children have a bizarre enthusiasm for doing (or watching, or hearing, or saying) things “again! Again! Again!” So I tell myself that it’s exciting to try again if it means applying what I know now after having been wrong the first (or fifteenth) time.  And eventually through rows and rows of inconsistent letters, I can see evidence of new understanding and improvement. Learning this new discipline is the most complete experience of receiving instruction, applying correction, and learning to be patient in progress that I have had in a long time. It could be tedious, but there is something enlivening about it...a fresh wind waking up my soul from routine and reminding me that I am not here to be stagnant, but to explore the boundaries of possibility and create something good within them. It is good to be a student of something again.

(Not that I feel obligated to like every prescribed letter form...That J and I are not getting along!)


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