Sunday, June 06, 2004

The Mighty Pen

While it is true that I've been spending an uncommon amount of time in the coal mines of late, I must confess that this is not the sole reason I've neglected my corner of cyberspace.

Lately I've taken a low-tech turn; this is a sort of malady that strikes me from time to time. When the fever hits, I itch to do such odd things as grow my own food, or sew my own clothes -- or write letters by hand, with a dip pen, no less!

Perhaps it's reading Thoreau that brings the fever on, or maybe hanging out with Quakers. Maybe it is the remnants of a past life trying to reassert itself.

In any case, my latest kick traces back most immediately to a quiet, rainy Memorial Day when I decided to test all of my fountain pens (I own several, each quite distinctive, but none superlative in every way). That led to the crazy idea of testing some dip pen nibs I had bought the year before. When last I attempted to use them, I had little luck. I was surprised then, when I was able to get good results with certain combinations of ink and nib.

I should back up a bit. I've been somewhat of an enthusiast of handwriting and fountain pens for a while now. The handwriting has an antecedent: I've kept a paper and pen journal since 1987. My handwriting has gone through several mutations since then, some of them decidedly unattractive.

In more recent history, I read through the personal business letters of a nineteenth and early twentieth century botanist while researching my dissertation. I was enchanted by this man's amazing ability to write so cogently and poetically straight out onto the paper without the benefit of editing and spell-check! What a civilized era, when even business letters were written in longhand. At about the same time, I developed a taste, somewhat expensive, for fountain pens. All of this inspired me to try harder at penmanship, and the art of letter-writing.

Fountain pens (and more recently, dip pens) have been good medicine for mediocre handwriting. A true pen forces good penmanship. The results have been amazing. (Of course, I make no guarantees of legibility.) When one takes a certain artistic joy in writing longhand, one wishes for some purpose, or excuse, to write. There is only so much I have to say to my journal. I then become obsessed with writing letters.

The only problem is, few people care (or have the time) to write back. I do write letters to several of my friends and family that live out of town. Sad to say, I can expect written replies from very few of them. E-mail is much more the norm, but hardly the same. 'But then,' (I reasoned to myself,) 'certainly if I search the Internet, I will find an entire sub-culture of letter writers! I mean, if everything else is on the Web, why not this, even though in some ways it is the antithesis of cyber-culture?'

I'm happy to report that I've seen the glimmerings of just such a sub-culture. A good place to start, if you're interested in equipment, is Pendemonium, a merchant who sells everything you'll need to get back to penmanship basics. I haven't bought anything from this guy yet, so I can't vouch for customer service or reliability. But his catalog is quite impressive. I'm eager to try out some of the unusual inks and stationary he advertises.

I don't know much about the history of handwriting. I was intrigued to browse through some of the books for sale on Pendemonium, including some old manuals on "artistic writing." Did you know that the longhand script we learned in school was once termed "business writing," and that it was one of several scripts taught? One interesting site I want to spend more time with is English Handwriting 1500-1700: An Online Course.

As far as modern letter-writing goes, one can be reminded of the proper form to use for business and personal letters at this englishplus site. Or, less modernly, you can check out Charles Dodgson's (aka Lewis Carroll) humorous Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing. In a fit of ambition, I've set up a letter register as he describes.

All of this is fine, but one still needs correspondents. How does one find them? I fondly remember the penpals I had in high school. I wrote for a while to someone in Turkey and someone in Austria. There were other, briefer, correspondences as well. It was always a thrill to get those letters from far away. Unfortunately, nowadays you have to wade through a mountain of suspect junk to find any bona fide snail mail penpal or "penfriend" sites and services online.

I good place to start seems to be Letters, letter-writing and other intimate discourse. Wendy Russ has assembled a plethora (there's an SAT word if I ever saw one!) of links to all things letters. From here one might go to one of the quarterly magazines devoted to letter writing and hooking up would-be (non-romantic) correspondents: The Letter Exchange (LEX, for short) and Just Write. I especially like the looks of LEX, and may give it a try in the not too distant future.

Another really interesting site, a favorite of Wendy's, is pX!, or PostcardX. This is a must see. It's completely free. If you sign up, there is no telling who you might get mail from (you can use an alias, if you wish)!

Now the next step is figuring out something to actually write about ...

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