A good friend drew my attention to the disappearing act of calligraphy this week, and the beautiful work of master calligrapher Paul Antonio captured by The Guardian. Coincidentally, I am part way through reading The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Mushashi, a martial text from circa 17th Century Japan, an era and a culture that considered calligraphy an essential art.
In our culture and era writing has been reduced to a purely functional act. Computers and printers have turned calligraphy into word processing. Content is king, and the physical act of writing is only a means to that end.
But clearly, the act of writing informs the nature of the content. Inscriptions carved in stone tend toward brevity. The era of vellum and quills produced much of our greatest poetry, Shakespeare included, beautiful language for beautiful materials. Academic studies have demonstrated the correlation between the amount of ink held in a dip pen, and the length of sentence used by writers like Dickens, who trained themselves to compose sentences of the right length to be completed with one charge of ink.
Calligraphy is difficult and full of limitations. Word processing is easier, and gives far more freedom, qualities generally accepted as good. But often it is the restriction imposed by a medium and the disciplines it enforces that bring out a writers greatest creativity. Poets fit their thoughts into poetic structure, novelists tell stories within genres, both to give their infinite imaginations a scaffolding to build within.
Have we lost something important in abandoning calligraphy, script, and even handwriting? I think perhaps we have.
The act of writing is really indistinguishable from the act of thinking. You may believe you have grasped an idea in your mind, but it is only when you attempt to write it down that you really test the idea. (Hence why I am writing this post, to test the idea about writing that I had in my head) The freedom of word processing allows writers to lay down words at such a speed and with so little investment that, unfortunately, it often seems that there was little thought involved with their devising.
Am I suggesting a return to the quill and velum? No. Although I’d be fascinated to see what effect on my writing working with older implements would have. A computer keyboard is a superior tool for writing. But perhaps we all need to find ways to turn writing back from a process into a craft, and by doing so reconnect the act of writing with the act of thinking.