By Michael Dirda
My three sons—all in their early- to mid-20s—can sign their names when they concentrate, but that’s just about it. During their elementary school years, Chris, Mike, and Nate were patiently taught the mysteries of cursive handwriting, but since then they’ve tapped their thumbs on smartphone keyboards far more often than they’ve gripped a pen or pencil. Though their typing may eventually lead to repetitive stress syndrome, they’ll never develop a callus on the top knuckle of the middle finger of their right hand.
My own handwriting is essentially illegible to anyone other than myself, and, after a few days, even I can’t always make out the meaning of my scribbles. Deciphering my lists of Important Things to Do would challenge Champollion far more than breaking the code of the Rosetta Stone. Eminent doctors, envious of a scrawl of such complete and utter opacity, have come to me and humbly asked if I might conduct seminars or offer master classes at medical conventions.
Emily Dickinson told us that success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed, and so it’s inevitable that I deeply admire elegant penmanship. Long ago, my friend Sheila Waters—arguably the finest calligrapher in the world—designed the interlocking initials on my wedding announcement; her son Julian Waters, the former calligrapher for the White House, scripted the invitation itself. Their seemingly effortless swirls of ink, their elegant descenders and gorgeous loops, are things of living, interlaced beauty, joys forever.
Inspired by such examples, I’ve sometimes gone out and bought “calligraphy sets” or pens with italic nibs. I once acquired the simplified booklets of Marie Angel and read through the magisterial Writing & Illuminating & Lettering of Edward Johnston. At night I’d practice forming my vowels, carefully mind my Ps and Qs, and daydream about Carolingian minuscule. And, lo!, before long, my handwriting did improve, though no one was ever going to confuse my letters with the timeless italics of papal scribe Ludovico Arrighi.
But handwriting apparently isn’t quite like bike riding: it is something you can forget if you don’t practice. As the upright Dr. Jekyll reverted to the vicious Mr. Hyde, so too my beautiful penmanship gradually degenerated until it once more slouched and shambled hideously across the page. At which point I gave in to the dark side. My ink dried up, my nibs clogged, and my Pelikan fountain pen was finally set aside, replaced by disposable Bics and ballpoints swiped from Marriott hotels.
Still, I do love what kids facetiously call writing implements. Some travelers collect souvenirs, postcards, or bumper stickers; I bring home a pencil from the various places I visit. In mugs on my desk are pencils inscribed Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, The Morgan Library, Kennedy Space Center, Indiana University, the Space Needle, Villa Emo, Old Capitol Museum (Jackson, Mississippi), The State Library of Ohio, the University of Central Florida, and Newport, Rhode Island, among dozens of others. When I pick one up, I remember campuses, certain people, happy times.
Writers, of course, often grow obsessive about their tools. Nabokov composed his later novels on index cards with a Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil. In old age Colette preferred a Parker fountain pen when she wanted to describe the gardens of her childhood with Sido. I myself own an Esterbrook pen that once belonged to Glenway Wescott, author of The Pilgrim Hawk. The magus-like Robertson Davies used to inscribe his novels with what looked like a Montblanc: no author had a more attractive signature. When Terry Pratchett signs books, usually for hours on end, he asks for a fistful of felt tip pens. When bookstores host autograph sessions, they usually supply authors with a couple of black Sharpies. Hunter Thompson once scribbled in my copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with what might be a thick black marker or crayon: “For Mike, with thanks for getting me the crack cocaine in Boston. Your friend, Hunter.”
Still, I guess my own favorite “writing implement” remains a very battered carpenter’s pencil. Made by Craftsman and inscribed “America’s Highest Quality Tools—Medium,” it looks like one of those large wooden pencils used by very young children, but one that has been pressed flat. This is so you can set the pencil down anywhere, even on a pitched roof, and it won’t roll away. The wood casing is bright red—for extra-visibility—and the only way to sharpen the blunt graphite is with a knife.
I used pencils like this for several summers when I worked for a home improvement company, wore a leather nail apron, and carried a 20-oz. hammer on a loop next to my hip. Today I keep a lone survivor of those hot July days as a memento, but also as a reminder that good carpentry, of any kind, demands a close attention to detail.
Soon after starting at M&M Home Improvement, I grumbled one particularly miserable afternoon, when everything seemed to be going wrong, that a two-by-four I’d just sawn was the wrong length. An old carpenter from West Virginia immediately quipped that I’d “cut it twice already and it was still too short.” If you want to work efficiently, he explained, you can’t be slapdash. Measure precisely, mark your sawcuts carefully, then double-check everything. Sound advice, I think, even for those who try to build readable paragraphs rather than fancy additions and back-yard decks.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.