August 14th, 2016 by D. T. Grimes

One of my projects this year is learning to be more efficient in my study of Engrosser’s Script. To some, it may seem that the only way to improve your script is to sit down at the table and make marks on a page. And while I agree to some extent, there are deeper aspects to pursuing penwork, like becoming sensitive to what your body has to say about your writing on any day of the week.

The body is the calligrapher’s most valuable tool.

Calligraphers are some of the most notorious hoarders I know. Yet, for all of the money, time, and attention that we spend on acquiring shiny new pens and expensive “dream nibs”, we often neglect the one thing that makes the biggest difference in our writing: our health.

While calligraphy definitely isn’t a “contact sport”, there are still physical considerations that should be addressed when you start to explore why you just can’t make the marks on the page like you know you’re supposed to.

From migraines to carpal tunnel, the list of afflictions that we, as calligraphers, find ourselves facing can be surprisingly varied. While our culture glorifies ‘toughing it out’, it is important to realize that your health has a larger effect on your writing ability than almost any other aspect of your setup. When we’re talking about something as technically specific as fine Engrosser’s Script, it’s important to press pause every once in a while and evaluate if the troubles you are experiencing come from your instruments, or more likely, your own body.

Because of the sedentary nature of our work, it’s important to find ways to integrate a healthy lifestyle in where you can. And while you don’t need to be able to deadlift twice your bodyweight to write beautiful script, you DO need the flexibility and muscular control to sit properly and make smooth movements. You DO need to be able to focus on detailed work without straining your eyes or compromising your posture. And, you DO need to be able to think clearly and maintain focus on the technique that requires your full attention.

I’m not a physician, so I won’t go into a list of things that YOU should do to be healthier, here—that’s a job for a health professional. What I can do is tell you what works for me, and the results I’ve seen from it.

Water is for more than just mixing gouache.

In the past, I’ve found myself working for long stretches without taking any initiative to stay hydrated. I’ve noticed on those days that my focus seems to slip from one element to another. My fine motor control (such as for hairline connections and tine manipulation) seems to suffer, and my disposition and interest in my work wanes. Since it’s generally pretty accepted that drinking more water is better for your biological systems, I’ve adopted the policy of always having a full glass of water within reach while I’m working.

This has a couple of positive effects. The obvious one is that if I’m near water, I’m more likely to drink water. The second falls into what I call an ‘interruption ritual’, which is a piece of how I maintain my focus. When the water cup becomes empty, I stand up and leave the writing environment to refill it. This ritual of walking to the sink, pouring a new glass and coming back to the desk allows my brain to relax and prepare for the lettering to come.

Now, there is a difference between a ‘interruption ritual’ and a distraction. A distraction is something like checking Instagram every few minutes, or surfing around on Reddit. It pulls you out of the writing environment and places you in a different activity. I like to think of filling up my water cup as an interlude to the musical verse which is my writing.

Exercise is part of practice.

I’m a bigger guy, so running is REALLY low on my list of favorite things to do. Still, I’ve had periods of my life where I was regularly engaging in cardiovascular training, and I have always felt more awake, focused, and enthusiastic about things during those times. A few months ago, I decided that I would try to hold myself to breaking a sweat for 30 minutes every day. While I miss out on that some days, I normally get it in. During the stretches where I can maintain it for many days in a row, I notice a difference in the way that I carry my body, and the way that I approach the table.

Maybe running isn’t your bag. That’s okay. But there’s got to be something you can do to get away from the desk. Fitness (coordination and agility, specifically) are a ‘use it or lose it’ kind of thing. The longer you put it off, the longer you’re keeping yourself from being able to add that benefit into your writing. At the end of the day, I believe that exercise is just as important as sitting down and practicing actual letters.

Sleeping isn’t negotiable.

How many of us work until the late hours of the night on a regular basis? Big surprise here, but sleep is actually incredibly important when it comes to maintaining cognitive performance. Getting quality, uninterrupted, stress-free sleep is a BIG part of being able to remember how to write well the next day.

We used to do a visualization exercise with the kids in gymnastics where we’d ask them to go home at night and lay in their beds imagining their routines. I always felt like that was really intrusive of what should be a ‘break’ from practice. When I’m laying down, I don’t want to be at my desk writing or working on some project or another. If I did, I’d be there.

No, instead I’ve had to teach myself that no matter how behind I am on a deadline, or how excited I am about a new form, my pens will be waiting for me in the morning. There’s no amount of coffee, cool air, or loud music that will benefit your Engrosser’s Script like a good rest. When you begin to accept that, you will start to see your sleep as part of what prepares you to write, instead of what take you away from it.

Experimentation is your responsibility

Every one of us is different, and the three above points are only a portion of what should come into consideration when we’re evaluating ourselves this way. I strongly encourage you to take a small notebook and write down ideas for places ‘off the desk’ that might be affecting your writing. Over the course of several weeks, make small changes and record your findings. You might stumble across something that you never even considered that is dramatically influencing your work, and that would be a shame to go unnoticed.

For now, remember that staying hydrated, exercising regularly, and getting quality sleep are likely to play a large role in the way your script looks or the progress you’ve been experiencing. My hope is that by calling these factors out, I’ve encouraged you to take some time to reflect on your own setup, and I would love to hear from anyone with similar or contradictory experiences.

– D

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6 Comments on "Health and The Writing Environment"

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Linda Mirth
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This is a great reminder to all of us that spend so much time at our desks. This advice is good for EVERYONE>

valerie
Guest

Interesting as always. As far as i’m concerned, i noticed that i had a tendendy to hold my breath when trying to draw some more difficult (for me) letterforms, so that is one thing i try to watch. As a leftie, i also need to try and find a position where my left shoulder and neck don’t get tense and sore. This is all about trial and error! I also like practicing some of my usual ballet barre stretches to help refocus and relax the muscles both in the upper body but also the legs.

Shelby Boden
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Good advice – and not just for calligraphy! Take care of your self, listen to your body and stay balanced. I am often amazed at how improved my calligraphy looks after a break – be that for sleep, nutrition, or exercise.

Lisa B
Guest

Bravo for reminding us that there is so much more to lettering than words on a page. The meditative quality of putting pen to paper is one of the first things that attracted me to calligraphy. We must always be aware of the importance of self care!

Janet
Guest

I could do better on all three, I tend to do really well for periods of time, then lapse…..thanks for the reminder.

Amy
Guest

Agree strongly on all points. Seems like a waste of time to put the obligatory minutes into practice when it’s not focused and intentional. That leads to reinforcing bad habits and letterforms. Better to step away. I’ve also learned that in stopping for several days and returning again after intense study, the things I’ve learned suddenly make sense. If I try to force it when things aren’t aligning, I get frustrated and it takes much longer to get a letterform right. (On a different note: your writing is much like your speaking. It’s thoughtful, informative and interesting, not lecture-ish. Thanks!)

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