Fan Fiction: A Reflection on Calligraphic Idolization

Written on February 2nd, 2022 by D. T. Grimes

It was 2014.

I was struggling to find inspiration in some mundane task that I’d been assigned by a client who didn’t really need a graphic designer but wanted to use one anyway. I was taking it seriously, though; I wanted to be a legitimate designer, not some kid who scraped the Craigslist “gigs” section twice a day.

As the sun set on the pine trees shielding my window, I signed out of my time tracker and exited Photoshop. My fingers clicked rapidly as I typed up an email to send tomorrow morning with updates on the project. I shut my laptop with a smack. I was free for the next eleven hours.

My hands fumbled on the Parallel Pen as I twisted it this way and that way in my fingers. I watched—and rewatched—John Stevens’ hands on video as he produced an effortless brush fraktur exemplar. The confidence in his strokes was palpable. Each movement revealed a stain in the paper that had been there for a thousand years. How could he see what he was writing before he wrote it? Why couldn’t I?

I labored through my practice and hung my pens up to dry. Rather, I screwed the blue and green caps on and put them deep in a drawer along with the paper I’d been scribbling on. A feeble attempt to hide the proof that I was not, in fact, producing beautiful calligraphy. I told my roommates that I was “making progress each day” and that “Each stroke puts me closer to being able to do what Stevens does.”

These were, of course, lies.

In reality, I was at about the same technical level as I had been for the last two months. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed the practice, it’s just that calling it “practice” implied some kind of structure. I was basically trying to paint Starry Night after seeing it one time as a Magic Eye poster on a rack at Walmart.

This had been a common theme in other parts of my life, too. My father had a word for it: “run-at”. He cautioned me to steady my impulsive tendencies and plan my approach to the things that I wanted to accomplish. I continued to violently bounce myself off of every interesting wall I could find for eighteen years. “Trial by fire” I thought. I’d discover what I was naturally good at even if it meant finding a thousand things I’d never do well. I was no stranger to failure.

I could hear Dad clicking his tongue at me as I reflected back on the night’s writing session. I knew that I was using my time and interest inefficiently—finite resources, if you know me. I knew that if I wanted to accomplish anything with a pen, I needed to come at these evening sessions from a different angle. A more thoughtful angle. It was becoming more and more apparent that I didn’t have what it takes to be a calligrapher—no matter how much I wanted it.

I sat down and watched the video again. I’d watched it a hundred times by now, but this time I allowed myself to forget that it was Mr. Stevens. This time, I pretended that it was a recording of myself.

“Oh that was a good one, David. Nice and flashy, that will show ’em how it’s done!”

“This one is a bit risky, but…here we go! Just as I planned it.”

“That’s a bit sloppy, but they’ll never know…”

I smiled and sat back in my chair, realizing that I’d been idolizing a headless figure for months. I’d written an entire galaxy where this video I watched each evening was a Rosetta Stone and I’d been berating myself for my failure to decipher it, fully aware that I never learned to read hieroglyphics.

That night, something about my perspective changed. I had somehow made it to the end of the yellow brick road and seen behind the curtain only to find that the person holding the pen wasn’t so very different from myself. Heck, he might even have been me!

I only saw the hands.

"I only saw the hands" penmanship hands collage by David Grimes, 2022.

As I retraced my steps from this realization, I watched a golden thread unravel in front of me one brick at a time. I walked backwards through the Plateaus of Complacency I’d eventually linger on, down the Cliffs of Rapid Accomplishment, and through the Bog of Eternal Ink Smears. I felt the pain of each failure and the rush of each victory.

With each backwards step, the confidence I’d felt holding back the curtain waned. I was undoing the work I’d spend the next ten years striving for. “Don’t panic”, I thought. I assured myself I’d be here again someday and put one foot behind the other.

I reentered my body as the video ended and my doubts came flooding back. One thing had changed, though: I no longer saw calligraphy as something I needed permission to be good at. That evening, for the first time, I excused myself for being a novice. I embraced the truth that it would be years before I could write like I’d seen in the video.

More importantly, I started to believe that I could.

It’s been worrisome to me for a long while that there’s a problem with hero worship in our field. It’s not like calligraphy was the first time I’d ever idolized someone, though. In fact, I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember.

We tell ourselves it’s an important part of planning our trajectory. “Who do you want to be?” is the question that’s asked of us. Not “How would you like to grow?

By finding others to idolize, we build a ladder that allows us to measure ourselves along a line between “novice” and whoever it is we set our sights on. We tell ourselves that we are their comrade while using them as a measuring stick. Because of our perspective, we can never truly see the reasons they wouldn’t place themselves in the same spot on our line. Even when they tell us, we call it “modesty”.

But our potential isn’t a line segment defined between two finite points. Cliché, I know, but it’s a ray with no end. The likelihood that an individual we idolize is the summit of any one vein of human effort is so infinitesimal it’s almost comical. There are seven billion people on this planet.

Instead of constructing a ceiling for ourselves, I posit that we should invest in working alongside our heroes towards the same end. There’s no shame in holding someone up as an example of the success that you could achieve with hard work. There’s no shame in respecting the work that others have done to get to where they are.

The shame is in the fiction we sell ourselves when we use another’s accomplishment as our own excuse.

I’ve wrestled with building these habits for years. I’ve wanted to accomplish things that I haven’t been able to and I’ve been angry, hurt, and embarrassed by those failures. I’ve used dozens of people as examples of why I couldn’t create the right shape with my pen or why my movement was just a bit inferior to what it needed to be. I’ve seen the success of others as a limiting blow against my own. I’ve failed to outstep my own ego time and time again.

The secret is in the imagination. Once you allow yourself to skip along the winding path, through “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” Once you crack open that green crystal door and heave back the velvet curtain to see yourself flying across the page with accuracy and vigor…only then will you start to believe that the only thing that separates you from whatever you’re seeing is the time and enthusiasm to make the journey.

It’s through the imagination that I first saw myself doing the work that I do today. Through imagination, I’ll find my next curtain. I’ll rip back the fabric once more and set out on another adventure to catch up to what I saw myself doing.

At least, I thought it was me. After all, I only saw the hands.

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