The Whistle: A Reflection on Calligraphy Performances

Written on October 26th, 2023 by D. T. Grimes

A couple of weekends ago, my friend Holly asked if I’d come and write some names for people while she hosted an open studio. Holly is more than capable of writing names herself, but she’d be busy sharing her work and talking to visitors throughout the afternoon. It was an opportunity to repay her friendship and encouragement over the years, so I was excited to take a few hours out of my Saturday and share my love of writing once more. I’ve been mulling it over in my head for a few days now, and I feel compelled to express to all of you the difficult but magical experience that sharing your calligraphy as a performance can be.

First, let me address the elephant in the room: writing in front of people can be scary. There are a lot of variables that we, as calligraphers, have under our control when we are in the comfort of our typical work space. Things like our favorite chair, our desk being the right height, the lighting, the music, and the privacy are all aspects of this environment that go “out the window” (literally) when you pack up your gear and head out to write somewhere else. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Yeah, I could never do that, David,” Well, let’s suspend disbelief and imagine that you can.

David Grimes demonstrating calligraphy for a student

As some of you might know, I experience a bit of social anxiety. This comes up in all sorts of different ways, but in this specific scenario, I think it ties most into my fears of letting people down. By now, I’ve written for thousands of people at live events. I’ve written for drunk people, rich people, disinterested people, curious people, pushy people, crass people, adults, families, friends, neighbors…the list goes on. I can’t tell you of a single time that I’ve ever performed my calligraphy and had someone tell me that I had wasted their time, that I was a fraud, or that I wasn’t good enough to call myself a professional. It simply doesn’t happen.

Nowadays, that little voice in my head is barely a whisper. It mutters these insecurities to me just before I clap my hands together and say, “Hello everyone, thanks for joining me here today.” It wasn’t always that way, though; at times, I felt sick knowing people had come to see me—sometimes from across the world. In my experience, these nerves don’t really go away; I’ve simply gotten used to them. I understand that they come from a place of caring, and I try to harness that caring and turn it into enthusiasm and showmanship.

I’m reminded of how I felt about wrestling matches in high school—watching my teammate’s matches as we worked our way up from the lighter weight classes one at a time. My coach clapping me on the shoulder as my stomach rolled and giving me some advice like, “You’ll be fine, Mr. Grimes. We need this one, though, so no funny business. Just get in there and shoot.” The sweat on the back of my neck as I stepped out onto the mat and kneeled down to put my anklet on…and then…the whistle.

The whistle is a portal. In this metaphor, it’s a bit like the “Go Live” button on social media. It’s the jumping-off point where you leave the fears behind because it’s time to do. It’s time to write. It’s time to let your hand soar and your mind relax into that hypnotic lull of your training. Your whistle might come at a different point than mine, but I bet you have one. I bet there’s a point where writing your calligraphy for others ceases to be scary and becomes exhilarating.

A bit of flourishing and script writing by David Grimes

A sample, quickly penned for another one of Holly’s helpers. I believe it was well-received.

Genuinely, I love writing calligraphy for people. I like the smiles on their faces when I’m done. I like the questions that they ask and the way they reach out excitedly to take the piece of paper when I extend it to them. I like the way they hold it carefully while the ink is wet, like a tiny bird they found that had fallen from its nest. I like the way that it makes me feel about myself. Like I’m pulling treasure out of thin air. I like to give them a chance to imagine themselves doing it.

The bar for having this type of rewarding experience isn’t very high, not where non-calligraphers are concerned. Many people struggle to read cursive at all or are unaware that letters can be formed in lots of different ways. Sure, it takes a little knowledge and a little confidence, but then you get to be the one to crack open a whole new part of the world for them. I wonder sometimes if those of us who love the Art of Writing have a duty to share our work with the world. After all, isn’t that how our community continues to exist? We need to spread the letters and the word(s), so to speak.

Nina Tran, Sharisse DeLeon, David Grimes, and Suzanne Cunningham at Calligrafair 2019

2019. Demonstrating alongside friends is a great way to push yourself past hesitations and nervousness. Here are some friends who have pushed and encouraged me to share over the years: Nina Tran, Sharisse DeLeon, and Suzanne Cunningham.

This time of year is filled with opportunities to share your calligraphy. Whether it’s at a holiday event for a business or writing place cards to surround your own Thanksgiving table, this is a great time to overcome those feelings of hesitation that hold so many of us back. It’s time to use our calligraphy to make the world a better place. To get people started on this wonderful path. To share a bit of beauty and brightness when so many other lights are going out.

I know it’s scary, and I know that many of you don’t feel like you’re “ready” to start sharing your work in this way. That’s okay. Take your time. But I just want you to know that when you think you are ready, there’s nobody else you need to ask. The world will be lucky to have you. And as a part of our modest calligraphy world, I thank you for your bravery and generosity in sharing your gift.

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