A while ago, I received a gift voucher for a craft lesson, which I decided to use for something that couldn’t be less important in my daily life: Japanese calligraphy.
I don’t know how to speak Japanese, but I do know how to read some words that are based on Chinese characters. However, no one had ever asked me to write them a decorative handwritten stanza – in Japanese or in any other language. It’s as if I could go on with my days without learning how to write Japanese characters with brush and ink…
And after. I love writing by hand, although everything can be done with the keyboard and screen now. What is missing though Thrives. With handwriting, there is a character to the way the “f” can go down the line and go back to the left, and the way the “y” can end with a spare swoop. It is very difficult to thrive with Arial.
But with ink and brush, I imagined there would be all kinds of opportunities to dive in and pounce. After going to four Japanese calligraphy Lessons Now, I can confirm that there is a dip (brush with ink) and there is swoop (brush across the page). There is also 90 minutes of standing and mindful breathing while writing. As someone who hasn’t been terribly active since Covid, this is practically an exercise for me.
Before you start writing, you inhale. Then on the exhale, you write one stroke. You inhale again and exhale and write the second blow. If I had done this by writing every letter in this sentence, I would have taken a deep breath by now.
Every lesson I write a letter or two over and over, and the experience is no different from doing homework in Chinese school when I was a kid. Lesson One I wrote “love” eight times. The following week “rain water” (14 times), then “happiness” (18 times), then “sunshine” (10 times). At this point, I’m basically a few words away from qualifying as a tattoo in any Asian tourist city.
If you’re wondering why I keep coming back week after week to slowly type the words repeatedly – not even sentences! – The reason is this: I’m really bad at it.
In my first lesson, I did a decent job writing “Love”, which itself is a beautiful character full of dots and strokes and contains the character of “Heart”. But since then, my breathing and writing have rarely been synchronized, and there is usually only once or twice in each lesson in which I will write a character in a way that fits the teacher’s example.
Sometimes the word I write is so scrambled and shaky that I feel I have offended all the Japanese and Chinese on Earth and in history. I can’t even write them a note to apologize – it could cause further insult.
Despite the blues for beginners, I really enjoy going to class because it’s so different from the way I spend my days alone as a writer trying to do joyful things with words.
My classmates are all Japanese and write beautifully. They speak Japanese, diving into English occasionally to get me involved in the conversation. I particularly admire the women who write in elegant, elegant cursive, whose brush strokes seem to dance lively across the page.
I tell them their writing is like dancing, like music, and they laugh and say encouraging things to me like “You’re doing so well!” Maybe they were referring to my health?
During the lesson, we take turns collecting the thin pieces of paper we write on, and sticking them on the whiteboard for the teacher to make notes on. We stand with the teacher about two meters from the work and stare, collecting breaths and strokes.
The teacher indicates where I can improve. “This is… very far from this,” he says, pointing to two sessions. “It feels like his neck is too long.” In fact, it looks like the character will have an edge at a rock concert.
During the week now, I find myself dreaming of writing the next week’s word, and the first brush contact with the paper, that unbreakable black mark on the white. It’s a fun virtual place to land in my brain, while once my brain is going through a to-do list, or worried about an upcoming deadline. This Japanese calligraphy brush seemed to be exactly what I needed.