from C·y·b·e·r·scribes: The Online
Newsgroup for Calligraphers Worldwide
February 29, 2004
Lefties, Aristos, "Hookers", Sinistrals, Southpaws, and other
by Linda Lanza
I love left-handed conversations. As a born leftie, they always get my
attention. My daughter is left-handed, too. For Christmas she bought me
left-handed wooden cooking utensils and a left-handed page-a-day calendar.
We've spent our lives adapting. I like to think it's made us strong.
I learned to write before I went to school. As a child I loved playing
with a pencil and paper. I used to get my mother's grocery lists and torn
cancelled checks out of the trashcan and take them to my little play table.
I tried to make the shapes I saw there, the loops of the e's, the humps
of the n's.
My father taught me how to write letters. He was left-handed, a poet,
and he wrote all the time. I have a love letter he wrote to my mother
before they were married in his wild cursive with the distinctive g's
(his name was George) with a pencil on tablet paper. The two engraved
hearts he made her out of sheet metal (his day job was roofing, plumbing
and heating), his poems etched in with a spike, only exist as memories
in my mind now but the experience of having seen them and held them in
my hands is etched in my blood. I learned words could be the currency
of the heart.
My father was a leftie of the hooker variety, and therefore so was I until
the third grade. A perspicacious school principal, strolling through Mrs.
Burke's class one day stopped abruptly at my desk. There I was, blonde
weiner curls bent over the desk, my left arm hooked around them, my face
buried in a page of Palmer method (sniffing ink I'm sure). I could feel
the embarrassed blood of being singled out rushing to my face. The principal
told me to sit up straight. He pushed my left elbow down to my side. "Try
it like that," he said.
These many years later I tell a version of this story to my beginning
students when we are discussing the relationship of the pen angle of a
broad edge tool to the heighth of the bodies, the width of the downstrokes,
the inevitable outcomes of the tool's shape applied with intentional behaviors,
or the obstacles that lefties face in trying to emulate letterstyles created
by right-handed people. Just like all of us my hands have evolved as a
result of study, nature, chance and practice.
I first learned broad-edge mark-making with a right-handed nib because
I didn't know there was anything else or even that there was a distinction.
I just wanted to learn calligraphy, so back in the day I bought a "calligraphy"
pen nib and holder, a bottle of India ink, and a Speedball book. Even
now I get my dander up occasionally when I think that left-handed Speedball
nibs cost more than the right-handed ones. I've questoned the suppliers
about it. It's the manufacturer, they tell me. The agitation passes. There
are more important battles. Adaptation is a state of mind.
My first formal instructor, Mary Lou Cook, taught me to cant my paper
90degrees to the right. We were practicing a humanist bookhand at the
time and this method worked well for me to get started and to have some
success. I canted the exemplar also and was able to "see" the
letters as shapes and also "see" what I needed to do to make
them. This got me going but it wasn't enough to satisfy me. I wanted to
"write" beautifully. I wanted emotion and cognition to flow
out the ends of my fingers and I wanted to look directly at what I was
The right brain is dominant and home territory for a left-handed person.
Our vision, our orienteering, is from that vantage point. We approach
and respond to the external world from the left side of our bodies first.
I found that if I could find those places in the right side of my body
that are activated when someone writes with their right hand, I could
understand better what I needed to do in order to make the forms with
my left hand. John Howard Benson's translation of Arrighi's L'Operina
helped me understand the basics of Italic and Jacqueline Svaren's Written
Letters books and generous spirit provided good practice models and sound
There's a line in a villanelle: "You find your own way to do it and
you do it that way." No doubt every leftie has found, or is struggling
to find, their own particular adaptation. Larry Brady, for instance, uses
right-handed nibs and hooks his arm to push the strokes from top to bottom.
What works for me is this:
Sit up straight, heels on floor, and face straight at your working surface
(slanted lap board or table-top easel. Start with the pen in your right
hand, held loosely like a feather resting between your thumb and forefinger.
Now bring your two hands up in front of your heart like prayer. Your nib
is pointing at about 10:30 on an imaginary clock, which is just about
a 45degree angle. This classic pen angle for the Italic letterstyle can
be found also if you were to take a square (say, on a piece of grid paper)
and slice it in half diagonally from the upper right to the lower left.
A rightie now just needs to lean forward from the hinge of their waist
to the straight-up-and-down loose sheet of paper in front of them on their
work surface in order to begin writing. By relying on your heels, your
backside in the chair, and the meat portion of your non-writing hand for
"grounding" and support, you can trust your writing arm to be
loose and free at the shoulder to make intentional marks (think cello
How does a leftie find this place? Go back to where the pen is held in
your right hand and your two hands are in prayer. Take your left hand
and make an A-ok sign (the left contour of your left hand and wrist now
are shaped like this:
Keep holding your left hand/wrist bent like that. Keep your pen pointing
at 10:30 as you take it out of your right hand and place it between your
left thumb and forefinger. Lean from your waist toward your work surface
and touch the pen down to it with your left hand.
Fix your eyes on the chisel edge of your nib. Pretend now that you are
all of one piece, all attached, so that if the paper substrate moves everything
moves...head, eyes, left arm, left hand, left fingers, pen holder, chisel
edge, paper all move as one. Now, use your right hand to cant the top
of your paper to the right until your left hand and left wrist are once
again aligned comfortably, like this:
If you moved "as one" your eyes are still fixed on the chisel-edge
of the pen in your left hand, and your head is also tilted somewhat to
the right. You may feel a slight strain in the left neck muscle. Notice
this and be mindful to take breaks and do neck rolls until you develop
the muscle memory and flexibility that come with practice.
This posture allows you to write with your hand under the writing line
so you can see what you are doing; and the left arm to move down and away
from the body as you make marks, rather than across in front of the body.
I wear a cotton glove on my writing hand with the fingers cut off past
the second knuckle. This prevents natural oils from my hand migrating
to my paper. Its also a totem that helps me step into calligraphy
mode faster and sustain my concentration. (You can find a pair of cotton
gloves at a bath-and-body shop; turn the right-hand one inside out to
make it left-handed. Throw them in the washer with your towels every now
This is one place to start. What's that wisdom? First you learn the notes,
then you learn the music, then you just play.
When I read this over I am reminded of the concept of "making strange"...
trying to describe a ballet or the act of tying shoes without benefit
of graphics or music. Some things just have to be seen. But, hopefully,
a leftie or two somewhere among us will find something helpful here.
Please visit my Color
Portfolio to see some examples of "left-handed calligraphy".
Also look for the work of Jen Grove, Larry Brady, Sherry Keisel Thornton,
Robert Boyajian, Gaynor Goffe and others for more leftie inspiration.
Most of all remember that it's supposed to be fun ;-)
Contact Linda Lanza
All material, images,
and text on this site are the copyright of Linda Lanza ©1981-2014
and may not be reproduced without expressed permission from the artist.