Reprinted from C·y·b·e·r·scribes: The Online Newsgroup for Calligraphers Worldwide

February 29, 2004

Lefties, Aristos, "Hookers", Sinistrals, Southpaws, and other Portside Inkslingers
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 doing.

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 advice.

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 player).

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:
\ (hand)
/ (wrist)
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. It’s 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 and then).

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 at: scribe(at)

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