BY CHAD FRISK
I’d never before considered handwriting to be an art form.
For me, handwriting was always a tool. I used it to build thoughts on a page, or just to fill out forms. It was slow. It was blunt. It was annoying. That’s how I had always thought of handwriting in English, and for a long time I thought of handwriting in Japanese in the same way. That is, until I met Takemoto Sensei.
“Make sure you use an extra soft pencil,” Takemoto said.
I went to the college bookstore and bought one. Slouching in a hard wooden chair, I pressed the gray tip to the off-white page of the worksheet he had given me. I could hear his voice. "Trace the lines," he said. It came with a smile that was mildly irritating.
The work was both boring and a little bit humiliating. I had written those characters for four years as a high school student, but there I was, tracing lines like a fourth-grader. The connection was appropriate, however, because I actually spent the first week of fourth grade crying over my handwriting. Ms. Ramcke had given me back a writing assignment covered with red pen. “This isn’t fourth grade writing,” the comment read. My letters still used the kindergarten stencil, filling three lines. Ms. Ramcke wanted me to shrink them down to fourth-grade size. That night I told my mom I didn't want to go to school anymore. I was curled into a lump in the corner of my bed. She did what most parents would do. She said she was sorry and rubbed my back. But then she did something else. "Maybe Ms. Ramcke is right," she said. And before I could wipe my nose, she was poking me in the back with a notebook. "Let's practice."
English letters aren’t very complicated. There are twenty-six of them (a few more if you include capitals). They don’t require you to make very many strokes. You don’t even have to take your pencil off the paper most of the time.
Japanese letters aren’t like that. There are three writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Two of them – hiragana and katakana - are relatively compact, with about 46 characters each. There are thousands of kanji characters, however. And neither hiragana, katakana, nor kanji are easy to write – at least, not if you want to write them well. In high school, I didn’t stand a chance. But in college, Takemoto gave me one.
I heard voices as I tried to control my soft pencil: "Trace the lines," Takemoto said. "Let's practice," my mom added.
I sighed and continued to trace. Slowly, something strange started to happen. As I sat there, moving the pencil from top to bottom and right to left across the page, I found myself enjoying it. I stopped to look at my handiwork.
“That’s not bad,” I thought.
I kept writing. Before long, all of my notebooks were covered with Japanese. Hiragana, katakana, progressively less misshaped kanji. I was hooked.
Takemoto Sensei's approach to handwriting was totally new to me. For me, handwriting had always been an annoyance; for him, it was a craft. There were ways to apply pressure to the pencil. There were proper paths to follow, angles to be aware of, particular compositions that looked better than others. I came to love writing because there were ways to do it better.
That was almost ten years ago. Since those days, I’ve occasionally exchanged the pencil for a brush. The game changes entirely. Kanji are fun to write with a pencil. Writing them with ink, however, is a trial. If you stop the brush, you will end up with blobs. If you press too softly, your lines will be weak. If you press too hard, your lines will blend into black mush. If art is about degree of difficulty, then the brush is the tool of a master.
I am not a master. In a normal calligraphy session, I write the same kanji character fifteen to twenty times before I feel satisfied. It’s hard! With a brush, every mistake compounds. One small mistake gets me thinking about what I’ll do better the next time which causes me to make another mistake which causes me to drown the rice-paper in ink.
For me, it’s about maintaining focus from the beginning of the first stroke to the end of the last one. If I do fifteen to twenty attempts, I’m usually able to maintain that level of focus one time. I used to think that there was nothing I could do about it. But now I’m not so sure. Obsessive reading in cognitive science and a semi-regular meditation routine have made me think that focus is something I can train. I thought maybe I could use kanji to do so.
So I decided to try an experiment. I chose to write one kanji compound every morning, selecting a word that I thought would put me in a constructive frame of mind for the day. Furthermore, I only gave myself one shot.