Now that I’ve reached 5th-dan, as I work toward my 8th-dan, I’ve switched calligraphy organizations (my sensei recommended another, based on the materials for advanced students, and the grading schedule).

With a new “school” comes new assignments and a new style. There is an oddly thrilling feeling to starting something new - a weird glee at how bad I am at it. After so many years of practicing calligraphy, I’m confident that I will go from terrible to competent to good, if only I keep at it long enough - and to be fair, the early improvements are much easier than the later ones.

Which has me thinking about what constitutes “good” calligraphy. What is it supposed to have and be?

From Christopher Earnshaw’s book Sho - Japanese Calligraphy, there is a rather concise set of factors. A piece should have “life,” and this is achieved through: balance, both within each character and between the characters of the piece as a whole, variance in the thickness of the lines, variance in the character of the lines (straight and strong versus curving and delicate), the amount of ink on the brush, and the size of the characters. All of these things working together create good calligraphy. But they are also abstract - there are no hard-and-fast rules for a single character or group of characters. A copy-book presents suggestions, but a piece can be correct even if it is not a perfect facsimile.

Somewhere beyond good, there lies individuality. Personal character and style. Someday, I hope to be able to take these fundamentals and make something unique with them. In the meantime, I will keep learning new things. I will keep being terrible at them until suddenly I’m not terrible any more.