How To

How to Get Yourself a Swashbuckling Signature

One man’s quest to write like Thom Wolfe (literally), and what you can learn from it.

Composite: Chris WallaceWhen I was 25, I wrote the only fan letter I’ve ever written. I naively asked Tom Wolfe if he’d critique my novel, hoping he’d be simpatico to the dandyish subject matter. Months later he responded (politely declining my request) in a handwritten letter that was exactly what you’d expect from a man with white suits, matching white Cadillac, and an INSTANTLY RECOGNIZABLE LITERARY STYLE!

Wolfe wrote in a dashing baroque script using a sky-blue calligraphy pen. His signature at the end was a swirling vortex of flourishes woven together like a Gordian knot. I was blown away. Now I didn’t just want to write like Tom Wolfe, I wanted to write like Tom Wolfe.

But my handwriting is terrible. Taking notes in meetings is pointless: I can’t read them later. And my signature looks like Arabic. In the fourth grade, my teacher literally told my mother that my handwriting “stinks” with a look of utter contempt, and the experience is written on my memory in permanent ink.

Fortunately, few people see your penmanship in this age of texts and tweets. But I’ve never forgotten Wolfe’s letter—or my jealousy at his swashbuckling signature. Could I at least learn to dash off my name with panache, and sign for a round of drinks like Zorro slashing a Z on his victim’s chest?

Well, I could try. With the help of Barry Morentz, a New York-based calligrapher whose clients include Cartier and the Museum of Modern Art, I actually began to erase my old handwriting and start life anew with a bolder, more stylish signature.

Here’s what he told me:

Pace yourself.
Speed is the biggest factor in handwriting. By mixing it up, “things will happen you could not anticipate,” says Morentz. “And if they look good, you can work them in” to your John Hancock.

So grab a blank sheet of paper and a soft pencil, or, better yet, a fountain pen—these instruments bite into paper better than ballpoint pens, which tend to skate across the sheet—and start writing your name in a constricted way, with the letters scrunched together.

Then open it up, stretching your name across the paper. Write as fast as you can, then equally slowly. Experiment with different ways of forming the letters and joining them. Think of yourself as a musician searching for new melodies through improvisation.

Copy and paste.
Look at your improv sheet and identify the letters and combinations of letters that look the best until you have each part of your name covered. Maybe the times you wrote slowly look best for the middle of your name, while the quick ones look best for the first and last letters. Assemble the building blocks together until you’ve found the ideal whole.

A flourish at the beginning of your signature is like a “sweeping first introduction,” says Morentz, while at the end “it’s like a note of triumph.” Bear in mind that too many flourishes can look fussy and overly foppish, whereas what you’re aiming for is signature sprezzatura. Flourishes in your signature should have a spontaneous feel (what experts call “gesture,” or the attitude used in writing), even though the strokes have been carefully thought out and practiced.

And speaking of practice…
Yes, you’re going to have to practice your new signature. When you were 15 you had 10 years of tinkering to get it right (and besides, look where that got you). At this point in your life, the only respectable option it to unveil the new look as a finished product. So take some time to program your new look the muscle memory into your hand. Slow down, stretch out, and use a light touch. Once your signature becomes effortless, you can speed it up for a nonchalant, dashed-off appearance.

For additional practice and to help develop rhythm, Morentz says, you can practice writing arcades as a muscle memory technique. Arcades (known in penmanship as inverted garlands) look like upside-down fish hooks — the kind of cursive stroke used in the letters M, N, S and H. “Practicing arcades is a way to make your handwriting look more organic,” says Morentz, “so it doesn’t have gaping holes in between the letters.”

Finally, declare your independence.
Now that you’ve liberated your signature from dowdy illegibility, it’s time to celebrate. Take your friends out for a round of drinks and pick up the check. Whip out that fancy pen, and sign it like you mean it.

Christian Chensvold is the man behind the blogs Ivy Style and Dandyism. He appreciates fan mail.

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