- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

When it comes to casual notes and grocery lists, Caren Milman has terrible handwriting, and she is the first to admit it. But her shoddy penmanship vanishes when the veteran calligrapher bends to her real work; each stroke of her ink-dipped pen produces a clean, flowing line, making the alphabet come alive.

"Calligraphy is not meant for everyone," she says. "It's well-suited for my temperament."

A half-dozen pens with worn handles and clean blades lie next to her at her workstation. An electric eraser for the inevitable mistakes and mini hair dryer to quickly dry ink are within reach. A spill-proof container of water sits close by.

A plate of plexiglass that acts as her easel is positioned carefully on her lap. Graph paper with lines she has drawn is taped onto the glass to be used as a guide. An old desk lamp, on its side, shines up through the glass. The paper is straight as she glides the pen to form "Mr. and Mrs." on a place card for a wedding. These names will be done in italics a common and easy-to-read fancy lettering.

The different types of lettering called hands require precise positioning of the paper, different pens and certain pressures on the paper. Mrs. Milman, 56, has a knack for it. She's been doing it for 27 years.

She took up calligraphy after becoming pregnant with her first child. She gave up her first-grade teaching job, took calligraphy classes and set up shop, converting the laundry room in her Rockville home into a studio.

Mrs. Milman has always had a thing for unique lettering. When she was a child in summer camp she would take the New York Times and copy its masthead or copy wording on comic-book covers.

This week Mrs. Milman has a running list of jobs to complete, from place cards for a wedding and another set for a bar mitzvah to addressing envelopes for another wedding.

In addition, she has to proofread all her work. An abundance of proofreading is always on the agenda. She usually checks her work when she is finished and she will use the electric eraser or redo the work completely if she has made a mistake that can't be fixed.

"Nothing ever leaves here unless it's perfect," says Harry Milman, her husband of 34 years.

She has been unable to train herself to proofread as she goes along, particularly when writing out long certificates with hundreds of words. She once had to redo a 240-word certificate because she put a comma in the wrong place.

"As I go along, I build up a rhythm," she says. "Every calligrapher has their own style."

She can finish addressing and proofreading 150 envelopes in about a day. She charges $2.35 for each envelope.

Her work runs the gamut from place cards for a small wedding to menus for an embassy dinner to certificates of achievement for members of an association.

It's all done by hand, without the help of any computers, and Mrs. Milman likes it that way.

"I know nothing about computers," she says, showing off her low-tech filing system, which consists of index cards in a recipe holder.

Computers are also big competition for her as more software becomes available to make calligraphylike lettering from a printer cheaply and quickly.

"It takes quite a lot of business from me," Mrs. Milman says. For instance, an association she worked with for many years printing certificates and awards replaced her with a computer and printer.

But Mrs. Milman is constantly being asked to take on new jobs and serve repeat clients who appreciate the difference between computer-generated and handcrafted work. She usually does most of her work at night, starting about 7 p.m. and working till about 12:30 a.m. and sometimes even later.

"It's not like working for me," she says. "I love it, so it's hard to break away."

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