The written words

Once, the tools of writing were precious.  People had to invent paper.  Use chalk on slate.  Carve stone with hieroglyphics.  Prepare calf vellum.  Make ink.  Even growing up in the 70s, pencils, pens, felt tips, chalks, crayons and pads of paper were celebrated birthday and Christmas gifts.  Then, those things become cheap and plentiful.  And then they became unnecessary.  And now, they seem precious all over again.

Learning to write was a chore.  Not the concept or meaning, but the labored formation of letters to meet the expectations of teachers.  As a six-year-old, I was kept back during break to practice my handwriting.  The teacher reminded me that in our exercise book, each line intended for handwriting had a second horizontal line above it.  The lower case letters were to fit below and only the upper case letters were empowered to cross this magic, foreboding halfway line.  I knew this was not the full story, but questions were not welcome.  I sweated to keep my tiny “h”s below the halfway line, knowing that I was stunting their elegant growth.  My “t’s squatted.  And my “l”s were confused with “i”s.  My faithful adherence to instruction was not rewarded.

Fountain pens were a new challenge.  What is not elegant in pencil will only be heavier in ink and blots bloomed like flowers.  But eventually that strong nib and enforced practice formalizes all scrawl.

In college (yes even in the late 80s) we turned in handwritten work.  I had heard of the computer lab but couldn’t imagine why I would spend time there.  Up until that point, all my communication was scribed, physically imprinted on to a textured surface…homework, poems, shopping lists, letters to distant grandparents, love notes.

A while ago, a friend’s college-age son wrote me a card to go with a thank you gift.  The writing was in shaky caps.  Two decades ago, I would have assumed he was illiterate.

I am not a Luddite, but I just watched the animated movie The Secret of Kells where ninth-century Irish monks labor over the creation of one of the world’s most beautiful books.

Will we ever want to create such a thing again?  Will young people experience the delight of communications intentionally crafted with lead and ink?  Will they have the chance to rifle through old boxes of letters and notes and cards and look nostalgically at the handwriting of someone they love?

8 responses to “The written words”

  1. Tim says:

    While my elementary education included handwriting lessons (first in printing and later in the mysterious “script”), it was certainly not as rigorous as yours. I alternately mourn and celebrate that American education is not as strict and challenging as English schooling. I find it embarrassing to meet English middle-schoolers who are more well spoken than I. All the same, I chafe at the notion of hour upon hour learning to confine one’s handwriting to such restrictive rules.

    On a related note, I mourn that the computer age and the decline of physical-on-paper writing has denied us and the future of an important element: the study of letters. Email, Twitter, and so forth are nothing if not ephemeral and not meant for collection in a volume for historians to ponder and pore over. What would the collected letters of Sarah Palin have looked like? We’ll never know.

  2. AWB says:

    Seeing someone’s handwriting seems so intimate now. Every so often I catch myself thinking of a past lover or friend, “But I never even saw his handwriting!”

    I make my students write something by hand for me every day, and the hands are so different. In the past, you could tell a great deal about someone’s age and education by the kind of hand they used (though my mother’s is a lovely, loopy, practically unreadable cursive, while my father’s is a cramped fixed-width mixture of random capital and lowercase). I get papers from students that range from painful-looking scratch falling off the lines to tiny masterworks of calligraphic design, usually with illuminations in the margins.

    My own hand varies by purpose. Ever since I first learned to write, I was thinking about different ways to form letters and how and when to alternate between them. Almost as soon as I could control a pen, I started going through calligraphy books and practicing letters. When taking notes at a conference lecture, for some reason I tend to be self-conscious about whatever I’m writing (probably because it’s bitchy), so I write it in secretary hand. It’s good practice and no one can tell what I’m writing about. But because I never settled on a hand for long, I don’t feel like I have one that’s recognizably “mine.”

  3. LP says:

    In junior high, I started trying to make my handwriting better / more interesting. My dad (engineering grad) writes in all caps, so I did that for a while. I thought it would somehow reflect better on me to have nice penmanship, though I didn’t ever try very hard with cursive, figuring I’d never use it anyway. My brother, who started out left-handed, was urged by his elementary school teacher to switch to his right hand, and his handwriting has always looked like something a third-grader wrote in an earthquake.

    It’s funny now to think about writing long school reports by hand. I did it, but can’t remember how – I guess you either write a messy, note-strewn draft version first, or just think it all through more completely before spewing words on paper. I can’t imagine going back to that, though many writers still do write in longhand. It feels like that would be torture at this point. I did once have a palm-reader tell me that I should write in longhand every day, though. She said I had “powerful hands,” and that writing in longhand, or taking up sculpting or some other hands-on pursuit would yield amazing results (TWSS). So far I’ve been too lazy to try it.

  4. Stella says:

    #3 I now write in a journal every morning in longhand…and I have to say (briefly in the comments/perhaps longer in a future post) that it is surprisingly insightful…if you get my drift. I only write for about 5 minutes on a small page, but it makes me very reflective and it’s like a total emotional toxic dump.

    #2 I was losing it in a meeting last week and I resorted to writing “this is bananas” in the best tiny cursive i could manage over and over.

    #1 I am totally stealing your brilliant creative idea: “the collected letters of Sarah Palin” – how excellent! I think we can write them….

  5. KS says:

    As a 19th c. historian, I have to read a lot of old documents, including court records, census data, and even occasionally diaries. I often get lost in the beauty of the writing…not what was written so much as how it was penned. The calligraphy was a true art form. I find it mesmerizingly beautiful.

    Has anyone else noticed a severe decline in the legibility of h/ir penmanship in the past two decades, I mean to the point of being nearly incapable of writing words and letters that even YOU can read? I used to have moderately stylish script back when I used to worry about such things, but now I write (esp. cursive) like a left-handed third grader made to switch by an evil teacher, in a earthquake). I swear I’m going to have to start having my students submit their papers to me electronically so I can type comments on them rather than the chicken-scratch mess they now always need help deciphering. A sad loss, the art of writing is.

  6. AWB says:

    Mine has declined a bit, but I think that’s due to two influences:
    1) I am not as invested in other people thinking I’m cool, which makes me put less effort into looking all graphic-designy in my handwriting, unless it’s an envelope. Or maybe I gave up thinking that my handwriting made people think I was cool? Envelopes still get the painstaking treatment.
    2) When I’m writing for myself, I’m practicing secretary hand, which has a terrible, terrible influence on my regular handwriting. That shit is a mess.

    In a perfect world, penmanship would have benefits, like getting one laid or at least making one seem like a really beautiful and thoughtful person, but I fear that my years of calligraphic study, when employed to their fullest, in the context of non-handwriting sorts, is more likely to make me look like a serial killer. Compliments on my best handwriting tend to be of the “Um, you sure… have spent a lot of time? On that?” variety.

  7. PB says:

    I have excessive 19th cent handwriting which I love but it is too big and ideosyncratic to be allowed. So I have my laptop attached to my hip for most professional encounters. But just the other day I simply left the device in the case and took a day of notes in my longhand on a legal pad. My coworkers kept looking at me strangely, like I was wearing an odd hat or eating rabbit legs or something. But I felt light, free and both slower and faster at the same time. I still take “thinking notes” in cursive, my computer is best for getting down what others say or hard core composing. There is something about writing with a pen, an extension of your hand that flows ink, that seems more an artery directly to your brain than a keyboard.

    I own several fountain pens including a Waterman with a bluish marble pattern. From my husband early in our marriage. Don’t wear the engagement ring as much, totally use the pen. Enough said . . .

  8. I’ve been fascinated by librarian cursive after I was reminded of what it was and what it looked like during a conversation with a librarian about a specific card catalog. It makes me want to learn it so I have a different handwriting for “being Santa” and “being the Tooth Fairy”.

    I also strove to make my handwriting more interesting in middle school. In sixth grade, my English teacher asked me to stop writing in all caps because she couldn’t tell when I was capitalizing proper nouns and the first words of sentences. I loved my literature teacher, Mrs. Padilla, and thus I loved her handwriting. It was calculatedly loopy, every loop the same size, but not girlish. I studied her notes, and I suppose my handwriting looked like hers for awhile, until I found a male friend whose handwriting looked like hers. His handwriting was what made me unsurprised when he came out of the closet after high school.

    My handwriting looks more and more like my AP English teacher’s, and I suppose it’s because she was my mentor. Still, now that I’m not required to use handwriting for school, I write in all caps more and more often now.