Loops of grandeur

When I was in ninth grade I got a “C” on a spelling test. I was outraged. I responded by wielding the power of the press and, as editor of the school newspaper, wrote a scathing editorial about my English teacher’s unfair grading practices. The issue was not to defend my spelling, although in fact I had spelled every word correctly. I was angry because the teacher had marked as wrong any word that was written incorrectly, meaning the shape and style of the cursive was not to her penmanship standards. I got a red check because a letter leaned too far to the left, the loop in an “e” was too large and the tail on my capital “D” had no loop at all. I caused quite a stir and she eventually stopped grading this way. I remember feeling quite righteous, one of my first acts of social protest.

True confession, my indignation was a little about protecting our grades and a lot about her judgment of something I felt was a personal trademark, distinctive, an expression of my personality. How could she rate the flourishes of my mind flowing down my arm and swooping across the page? It would be like putting limits on the way a person walks or laughs. It wasn’t just that she was grading handwriting; it was that she was grading my handwriting. Luckily my peers didn’t like her anyway and did not see through to the underlying vanity in my activism. 

The fate of cursive handwriting is everywhere in the media lately. Kitty Burns Florey has written a book called Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting that has people speculating whether or not penmanship, as a school subject or common application, may go the way of “hieroglyphics and smoke signals.” Florey laments that we could lose an essential part of our history and cultural identity if we allow cursive to fade. Others are not so sympathetic. In a recent Newsweek article, Jessica Bennett boldly states, “When I hear people say that penmanship is dead, my response: it’s about time.” She claims that the days of fancy handwriting became numbered with the invention of the printing press. Our increasing technology has rendered the skill almost obsolete.

I write almost exclusively on a laptop. The word processing program helps me spell, varies my word choices and reminds me when I should use a question mark instead of a period. I can adjust the size of the words on the screen. I can send a piece of writing to anyone anywhere and they can read, edit and send it back. When I don’t have access to my computer, I jot on scraps of paper, later transcribing them back into my computer. I love technology. I live for the printed word. I, like Bennett, should be leading the charge. Why teach penmanship when we have no money for art class or gym? Let it go. Keyboarding is in, cursive is out. 

Why, then, have I been reading and listening to these debates with such ambivalence? I wasn’t always a virtual typist. Ninth grade wasn’t so long ago.

I first became aware of cursive when I was about seven. My second grade teacher has the most beautiful handwriting I have ever seen. I still correspond with her every year around Christmas time and I look for her perfect script on the envelope and card, so evenly formed, it could be a font type. I think my own handwriting developed as a mix of styles, aspiring to my teacher’s perfection yet genetically infected with my father’s jagged spikes and ridges. The result looks nineteenth century legible, androgynous, in a scale large enough to provide the ultimate diagnostic opportunity for any handwriting specialist. It is the scrawl of an extrovert, or someone who doesn’t see well, or suffers from poor motor skills. People can tell it is my handwriting without knowing for sure. They may heckle the loopy grandeur, but recognition is reinforcement, visibility, a signature of self.

As a kid I watched the Walton’s and demanded tablets of Big Chief paper like John Boy used. I filled innumerable notebooks with longhand, dreaming of all the writers who drafted their lives in the same way. I crossed out and rewrote, sometimes ending up with one great sentence in a page of scribbled auditions. Creativity was thinking and then crafting those thoughts into patterns like curving architecture. The physicality of my cursive made my imagination more real. Florey says that there are many contemporary writers that still “pen” their books: Mary Gordon, J.K. Rowling, Toni Morrison, Stephen King and Wendell Berry are just a few.

The last time I accumulated a stack of yellow, lined paper was over twenty years ago in a series of letters to my future husband who was away on study abroad. I have pages and pages recording the evolving relationship, each missive begins with tidy script tucked between the lines, and then halfway, as the narrative gains momentum, giant, wild words take over, swinging above and below the lines like ball point kudzu. He bought me a Waterman fountain pen when he got home. Then, a year later, we inherited a rudimentary computer and from then on my letters and journals were printed in dot matrix.

Bennett concludes that “the push to save cursive isn’t so much historical or educational as it is emotional . . . penmanship represents a simpler, prettier way of life.” One of the few criticisms of Florey’s book, amid much praise, is that she echoes this same sentiment but in a wistful rather than academic tone. Bennett says the only thing she handwrites is letters to her grandmother. Florey says that beautiful penmanship “lives on the planet . . . of nostalgia.” But for all my reminiscing, it is not simply about childhood or even the metaphoric past. For me, it is deeper and far too intertwined with my relationship to language and self-expression. My connection to penmanship goes beyond the historical practice of consistency and universal deciphering. I see my handwriting as a fingerprint rather than a template. And although I sometimes regret that my sons write in an undisciplined mix of block print and doodle, with no training and no sense of art layering their written communication, I worry more that they do not recognize or value their handwriting as an extension of their individuality. If we all become Arial and Times New Roman, have we lost a bit ourselves in the process?

As much as I love my computer, I still try and write letters and cards in my crazy longhand. But I am so accustomed to being able to edit that I am often surrounded by crumpled versions before I produce one as polished as what I could write on the computer. I have lost spontaneity over the years. I forget what it means to trust inspiration rushing from mind to hand, ink spilling from pen to paper, with intimate speed and sensual personality.

23 responses to “Loops of grandeur”

  1. Wow — in ninth grade she was taking points off for insufficiently beautiful handwriting? That just seems insane to me. We learned penmanship in third or fourth grade, after that as long as your writing was legible, it didn’t contribute positively or negatively to your grade in any class that I can recall. My daughter’s definitely gotten some comments from her teacher about the sloppiness of her printing, but again, she’s in third grade.

    Hey PB, I don’t know if you saw the comment I left on an old thread the other day, but you were totally right about The Amber Spyglass — it is expanding my mind.

  2. Jane says:

    Leave it to you to write about penmanship and manage to make it so damned beautiful.

    I definitely have a romanticized view of penmanship, and I would be sad to see those teachings go away.

  3. BTW is the post title a pun on “delusions of grandeur”? Because in that case I would have gone with “Loop-de-loops of grandeur”.

  4. Marleyfan says:

    Pandora,
    If you wrote a book, wheter it was written with your Waterman pen, trusty laptop, or crayola, I would buy it.
    And,
    “Ninth grade wasn’t so long ago”… you kill me, you really do.
    Thanks yet again for brightening my Friday.

  5. A White Bear says:

    I think penmanship will become a historical study, but I rather like that. I’ve learned to imitate secretary hand (Renaissance), Scottish hand (secretary-inflected 18th-c), 18th-c hands, 19th-c hands—it’s fun! What bothered me about the way penmanship was taught in my own youth is that the “accepted” style changed between, like, third and fifth grade, and suddenly we were supposed to act like we’d all always written in the new way. It was around then that I decided I would develop my own styles for different purposes, and I wrote out several alphabets of the different hands I would now be using. This caused some tension with teachers, but they eventually gave in. I still don’t ever write in standard mid-20th-c cursive. That truck was not built to last. It’s not intuitively readable, it’s slow to write and way too difficult to make look pretty.

  6. A White Bear says:

    Here’s Wm Shakespeare’s will, in secretary, my favorite hand evah.

  7. A White Bear says:

    (Although, it must be noted that WS had pretty shite penmanship. I’ve seen far lovelier.)

  8. Dave says:

    In first grade, I wrote out page after page of loopy lines of nonsense, pretending to be a grownup writing in cursive. I stacked the sheets like I saw newscasters do on TV.

  9. Dave says:

    AWB, I didn’t know you knew antique writing styles. That’s so cool! Why don’t you ever do it as a bar trick?

  10. A White Bear says:

    I did that too, Dave! I even held a belief as a child that adults really were just drawing loops and pretending they were meaningful. “Oh look I made ‘adult’ writing!” scribble scribble scribble

    Unlike singing, which I am more likely to do when drinking, writing secretary takes a lot of concentration for me. Also, I really need to get a good wider-nibbed pen or it doesn’t have any elegance.

    When I was a little kid, I practiced calligraphy a lot—gothic and uncial hands, mostly. It’s funny, but I think while learning hands has been great for my drawing skills, it makes my regular writing-notes-on-student-papers handwriting way too all-over-the-place, style-wise. I don’t have a handwriting style I consider “mine,” I have twelve, and I’m always shifting subtly between them when I have to write fast. None of my students has complained so far about it being unreadable, but I look back at my notes and think, God bless this student.

  11. A White Bear says:

    If you’re interested in learning to read/write secretary, this is an excellent tutorial, and is the way I learned it so I could read 16-17th-c letters in the special collection where I worked. It still takes me a while to decipher a letter due to the variety of penmanship styles, and I couldn’t, say, read that WS will without a bigger, clearer image.

  12. A White Bear says:

    Shit, sorry, the tutorial starts here.

  13. Dave says:

    “Early Modern Scottish palaeography” is a field I’d never thought about before.

  14. A White Bear says:

    I’m not sure it constitutes a “field” in itself, but it’s certainly way useful for anyone who is interested in reading letters. Medievalists learn to read manuscript hands, and at my school they do a yearly tutorial, and just one afternoon seems to do it. I sat in on one and got jealous. No one ever has a tutorial for reading 17-18th-c hands, and I was surrounded by all these beautiful handwritten letters and documents that might as well have been in Greek for all I could read them. The internet provides!

  15. In sixth grade, I started writing in all caps. I don’t remember where the idea came from, but I just thought it was socially rebellious and so cool.

    My English teacher eventually asked me to switch back to writing lowercase and capital letters. She couldn’t tell if I was following the rules of capitalization, you see. I fumed a little, shrugged, and gave in. I’d always had a weakness toward my English teachers, and she was the first.

  16. lane says:

    Loops of grandeur
    Loops of grandeur
    Loops of grandeur
    Loops of grandeur
    Loops of grandeur
    Loops of grandeur
    Loops of grandeur
    Loops of grandeur
    Loops of grandeur
    Loops of grandeur
    Loops of grandeur

  17. lane says:

    hey that was supposed to jog like the comment chain.

    doesn’t that look cool

    the words “loops of grandeur”

    over and over

  18. lane says:

    best title of the year,

    i called it.

  19. Dave says:

    AWB, you’ve never read the Journal of Early Modern Scottish Paleography or its competitor, the Proceedings of the Royal Society for Early Modern Scottish Paleography?!?

  20. A White Bear says:

    Oh God. There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in my philosophy, as it turns out.

  21. lane says:

    and for best comment

    contender NUMBER 1

    “AWB, you’ve never read the Journal of Early Modern Scottish Paleography or its competitor, the Proceedings of the Royal Society for Early Modern Scottish Paleography?!?”

  22. Natasha says:

    Since I was a kid, I’ve always kept a journal and had to find a way to write so that no one would understand. Consequently, I developed this horrific way of chicken-scribbling, only I could understand. It was fast, efficient, and unreadable. For school though, I had to adjust, and since I did not have my own style, I copied my best friend’s. It turned out kind of fun to do, so I copied my Mom’s, Dad’s and a bunch of others’. And while I am writing this, I am realizing that I am in the wrong line of profession and I should have been Frank Abagnale; I can chicken-scribble my notes mixing a few languages and forge any handwriting possible…hmm

  23. For some nice penmanship samples, see this week’s Studies in Crap at the Village Voice.