With handwriting becoming a lost art, one writer sets out to recapture the fine points of this organic form of communication.
I have stopped in the middle of writing this piece to shake out the ache in my hand and arm.
I am rediscovering handwriting. Longhand composition, not just a few words on a grocery list. Here’s a stat for you: on written (long answer) college entrance exams these days, only 15% of students use cursive writing. Which means the other 85% are printing. In our keyboard and touch-pad digital world that’s no big shock. Most schools only teach cursive writing briefly, in grade three or so, then drop it from the curriculum.
I actually use pen and paper more than many people – I still like to scribble notes in notepads (the paper kind), in the margins of books (the paper kind) and on reminder stickies that I use to try to convince my wife that I have my household tasks duly noted.
Even so, as a writer I was an early convert to computers and keyboards. It’s so great to see those perfectly formed letters appear on the screen. Copy and paste was one of the world’s spectacular inventions. Likewise the backspace delete key. These things were not always with us, kids.
Recently, though, I have made a daily practice of writing three pages of journal notes every morning. I finally got around to reading a book on creativity that has been a staple in arts and writing workshops for decades – The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron – and decided to give its exercises a whirl. Cameron is a strong advocate of starting the day with stream of consciousness handwriting, stuff that you never intend to publish or even keep – just a shaking loose of the writerly muscles.
Three pages doesn’t sound like a lot but when you have been accustomed to jotting small phrases here and there, half an hour of continuous writing is a bit of a strain. Literally, physically.
The other day, I realized I was grimacing as I wrote – and it wasn’t the subject matter. I noticed a tension strain in the tendons on the back of my hand. No surprise there. But then I found tender points all along the arm: the under forearm, the tendon right at the elbow, the outside of the arm just below the shoulder (triceps?), and even up into the shoulder. All from pushing a pen across paper.
I now see that the fleshy little callous on the first knuckle of my second finger is puffed up from the pressure. That callous brings back memories of school classes when the entire period consisted of copying the teacher’s blackboard notes into a scribbler. There would be four big blackboards filled with notes when we came into class and by the time we were copying blackboard #4, the teacher would have erased the first two and be writing new notes on them. I wonder how sore those teachers’ arms got?
Rediscovering handwriting has been interesting in other ways. There’s a good chunk of personality in anyone’s handwriting. I’ve never been fond of mine. The handwriting, that is. And the personality could probably use some work too.
My penmanship has never been particularly strong or fluid. It’s decent in that it’s mostly legible but has no flourish, no flow. I often start out well but slip into a cramped and jagged scrawl.
I always worry about how I write the word “I.” And I write “I” quite a bit, being a navel-gazer by nature. In my handwriting, I prefer to just leave the “I” as a single vertical stroke, not that cursive J-looking loop. But then it could be a number one. So sometimes I tag on the little upper and lower serifs, even while resenting the need to do so. But that printed “I” looks big and clumsy, standing so stiffly in a sentence of looping letters.
Are you seeing glimpses of neuroses here?
What I’m getting at is that handwriting, by its very nature, is personal. It is you. When writing on a keyboard, there remains a distance, a separation. There’s the fingers on the keyboard, sure, but bouncing between keyboard and your screen and your eyes something is lost.
Pushing a pen or pencil across paper, the writer and what is written are as one. There’s a visceral connection.
With handwriting, you receive feedback: ‘look at those rushed scratches, are you angry or what?’ You create a unique record. Ever come across your mom or dad’s handwriting, unexpectedly, and have that instantaneous recognition, before you even register a word of what is written? Handwriting is authentically human.
At least that’s how I feel. And I do feel it, at this moment, up my hand into the wrist, zipping through the forearm, into the shoulder. In the muscle memory. I am writing.
“Handwriting” courtesy of Lorne Daniel.
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