Of course you know that today is National Handwriting Day, in honour of John Hancock's birthday. But our days of mastering penmanship seem long behind us. Kitty Burns Florey ruminates on this lost art ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Did you get one? Nor did I. I stayed home and watched the inauguration on a screen. But a million inauguration invitations were sent out. There was a time when each of these would have been addressed, floridly, by hand, but needless to say these hordes of envelopes were done by machine.
And so is everything. With the exception of the odd thank-you note or letter from Aunt Gertrude in Florida, we seldom see anything handwritten in our mailboxes. I suspect there are actually people alive today who have never received a letter written with a pen on paper and mailed in an envelope with a stamp.
When I stumbled on an article about how learning handwriting in school is being replaced by keyboarding instruction, my first reaction was the predictable horror of someone who spent large portions of her youth mastering Palmer Method under the tutelage of the nuns. Keyboarding? Who even knew that was a verb? No more Palmer Method? All those loopy L’s and fancy G’s–gone to the dustbin along with the blotter and the inkwell?
I decided to write a book about it ("Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting"). And I resolved to remain open-minded. If handwriting is over, is that really so terrible?
After all, we live in the digital age, and the digits of most of us are working overtime as we keyboard our way through the day. I began writing books back in the late 1970s, pen in hand, notebook on my knee, typewriter at the ready to receive my completed manuscript in its various incarnations. (Somewhere in a box I have 13 typed revisions of my first novel, which probably should have been called "The Death of the Forest".) But when the computer came along and made cutting and pasting virtual instead of messy, I saw it as the compulsive reviser’s dream machine. My last eight books are children of Microsoft Word, and virtually everything I write, from a long book to a short email, is done on the computer. The only person I know whose life doesn’t revolve around the infernal machine is my artist husband, and lately even he is showing signs of e-mail addiction.
My handwriting of course has suffered. But so what? Who needs it? Can’t we say goodbye and good riddance?
I was surprised to find that the answer is: Not so fast! By the end of my journey into the world of penmanship–from the Phoenicians to the Bic, from monks in their scriptoria to Bill Gates at the keyboard–I’d found plenty of evidence that handwriting is a skill that should be kept alive.
Educators I talked to claim that kids master reading more easily when they write a word as they learn it: the writing process keeps their attention focused as they match symbol to sound. Quite a few teachers whose schools make little provision for teaching handwriting have wedged it into the curriculum anyway because they’re convinced of its importance.
Kids certainly need to learn to type on a keyboard, but they also need legible handwriting–for taking tests, writing reports, working at the chalkboard. Many schools have adopted some version of technology for these tasks, but far more haven’t the resources for it. Children are judged by their handwriting; if they produce indecipherable chicken-scratching, a teacher will not be sympathetic. And if writing hasn’t become easy and automatic, they’ll lose their train of thought, be unable to plan ahead as they write, and, in the end, dislike both aspects of the writing process: forming their letters and expressing their ideas.
For many pro-keyboarding anti-handwriters, the real bugaboo is cursive writing--the Palmer Method and its offspring. When the computer crashes or the electricity fails, when repetitive stress syndrome threatens or they’re on a mountaintop in Colorado with the urge to write a poem and only a notebook at hand--what, they ask, is wrong with printing?
The only sensible answer is: nothing. An even more sensible answer is that it’s possible to learn a writing system that combines the clarity and simplicity of printing with the speed of cursive. Many of us have, informally, devised such a script for ourselves out of desperation.
As I worked on "Script and Scribble" I was introduced to the phenomenon of Italic writing, which is based on the beautiful, elegant, and far from fussy hand devised by writing masters in 16th-century Italy. It’s a flexible and far from difficult system that allows for individual quirks and preferences, that encourages linking letters when they need to be linked and printing them when that seems quicker or more pleasing. There are several wonderful modern versions (Getty-Dubay, Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting) being taught to home-schoolers and in enlightened school districts. One of Italic’s virtues is that kids don’t have to learn two different ways of writing--first printing, then cursive. It’s all one.
The result, a loosely systematised version of what we do by instinct, is immensely satisfying. I have worked out my own personal Italic: no more ugly, rushed scribble. (I was so impressed with my prowess that I included before and after examples in the book.) It’s a superb solution for anyone who craves better handwriting, or who believes it’s still necessary, or who simply hates to lose something that’s historic and beautiful.
What’s vital, though, is to keep using it. Now that a new president has been inaugurated, we can relax a bit and think about something besides the state of the nation. Just as there’s a “slow foods” movement, maybe there should be a “slow writing” movement. January 23rd, John Hancock’s birthday, is National Handwriting Day. I suggest you set aside half an hour, grab a piece of paper and a pen, and, in your best script (be it Italic, Palmer, or a cleaned-up version of your usual scrawl), write a poem, start a diary, send a note to a friend, or--well, Valentine’s Day is coming--compose a love letter.
Picture credit: kevinzim (via Flickr)
(Kitty Burns Florey is the author of nine novels and many short stories and essays. "Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting" has just been published by Melville House.)