Script and ScribbleThe Rise and Fall of Handwriting
Melville House PublishingCopyright © 2009 Kitty Burns Florey
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-1-933633-67-1
A HANDWRITTEN LIFE
Since I first picked up a pen, I have been under the spell of handwriting. I've experimented endlessly with different scripts: straight up, right-slanting, left-slanting, print-like, florid, spare, minimalist, maximalist, round, spiky, highly legible, insouciantly scrawled. I can't make a list or write a check without scrutinizing my rushed, ugly F's and illegible r's and wishing I'd taken more time or had a better artistic sense. When I doodle, I often doodle handwriting styles.
I suspect that, for many, this preoccupation might seem bizarre, even slightly mad. There's a widespread belief that, in a digital world, forming letters on paper with a pen is pointless and obsolete, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is right up there with folks who still have fallout shelters in their back yards. But I'm part of the last generation for whom handwriting was taught as a vital skill. All through school, it was an important part of our lives: you had good handwriting, or you had bad handwriting - at some level, the way you wrote was a part of you, and was judged. That identification with my own script has never left me.
When I look back at learning to write, I can still feel the excitement of it. Little kids printed. Big kids wrote in longhand.
I learned to write longhand - cursive - in third grade at St. John the Baptist Academy in Syracuse, New York. Above the blackboard there was a frieze showing the idealized script we were all aiming at, in both upper and lower case, and lurking in each student's beat-up old wooden desk was a Palmer Method workbook.
Every day, during handwriting practice, we took out our workbooks, sat up straight at our desks, and grabbed our pencils. Sister Victorine swished around the room in her long black habit, looking over our shoulders with her eagle eye and beating time like an orchestra conductor - one two, one two, up down, up down - a brisk martial rhythm that we labored to match with the strokes of our pencils.
Form, size, slant, spacing: those were the elements of the Palmer Method. At the end of the session, if you managed to keep them all in mind while you sat straight but also stayed relaxed, and if you concentrated on what you were doing instead of wishing you were out in the school yard playing Red Rover, you had pages of perfect ovals, upstrokes, and downstrokes, and by the end of third grade, these would have come together into some species of legible penmanship.
Sister Victorine was a tall, stately nun with mild blue eyes, round gun-metal glasses, and a black thumbnail on her right hand. The black thumb mesmerized me. I asked my parents where you got such a thing. My father said, "Maybe she hit her thumb with a hammer." My mother winced absently and said, "Oh dear." They clearly weren't as compelled by it as I was. While I watched Sister Victorine write flawless cursive homilies on the blackboard - Pride goes before a fall, Haste makes waste - I pictured her lifting the hammer to pound a nail, whacking her thumb instead, the thumb turning a rich black as she looked at it in horror. What made it turn black? And why would a nun have been pounding a nail? Did she cry? Did nuns cry? Or had it happened before she even entered the convent? I imagined a tough and gritty childhood, forced labor in her cruel father's carpentry shop. Was that why she became a nun? To escape?
With difficulty, I would turn my attention from her fascinating thumbnail and work at copying her flowing capital L's and trimly crossed t's. I wasn't a superstar, but I was pretty good at it, and I didn't mind handwriting practice. Something about the low-key creativity, the reach for perfection, and the repetitive mental numbness of it appealed to me - still does.
By the time we left Sister Victorine and entered Sister Robert Clare's fourth-grade class, we were deemed to be accomplished hand-writers and were allowed to progress from pencils to straight pens, which cost a nickel each. They were fitted with metal points (nibs) that we dipped into small glass inkwells fitted into a hole at the upper right (too bad, lefties!) corner of our desks. Writing with a straight pen dunked into an inkwell was an adventure: the path from ink to paper could be a sea of blots and blobs, and keeping the ink-flow steady on the paper was maddeningly difficult.
By fifth grade, we had graduated to fountain pens and were writing with some fluency - well enough, at least, to stop worrying about getting it right and start thinking about what impression we were making. This was the age when pen obsessives were born. In the diary I kept when I was ten, one of my New Year's resolutions was: "I will write ROUND" - ROUND was a fad among my set - and so I did.
It wasn't until high school that the nuns finally allowed us, grudgingly, to write with ballpoints. In my school, at least, there was a nunly prejudice against them as newfangled nonsense: the ball-points of the day were regarded as not only unreliable and messy (they did tend to skip and smear) but extravagant: when the ink ran out, you threw away the innards and bought a refill! It was almost as bad as buying a new pen every time! But among us devil-may-care adolescents, who worried about such trivial concerns? I was very fond of my blue Esterbrook fountain pen, my collaborator in hours of scriptomaniacal experiments. But everyone knew that ball-point pens were way cool, and eventually the nuns stopped fighting them.
Then felt tips came along. I remember when the first benzene-scented Magic Markers hit my high school, first in basic black, soon in glorious Technicolor. If you handed me one now, its intoxicating chemical stink would, in a Proustian second, transport me back to a winter afternoon at St. John's when, wearing a hideous maroon serge uniform, knee socks, and saddle shoes, I sat with a group of fellow students and, with colorfully marker-stained hands, made signs for pep rallies: BEAT ASSUMPTION! CRUSH SACRED HEART! - sentiments comprehensible, perhaps, only to basketball-crazed parochial school students without a shred of irony.
I used to change my handwriting the way I changed my hair color (my natural mousy brown ran the gamut from a sort of palomino to a daring reddish-black). It's obvious now that most of my scriptorial attempts were outrageously pretentious, appallingly twee, but I considered each one the height of cool - the proper handwriting for an aspiring Bohemian, a future writer, a deeply sensitive person who wrote deeply sensitive poetry and then burned it in the sink, weeping. Just as nineteenth-century ink nuts - a common species in those days - believed that good penmanship would lead directly to good moral character, I think I must have believed that an arty style would make me an artist. What I was really looking for, of course, was my self. The notion that it would arrive through a bottle of Miss Clairol or the way I made a capital B was not, I hope, entirely inappropriate for my age group.
Over the years, I've become less flighty and self-conscious, and so has my handwriting. It gradually ceased its adventurous traveling, settling at last into a fitfully legible debased scribble that often looks, to me, not only plug-ugly but slightly berserk.
Where is the fluent Palmer Method succession of ovals and loops I learned in elementary school and took such pains to perfect? What happened to the drop-dead-arty script I cultivated in college as a symbol of emancipation from my lackluster and conventional past? Whither the briskly legible semi-cursive in which I wrote the rough drafts of my first few novels, at a time when keyboards existed only on typewriters and on the old piano everyone had in the corner of the living room?
The glory days of elegant handwriting have long been over. In our times, what is the practical use of good penmanship? How often do most of us need to write with an actual pen on actual paper? Diana princess of Wales got into her secondary school on the strength of her neat handwriting. In Ha Jin's novel Waiting, set in his native China, a young woman is jilted by a suitor because her writing is unattractive. And aspiring bakers can still move up to cake-decorating only if they can squeeze out a beautiful "Happy Birthday."
For most of us, it's less crucial - or so goes the conventional wisdom. We make shopping lists, we jot things down in meetings, we send an occasional thank-you letter, we address our Christmas cards, sometimes write a few lines inside. Students take notes in class and write test answers by hand. We scribble on the ubiquitous Post-Its and stick them up on the borders of the computer screen.
But when it comes to our "real" writing, we are all, all slaves to the keyboard. A vast number of people work at one for most of the day. Others dash to the screen to check email the minute they get home, or live in a continual round of IM-ing and text-messaging on a PDA or a mobile phone. Few teachers now find time or have the inclination to work handwriting instruction into the curriculum; keyboarding is now being taught in its place. A stroll into any Starbucks will find a laptop propped in front of at least half the customers. I acquired my first computer in 1985, long before anyone else I knew had one. Less than a quarter-century later, the tapping of keys can be heard around the planet.
We live in a fast-moving stripped-down world, one that's often efficient to the point of sterility. There was a time when we went to the movies in gorgeously embellished theaters with Moorish tiles, grand staircases, brass-railed balconies, uniformed ushers with flashlights; now movies are shown in concrete multiplexes where the noise of the gun fight in shoebox 17 bleeds into the noise of the car chase in matchbox 18. Once, department stores were dazzling mezzanined emporia where the saleswomen wore dresses and high heels and the salesmen natty suits and ties.
Now we shop in airplane hangars with names like K-Mart and Target and Walmart. Supermarkets are massive megastores where you can clock a mile just hunting for a can of chick peas. Banks are no longer soaring, Greek-columned temples to Mammon but drab ex-shoestores with plastic logos blasted across the front. People used to dress up for all kinds of things: church, shopping, dentist appointments, plane trips; now we dress mostly for comfort, and getting gussied up is only for very special occasions, like weddings, New Year's Eve, maybe opening night at the opera. Food is fast, service is slow, telephones are answered by robots.
This is not meant to be a boomer rant. I'm not saying any of this is bad. Some of it seems a huge improvement on the past (I wouldn't want to go shopping in high heels and nylons even if I owned any) and some of it doesn't (I wish some nice man in a cap would pump the gas for my Subaru, wash the windows, and give me a free road map, too). It's simply the world as we know it.
We no longer have to spend time lacing our corsets or sharpening our quills, but for many reasons we're all in a hurry, too busy to dress up, or make gooseberry jam, or dampen a shirt, wrap it in a towel, and let it sit for an hour before ironing it (a domestic ritual I was brought up on and continued to observe until I was in my thirties). I look back on some of these activities with astonishment. Did I really do chores on Saturday mornings that included polishing the bathroom faucets with Glass Wax? Did my mother really come home from work and sit down with her sewing? Did airline stewardesses really wobble down the aisle in spike heels and tight navy blue skirts?
And, as ironing and nylons go, so, apparently, goes penmanship.
* * *
I've had a recurring dream since I was a kid - I'm looking at a piece of paper with words written on it in black ink. The writing is a clear, ordinary cursive script, but no matter how I try, I can't read it. When I was very young, the words were sometimes written in pencil in a book or sewn with black thread on a piece of white satin in an embroidery hoop . But as time has gone by, it has refined itself to this enigmatic dream of pen, paper, ink, and incomprehensibility.
I've begun to wonder if, in its most recent manifestations, the dream is the scary premonition of an ink nut who fears that the day is coming when no one will be able to read handwriting at all.