Death of an Old Hand

One morning a few months ago I sat on the terrace of a hotel in Mainz, Germany, opened a green leather notebook, and took up a pen. Writing every day for a living, I haven’t kept a journal much over the decades. I did keep one whenever I traveled or lived abroad years ago, however; and now, for my family’s European trip, I decided to revive the tradition. It felt good to sit with a blank journal page in front of me once again.

But then a funny thing happened. I couldn’t write. I don’t mean writer’s block; nothing mental like that, but something simpler and more... well, mechanical. The pen felt awkward in my fingers, the action cramped. It was as if my hand no longer knew what to do – my penmanship stuttering uncertainly, now discrete printed letters, now sloppy cursive, now something in between. Had I had a stroke?

Or could this be merely a lack of practice? When was the last time I’d actually written something by hand? Sure, there were lists – the shopping list, the To Do list -- and now and then a sentence or two on a sympathy card or thank-you note. But when was the last time I’d sat down to write whole pages? Ten years? Fifteen?

My faltering penmanship and labored letters signal the demise of a handwritten way of life. Looking back I can see it whole, a long devolution over decades. It startles me to go back and look at my first stories, from the early 1980s – entire narratives written out neatly in big black notebooks. I’d type them up on my electric Smith-Corona (injector ribbon cartridge!), edit them once in red ink, then retype. Soon came the personal computer, enabling texts that could be effortlessly (and, alas, endlessly) reworked. Still, for a long time I clung to handwriting. I’d do my note-taking for a story or essay in a quick, scrawled page or two. And I’d start the story in one of those notebooks, writing maybe a quarter of it by hand, before switching over to the keyboard. Eventually I cut down to writing only the first page or so, and finally phased out the writing altogether.

Today those big black notebooks stand tucked away on one of my shelves, near the Encyclopedia Britannica. And somewhere in the attic are two huge plastic trash bags containing many hundreds of letters from friends, written over the decades in response to many hundreds of letters I had sent them. They’re relics of that former way of life, since I long ago abandoned writing letters, by hand or any other means -- my once-vigorous epistolary life wiped out (like everyone else’s) by the advent of email. And now it is painfully clear – literally painful, that cramp in my hand as muscles organized for keyboarding balk at handwriting -- that I have unlearned penmanship. I am no longer a penman.  

Those of you who’ve read my posts this past year know that I’m alert to the  dynamic of technological change and our selves – how we make machines that turn around and remake us, erasing any and all skills that we outsource to them. And you know my neo-Luddite bent, expressed as a default skepticism about these tradeoffs and a ready nostalgia over what gets lost. So am I once again one of these marginalized left-behinders, bitterly clinging to my landline, my road atlas... and my penmanship?

Not this time. This time I find myself agreeing with the writer in the Times who wrote an op-ed entitled “Handwriting Just Doesn’t Matter.” Anne Trubek, author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, reflects how cursive has all but disappeared as the emphasis in schools has turned toward keyboarding skills. Insofar as handwriting is being emphasized at all, the focus is on printed letters, and not cursive, which the Common Core (that all-purpose villain!) omits entirely. This omission has sparked a backlash by parents, teachers, school boards and legislatures seeking to retain cursive. 

Trubek surveys their arguments – that cursive teaches fine motor skills; that it may help children focus the complexities of written language; that it forms a kind of personal identity tag, much like your facial features or your voice; that it can help prepare you to read handwriting of past ages -- and comes down emphatically on the side of change. She writes:

People talk about the decline of handwriting as if it’s proof of the decline of civilization. But if the goal of public education is to prepare students to become successful, employable adults, typing is inarguably more useful than handwriting. There are few instances in which handwriting is a necessity, and there will be even fewer by the time today’s second-graders graduate.

Trubek reminds us that the purpose of cursive script, going all the way back to the Egyptians, was speed, since a script that lets you make words without having to lift pen from paper is potentially a faster script. “Indeed,” she observes, “the desire to write faster has driven innovations throughout history: Ballpoint pens replaced quill pens; typewriters improved on pens; and computers go faster than typewriters.” So why go back?

The goal of early writing education, Trubek notes, is “cognitive automaticity,” or the ability to make letters without conscious effort. Students should be able to think about what they want to say without being distracted by the challenge of forming the words they need to say it with. “Many students now achieve typing automaticity — the ability to type without looking at the keys — at younger and younger ages,” Trubek comments. “This allows them to focus on higher-order concerns, such as rhetorical structure and word choice.” The keyboard facilitates this process even as it levels the playing field, she argues. All in all, it makes writing easier.

I agree. Yes, it is strange to have an aptitude disappear in media res, as it were, from one’s skillset. But in my case anyway, handwriting (and cursive in particular) was hardly ever an aptitude. More of a trial. For me the memory of learning cursive in grade school is an unhappy one, a rare instance in which school made me feel like a failure. I recall the pulse of ennui and dread that hit me when my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Scanlon, whom I otherwise loved, would hoist the wooden frame with the metal chalk holders to trace out, on the blackboard, the lines she’d use for demonstrating how to form proper cursive letters.

I could never make them look right. The letters she printed out for us (taken from the Palmer Method, a turn-of-last-century guide to business writing, which emphasized uniformity and speed) mocked me with their elaborate curlicues. I remember the particularly troublesome ones: the capital Q, which bafflingly resembled the number 2; or the lower-case p, with its showy and superfluous rooster-like crest; or the triplicate loops of the capital Z.

I struggled to produce crude facsimiles of these letters, hating the process the whole time; if keyboards had existed then, I would have been thrilled never to have to try. Fifteen years later, as a newly minted college grad and would-be writer, I learned touch typing, and when I did, I realized how severely my handwriting had always gotten in the way, slowing me down, putting a constant brake on my thoughts. Typing the words onto the page almost as quickly as they formed in my mind – achieving typing automaticity -- was an exciting liberation, one which would lead in time to my faltering labors this summer over the journal on my hotel terrace.   

It’s ironic that the end of handwriting in my life, or my recognition of it anyway, occurred in Mainz, Germany. That’s the city where Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press put an end to one publishing technology – handwritten books -- and replaced it with a vastly more powerful one. And indeed, you can trace a direct line backward from Mrs. Scanlon’s classroom to those medieval scribes who labored away, transmitting sacred knowledge in lines of carefully executed script. Gutenberg’s press transformed their practice from vehicle of foundational knowledge into (mere) calligraphic art. That’s what technological innovation does, remaking essential life skills into rarefied pursuits. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, So it goes. Something lost, something gained.

Something gets lost with the end of handwriting, for sure; and I’ll miss it. I think about how it functioned as part of a person’s identity. In my mind’s eye I still see all these little personal idiosyncrasies of handwriting. The way my older sister for a while in her dreamy teenage years would dot her i’s with big balloons, sometimes with hearts. The way my father, who prided himself on having unusually legible handwriting for a physician, anchored the capital D in his first name (and in “Dad”) with a little footling loop at the bottom. And the different cursive scripts of the women I loved and received letters from -- their penmanship almost as vivid in memory as their voices.

A certain basic self-consciousness about writing inheres in being a writer – being rapt over language; loving the words not just because they convey higher-order concerns, but because they are words, materials, made with your hands and with the hands in your mind. Literature is a spatial and textural phenomenon, a thing of shapes and surfaces. The magic of reading, novelist and essayist William H. Gass observed, is that when we do it, “thought seems to grow a body”; and the child reader (and fledgling writer) inhabits a world where letters present a strange geography, where the relations between sounds and words and words and objects seem anything but obvious, and where—

Oh no, here it comes, the Luddite nostalgia! I’d better stop, before I change my mind and decide to renounce my cognitive automaticity. Then again, there’s really no way out, or back. Yes, I may wax nostalgic about penmanship. But I will be doing it, of course, on my keyboard.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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