the life/death/art of handwriting


Not last night but the night before (Monday, I think?) I agreed to answer some questions on handwriting. (And speaking of agreeing to things, although quite unrelated, next Tuesday night I have agreed to go and talk to a bunch of Girl Guides about marketing.)

The questions were for my brother, James, for an article he is writing. I diligently sat down and answered them (as you may already know, I am accomplished at productive procrastination).

Then I thought, hang on, I can put the questions up here. And so I am. And so here they are.

What did your hand-writing meant to you when you were school-age?

I remember being quite fastidious with my writing, and quite proud of it. I spent quite a bit of time cultivating it. I don’t know if it was partly because I really only ever went to an all-girls school, but handwriting was a bit of a status symbol. Or at least I thought it was. I also liked arts and crafts and papery stuff from an early age, so having nice handwriting was a part of that.

I remember not being able to wait to be able to do ‘joined up’/’loopy’ writing in public (i.e. with the teacher’s permission, rather than sneakily, when no one was looking).

One of my earliest angst episodes had to do with me running out of ‘publishing paper’ (that was the good paper you were only supposed to ‘publish’ on) in Standard One (year 3?) and being stricken with fear for weeks as the pad got thinner and thinner. We were given a certain amount of publishing paper at the start of the term and that was it.The thing was, I couldn’t help but write lots of stories at home. It ended up with me breaking down in front of my parents, petrified of the repercussions, and then a parent-teacher-child conference with Mrs Kirk, my Standard One teacher. The upshot was I got another publishing pad and no one was cross with me.

 As well as writing stories on my publishing paper – I liked the whole publishing aspect – my very best handwriting on the paper.

How important it was as a part of your studies?
Umm… at secondary school – very much so, in that we wrote by hand for everything. Except for journalism in sixth form (for that we had to work partly on a Mac and partly on a PC in a computer lab). Handwriting was a part of exams all the way through to the end of university. At university I wrote lecture notes by hand but by then had pretty much moved to the laptop for everything else. I remember making a mental note when the changeover happened (albeit a gradual one) and thinking – I’ll never be as expressive, or some of the beauty will be lost, or the whole thinking process will be altered, or not as meaningful… etc. That kind of thing. But then it happened. You do adapt very quickly.

Do you/did you feel it was part of your identity?

Did I? Yes. Do I now? I guess so (in that it belongs to me, springs forth from me and no else one has it but me), but not as strongly.

How often do you handwrite now?

I still write by hand every day, but only a little bit, and never for long enough for my hand to cramp up (which happens after about 4 minutes). I am a bit of a fanatical list-writer, both in and out of work. I don’t remember the last time I wrote a long letter by hand, or even a long letter, but I handwrite cards and there is a certain quaintness to that that I savour on a lot of levels. I think that’s part of the reason why I make cards now, too – because it seems like a pretty sacred and dwindling thing to me – handwritten messages to another person, the act of giving of yourself and your handwriting saying something about you – and Hallmark doesn’t cut it.

Sometimes I write short prose in longhand. Or just notes for longer prose. But in a work work sense I work for an IT company, and I even write notes in One Note (note taking software). When I am interviewing people I am supposed to use a dictaphone, but I very rarely do, so then I write like crazy and then lament that fact that my writing has gone to shit and I can’t even read my own writing.

Do you think the death of hand writing has any wider implications or is symbolic only of a shift in technology?
Is it the death of handwriting? I hope not. It’s one part of a much bigger issue, wrapped up with things like the lost art of letter writing which I mentioned before. To me lovely handwriting is still a status symbol, more so than an iPad or a Smart Phone. So maybe I am fundamentally still of the old guard.

To read the actual handwriting of someone who has passed on, or who is far away, for example, is more immediate and evocative than any printed out email.

Maybe all it means is more RSI, or less RSI. Once we wrote on cave walls. Who knows how and where else we’ll end up writing. Mostly I just care that we do keep writing, and statistics (yes, statistics) show that the digital evolution has meant that we’re actually writing (and reading) more than ever. We’re doing it very differently, whether it’s for better or for worse, but we’re doing it, nonetheless. 

The thing that really concerns me at this point in time is not specifically about handwriting, although handwriting is a part of it. What happens to all the stuff we’re storing in cyberspace and ‘the cloud’? Where are the records for posterity? Where will it all go when we’re gone and there’s no one around to remember our passwords?

When I was at boarding school (and I’m sure when you were at boarding school too) Dad used to write me a letter every week in his perfectly formed spidery script. I have all those letters somewhere. Once he conquered the art of email (which was astonishing to me) he moved eventually to weekly family emails with the subject line: TEAM ROBINSON. I have an email folder I save them in – but what will happen to that email folder in years to come? This really does concern me.

When people print out emails I find it quaint, a little bit backward and unnecessary. But is that what I need to do – print everything out and stick it in a ringbinder – in order to have something physical to hold onto, rather than just a computer screen filled with words from a loved one?


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