September 17th, 2017 by
My cursive handwriting test.

My cursive handwriting test.

A confession: my cursive handwriting sucks. I write by hand so rarely these days, and when I do, it tends to come out as a sort of stylized printing I forced on myself thirty or forty years ago. So I just tried writing a few short cursive sentences on an index card to see what it looks like.

Yeah, it sucks. In fact, I couldn’t even remember how to write a capital “T.”

Alas, I’m not alone. What got me testing out my cursive today was a recent news item about how Cambridge University educators are considering dropping their handwritten exam requirement—after more than 800 years. The problem being that the faculty is having trouble reading students’ handwriting.

18th-century penmanship from Kentucky County, Virginia.

18th-century penmanship from Kentucky County, Virginia.

“There has definitely been a downward trend,” says history lecturer Sarah Pearsall. “It is difficult for both the students and the examiners, as it is harder and harder to read these scripts.”

Bummer.

A Need for Speed

But I’ve long predicted this. Our smart digital devices are feeding our need for speed when it comes to all forms of communication. I mean, let’s face it: it takes a lot longer to write a thank-you note by hand than to tap out a text with your thumbs. Sure, taking the time to learn cursive might be good for your brain, your manual dexterity, and your memory, but first-world humans just prefer living in the fast lane these days, apparently.

The handwriting of Meriwether Lewis

The handwriting of Meriwether Lewis.

This got me wondering (not for the first time) how things might change if the grid goes down. Say a computer virus, an asteroid, a natural (or nuclear) disaster, solar flares, or Siri Personified takes us all offline in an instant. How will we communicate over long distances in such a post-apocalyptic scenario? Well, I reckon we’ll have to go back to scribbling out notes using charcoal on birch bark and handing them to a courier, who will deliver them to our remote recipient in person. And I can imagine the dismay on the face of our correspondent who can’t read a word we’ve written.

“Return to Sender. Illegible.”

Learn by Doing

Perhaps at the very least it’s worth practicing—if not your cursive—your hand-printing every now and then. Maybe by jotting down a grocery list, composing a thank-you note by hand, or authoring an actual letter, inserting it into an envelope, and dropping it in the U.S. Mail. I daresay pen makers and the U.S. Postal Service will appreciate it, as will your recipients. So long as they can read your writing.

The irony is that, during the decades of the decline of my penmanship, I’ve taught myself to decipher various styles of cursive handwriting from centuries gone by. And you can bet there’ll be someone with similar skills to help us out centuries from now:

“Siri, read me that old cursive letter.”


Miscellanea

» Cursive makes you smarter: a wonderful essay about all this stuff.

» Another articulate argument for not scrapping handwriting instruction.

» To heck with handwriting recognition: recognizing handwriting is a moving experience.

» Geneva, Ohio, honors the master penman who created Spencerian Script.

» Yes, truly exercising the brain sometimes takes a little time.

» On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, a graphologist reveals a few secrets.

» Finally, Darick “DDS” Spears has released a new hip hop album called “Penmanship.”

 


July 23rd, 2017 by
My own peculiar hybrid of printing and cursive.

My own peculiar hybrid of printing and cursive.

We humans are lazy. We’re always looking for a shortcut, an easier method, a faster way. We aspire to achieve a sort of wizardry, the ability to change our environment with a thought, a word, a wave of our hand. Witness Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod—our wish is their command.

Trouble is, the easiest way is rarely the most rewarding. If I’d brought home a store-bought birdhouse instead of building one myself, the first flight of those fledglings wouldn’t have thrilled me so. If I planned my bicycling routes to avoid all hills, I wouldn’t have such an excellent resting heart rate. If I’d decided to stay cozy instead of hiking that hill in a snowstorm, I would’ve missed that Snowy Owl.

Recently I stumbled on a blog post whining about a growing interest in preserving the “lost art” of cursive handwriting. In this world of swift, silent keyboards, the blogger thought it crazy that anyone would want to revert to such a slow, tedious, old-fashioned mode of communication. “We have machines to do this stuff for us now,” he wrote. Of course, this blogger’s (rather ill-written) diatribe reminded me of a slew of arguments in my case for cursive. Here are three.

Detail of a handwritten letter from my ma.

Detail of a handwritten letter from my ma.

Purposefulness

Making time to put pen to paper slows your thought processes, giving you time to edit those sentences before you write them down. Without the ease of digital deletion, you tend to get more words right, first time. Because you know ahead of time that the task will take a while, you’re not so prone to speeding headlong through your composition. A dashed-off email is a completely different beast from a handwritten letter: the act of writing by hand is far more contemplative, more deliberate. You’ll find it more relaxing, too, and will be happier with the result—that is, at least, my well-considered opinion.

A page of Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary.

A page of Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary.

Personalness

Write a letter by hand, put it in an envelope, address the envelope, and send it to a friend or loved one through the U.S. Mail. You know, the way they used to do in bygone days. I guarantee your recipient will be thrilled to find an old-style letter in their pile of computer-generated snail mail—especially if this person recognizes your handwriting. And chances are good (if you’re like me, anyway) that your handwritten letter will become a keepsake, outliving even you and your friend or loved one. I have scores of handwritten letters from my mother (an epistolary champion who eschewed newfangled word processors), but only a handful from my dad (an early computer enthusiast).

Regular and “blot” styles of Austin Pen.

Regular and “blot” styles of Austin Pen.

Playfulness

If you’re still unconvinced, what better way to send private messages to your intrigue-loving kids than by teaching them to read and write in cursive? Few these days will manage to decipher your secret code. (And your kids will forever be able to read those old family keepsakes without having to consult an expert.)

Even if you don’t mind cutting corners now and then, consider this: using cursive actually takes less time than printing—now considered “handwriting” by most people who still use pens and pencils.

Update on Austin Pen

The particular penmanship I’ve been studying these days, of course, belonged to Stephen F. Austin. Slowly and surely, letter by letter, Austin Pen takes shape. And I’m excited to be creating an alternate “blot” alphabet—one that’ll replicate the look of an over-inked pen. I’m still deciding whether to add this as an OpenType stylistic alternate or a separate font. Stay tuned!


Miscellanea

» A graphologist claims to be able to tell whether you’re a Great Briton.

» Read a thoughtful, lovely tribute to the charm of a handwritten letter.

» Get a look at Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence.

» Huzzah! for the “groundswell of support” for bringing back cursive.

» Here’s news of some interesting old manuscripts discovered in New Zealand.

» I’m inevitably moved by any celebration of handwritten communication.


June 20th, 2017 by
painting of Stephen F Austin

A painting of Stephen F. Austin (courtesy Texas State Library and Archives Commission).

I am remiss for having ignored The Penman for the entirety of spring. Partly my absence had to do with—well, spring! But partly it had to do with my decision to juggle two type-design projects at once for the first time. Turns out, there’s a lot to keep track of.

Lucky for us both, one of those projects is perfect for a discussion here.

Designing Austin Pen has proved enjoyable, puzzling, challenging, satisfying. It’ll be my fourteenth historical penmanship font—and the fifth member of what I consider my Texas Heroes Collection. It’s modeled after the handwriting of famous empresario Stephen Fuller Austin (1793–1836), the “Father of Texas,” from whom the Lone Star State’s capital got its name.

Stephen F. Austin did not live long, so he didn’t leave reams of handwritten material. But he did keep a diary while imprisoned in Mexico for virtually all of 1834. Austin Pen is my interpretation of Austin’s secret scribblings in this miniature journal (now in the collection of the wonderful Dolph Briscoe Center for American History).

Cover of the Austin Prison Diary.

Cover of the Austin Prison Diary.

Unlike the source materials for the other fonts in this collection—Lamar Pen (based on the hand of Mirabeau B. Lamar), Emily Austin (modeled after the hand of Austin’s sister, Emily Austin Perry), Houston Pen (inspired by the letters of Sam Houston), and Texas Hero (which replicates the script of Thomas Jefferson Rusk)—the diary Austin smuggled into his prison cell is hardly cut-and-dried. For one thing, it had very small pages, which couldn’t have been easy to fill. For another, he had to keep the little book hidden, so he ended up writing much of it in a pencil he also managed to hide.

But perhaps most interestingly, nearly 30 years later, Austin’s nephew Moses Austin Bryan (Emily’s son by her first husband) traced over most of the fading pencil lines in ink. Bryan made this entry on a blank page in his own fine hand:

Note by Moses Austin in his uncle’s diary.

Note by Moses Austin Bryan in his uncle’s diary.

I, Moses Austin Bryan on this day the twenty fifth day of December Eighteen hundred and seventy one have finished tracing the pencil marks or writing of Genl. Stephen F Austin which were made by him in this book whilst he was a prisoner in the cell No 15 of the Ex. Inquisition in the City of Mexico from the 18th day of February the day he was put in the cell No 15 till he was taken out at the end of three moths [sic] by order of the President.

Given all this confusion, I thought at first I might go for a hybrid script between Bryan’s and his Uncle Austin’s. But I soon saw that Austin’s pencil scribblings were large and strange (no doubt because of the difficulty in using an early 1800s pencil on tiny pages), and Bryan’s  ink tracings were similarly peculiar—nothing at all like his fine script in the note above. I decided to focus on the original author’s hand.

Pages showing Austin’s penmanship in ink.

Pages showing Austin’s penmanship in ink.

And I’m happy to report that, on either side of its pencil entries, Austin filled out many of the diary’s pages in ink. And his penmanship on those pages, while fairly unkempt (understandably, considering the size of the book), had a strength and surety I admired. Those are the pages I used.

One last challenge sprung from the fact that Austin kept most of his diary in Spanish. Whereas this was fortunate in that it gave me samples of letterforms often missing in English (like Q and x), others (like K and w) are absent entirely from the Spanish alphabet. Further—not being fluent in Spanish—I occasionally had to puzzle over certain words and phrases to make sure exactly what characters I was looking at.

By now I’ve finished the entire lowercase alphabet, though, and I’m happy with the result. And from my desk in distant Maine, far from Mexico, I hope to finish Austin Pen by early August, when it’s time for the blueberry harvest.

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. —Henry David Thoreau

Note: Check this website occasionally for news on the second of the two fonts I’m working on.


Miscellanea

» Will thank-you notes—even signatures—soon be a thing of the past?

» Schools in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Florida want to keep on teaching penmanship.

» I really like this editorial call to keep putting pen to paper.

» Well, here’s a problem with poor penmanship I hadn’t thought of.

» Seventy-four percent of young Brits would rather get a handwritten note than an email.

» And I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Campaign for Cursive—yes, cursive is cool!