February 11th, 2018 by
From a letter from my mother as I was designing Texas Hero.

Page of a letter from my ma.

For decades I’ve ranked typing as the most useful class I took back in high school. I hated showing up for this particular summer school elective, my story goes, but by the end of the class I could type 40 words a minute. It was like magic. And now I can type 100.

Well, lately I’ve begun to regret my supreme keyboarding skills.

It took a good while to sink in. But just the other day, during my morning hike with Jack, my dog, the true ramifications hit me. Having somehow reached Retirement Age, I’d been ruminating on the written materials I’ve produced over the past 40 or 50 years, both personal and professional. And it occurred to me that—for the past 30 of those years, anyway—nearly all endure as but flimsy digital words. Many thousands of email messages, hundreds of letters in Microsoft Word, text files cram-packed with thoughts and notes and reflections. Intangible, ethereal. All stored, like thoughts, in memory.

A page from my dad’s diary.

A page from my dad’s Army diary.

Even the drafts and revisions of books I’ve authored abide only in digital form.

These things I’ve written exist on various hard drives, in cloud storage—even a few old Zip drives. Remember floppies? SyQuest disks? I’ve got a few of those squirreled away in boxes somewhere.

Projecting time forward a generation or two, I realized that the chances any of my stuff will stick around long enough to find its way into a historical museum somewhere (not that it should) are paper thin. Because none of it’s on paper. And the only way to get it there is to find a way to translate all those 1s and 0s into computer text and print it out. In any old font you want.

Boooring.

But project time backward a couple generations and, and you’ll find journals and notebooks and postcards and stationery filled with handwritten words. Whether cursive or printing, neat or sloppy, slanted this way or that—each style reflects the unique hand of its author. And none of it was put down at 100 words a minute.

From my grandparents to my great-grandparents, 10/22/1943.

Card from my grandparents to my great-grandparents.

I have handwritten letters from my mother, diaries written by my father, postcards from my grandparents. I recognize their familiar cursive styles on envelopes, on the backs of old photos—photos developed in a darkroom, I mean. There’s probably even an old handwritten recipe collection somewhere.

Yet where does my penmanship appear? On a few old love letters and poems perhaps, in a couple or three decades-old notebooks.

On that hike the other day I decided to pick up a pen more often, to write lists and notes, cards and letters, maybe even fill a notebook. My hand might not be practiced, or cursive, or neat. It might take me a while to get over the hand-cramp. But I expect it’ll mean more to the future reader than a bunch of digital words set in, say, Comic Sans.


Miscellanea

» See? “[A]ll that will be remembered of them is what they typed on a piece of paper from a computer.”

» Turns out this gang of fourth graders are diggin’ cursive these days.

» Some might even (like me!) become experts on deciphering old penmanship.

» But neatness counts: A doctor rediscovers the importance of a legible hand.

» The uniqueness of individual handwriting makes the news again (Roy Moore).

» Random aside: There’s actually a bull named “Penmanship.”

» And, hey, with Valentine’s Day coming, maybe it’s time to write a love letter—by hand.

 


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.