I remember when people used to take pride in their penmanship. They’d be proud if it was neat and graceful; they’d be proud if it was undecipherable.
And they’d experiment with it, add little personal flourishes. They’d draw a slash through the letter Z, or use tiny circles where dots should be.
Used to be, the way you wrote—whether longhand or shorthand or printing or scribbling—became an extension of yourself, a sort of fashion statement. Plain and sensible, vivacious and chatty, gloomy, colorful, gray.
“Everyone’s handwriting is as different as the way we express ourselves,” writes Marilou Johanek, a columnist with the Toledo Blade, quoting a teacher friend.
Writing in cursive, another told her, makes you “pay attention to what you’re doing and the words you’re choosing.”
Johanek is one of many who—while acknowledging the fact that (barring an apocalyptic failure of the power grid) modern schoolchildren need only learn how to use a keyboard—believes there’s still value in learning how to write by hand. The Ohio Board of Education contends it “develops fine motor skills and improves literacy.”
Never mind that at a glance it lets you get a picture of a person without even knowing how to read. But reading is the point, of course. Being able to interpret what a hand-writer has—or had—to say.
Last month at an Albuquerque, New Mexico, high school, a less-than-legible bomb threat scribbled on the wall of a boys’ bathroom prompted cautionary evacuations on two straight mornings: authorities weren’t sure if one number in the threatened date was a 5 or a 6.
I can’t say whether it was the writer’s or readers’ fault.
But I can say that, if you can’t turn a string of lines and curves and shapes into the equivalent of spoken words and phrases, you’ll miss out on a world of pleasurable insight.
And every now and then an unpleasant surprise.
I’m reminded of a letter by noted Texas pioneer Emily Austin Perry (whose handwriting inspired our Emily Austin font), written to her husband in 1837, in which a mundane accounting of finances included a shocking sign of the unenlightened times.
Here is that excerpt, literally transcribed:
I have by me at this time a bout Seven Hundred Dollars; Austins & Guys expences will have to come out of it—their is still five Hundred Dollars to draw on the Letter of Credit; in Louisville; If you can sell any of my land, do so; for I wish very much to Buy me a Negro Girl, when I return I shall remain hear un till the first of September; but you will know of my movements, for I shall write every Week—and you must do the same, and in the meantime; if their is no likelihood of the Countrys being invaded again, make every exertion to have the two Rooms Put up by the time I return, for I expect to bring quite a Family back.
(I might note that Rutherford B. Hayes—who visited the Perrys’ Peach Point Plantation in 1848—described Emily as “an excellent motherly sort of woman, whose happiness consists in making others happy.”)
Recently I saw a humorous graphic showing the evolution of the written word, from cuneiform script to Egyptian hieroglyphics to Latin text to colorful, wacky emoticons.
Funny? Yep. But as with all humor, there’s a kernel of bittersweet truth in there somewhere.