view counter

National Handwriting Day Is Coming

Is January 23 just another so what, like National ­Popcorn Day?

       It was no fun writing lessons in cursive, and no better in the hybrid connected printing I developed in obedient defiance to the nuns’ complaints of my handwriting’s illegibility. My mother couldn’t read anything I wrote, either, which may be why she insisted I take typing in high school summer school. On my own, I signed up at the same public school to learn Chancery script, a pretty Renaissance cursive. I’ve used both skills throughout my life.
       Handwriting, leavened with Chancery italic, helped me form the character I aspired to. It, in turn, has become a code where more than I know about myself can be deciphered. Handwriting analysts can tell you as much about yourself as, perhaps, a psychiatrist and far more affordably.
      My handwriting is a skill I’m glad to possess, as I am my little abilities in watercolor and colored pencil. I get it out, just as I do my pencils and tubes of paint, for artistic occasions. Far too often nowadays those are notes of sympathy and condolence, which the befuddled receiver must puzzle over like code. 
        For  the business of writing, I turned to keyboards early on.
        A portable Royal electric in its little suitcase got me through college and grad school. But I suffered plaintively over corrections — erasing pens, white-out, correction tape — because I was only a competent typist. Whizzes like Mrs. Munsel, the St. Louis University English Department secretary who typed my thesis, were thoroughbreds to my nag.
        My purchase of my own IMB Selectric made me a pro — as a writer, not as a typist. That durable machine, which saw Bay Weekly General Manager Alex Knoll (who happens to be my son) through college and graduate school, has worked at Bay Weekly for all our 25 years, helping us type envelopes and forms. But I am clumsy on it now, as I’ve typed on computer keyboards for three decades.
       Which brings us round to the debate of this week’s feature story, Diana Dinsick’s The Uncertain Future of Handwriting: Is cursive an evolutionary dodo?
      Have any of these technologies made me a better writer?
      Only, I think, in the sense that my mastery of the medium of the time let me be a player in the game. Other factors controlled my reach and range and rise.
      Powerful, accessible and portable as electronic communication is, it hasn’t produced a surfeit of Shakespeares. 
      Willm Shakspere, by the way, could spell his name any way he wanted. English spelling was not standardized until more than a century after the playwright’s death in 1616. Samuel Johnson wrote the vastly influential Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 and Grammar of the English Tongue in 1812.
      In America, Daniel Webster (who applied for a job as a tutor for Washington’s step-grandchildren and was not hired) wrote his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828.
      Those facts are some of the outtakes of this story, old learning re-remembered by Diana and me when crafting this feature.
      What they suggest is that the evolution of our media of communication make big waves. A spoken language didn’t need rules of grammar and spelling. Written languages, as you’ll read in this story, become far more standardized. Communication in type has far more rules, and far different rules depending on whether the type is hot, cold or electronic.
      One of those big waves is dominance. Each new medium leaves the old one far behind, in the same way cars outraced horses.
       Does learning cursive — which in the Montessori method, for example, involves the whole body — spill over in powerful side effects? Probably. Are we malnourished by the limited diet of sensory experience we get from our keyboards? Very possibly. 
      Will schools driven by new measures of achievement, including test scores, make room for cursive? If you write it, you’ll know it’s a skill developed by practice so painstaking that few of us would submit to it were not a teacher demanding we do so. 
       So I suspect cursive will not thrive as a universal skill in the electronic era. To read their ancestors’ letters, our descendants will have to hire a translator. That’s doable. But developing a character all your own — as we each have from handwriting — from pre-made symbols may be harder.