Handwriting is a skill we no longer need in a texting, emailing, wordprocessed world, so it’s hard to argue why we keep teaching it to children. And yet we do teach it to them, sort of. What’s worse, I find myself hoping we won’t stop any time soon, we might even rediscover handwriting, we might see a “slow page” movement like slow food, leading us to enjoy the moment of writing itself.
The teaching of cursive writing, the writing we each develop into a unique handwriting style, is already being phased out in elementary schools in the US, replaced by keyboarding proficiency. In Australia too, increasingly handwriting is being dropped from curricula under pressure from other learning areas. And even when it is taught, in Australia at least handwriting is now more likely to be printed letters joined together. It’s not handwriting at all as most of us know it.
We called it running writing when I was at school. You learned it after printing, like a new language. We practised it a lot as I recall. I was never any good at it but I love it still, the capital D that looks like it was made for words like “Delight” and “Delicate”, the beautiful S with its supreme loopiness and potential for curlicues, those hills of small ns and ms that could just keep going. Oh God, I am starting to sound nostalgic. Quick, put on Radiohead and get out the iPad.
I confess I have a conflict of interest when it comes to handwriting; I write novels by hand. Not in a beautiful script, mind. I look at anything written by my grandfather, who was taught in an English public school, or my son, who’s taught himself various styles of writing, and it’s art. My writing is not art; it remains cramped, small, illegible even to me at times. I could have been a doctor with writing like mine. And I didn’t always write by hand. I typed my first novel on an Apple Classic II. Quite the techo, I didn’t even print it until I had a finished manuscript. But I soon found a computer file too linear for the way I work.
Since that first novel, I have written three more, all by hand, initially on cards of different colours, which had the advantage that you could shuffle them when totally lost as to what to do, now in a particular kind of notebook that I love for its narrow lines and plain cardboard covers. I write with a fountain pen. My favourite is a Waterman in a burgundy lacquer covered in little gold squares, given to me when my first novel was published. It only has one drawback – it no longer writes. I had an efficient little Montblanc that came with a leather notebook case, but I left it on a plane and like everything left on planes, it immediately vapourised. My day-to-day pen now is a lovely big Visconti made with cellulose using a refound technique – given me when I was researching In Falling Snow. In my hand, it feels like a pen that will never let me down. I am also coveting a vintage Waterman, to replace the one that doesn’t work, although you really only need one pen to write and the more I focus on which pens I might buy, the less I focus on getting a novel written.
I can’t say why I handwrite, in an age where handwriting has all but disappeared from our lives. I can type faster than most people can talk, I was using email before anyone had heard of it except my computer room colleagues (one of my first jobs was as a computer operator), and I mess about on the internet in favour of just about any real job. But I can say that for my novels, handwriting feels about the right pace. Even Scrivener, which I love later in a project, is too structured early on. I write little sketches and scenes and eventually they coalesce into a novel.
Many things we don’t need in life fade from view. If handwriting is dying as an art, perhaps I shouldn’t mourn its passing. I imagine the rationale is that it’s hard enough to teach children one set of letters, let alone two. And since few of us end up with a hand that even vaguely approximates that beautiful script we were taught, why try to teach it at all? Joined up printing will do.
But before we altogether consign handwriting to the land of outdated technologies, we should take a moment to consider this small fact of history. The very first Macintosh computer, not the one I typed my novel on but the one that preceded it, was a winner, its creator Steve Jobs said later, because of its beautiful typography, which was unlike any other computer before it. Jobs had sat in on a calligraphy course on the way to dropping out of college and had seen the art of handwriting, the art in the science, he called it, which had inspired him.
So every time I type an email, thumb a text, or flick a page, I try to remember the technology I’m using, the technology with which we are fast ridding the world of writing by hand altogether, is only available because the person who dreamed it up was in love with handwriting.