Today, I Take My Pen In Hand…

by Pam 2 What got me thinking about handwriting? Maybe it was signing my name on the electronic pad at Kroger; I frowned at how awful, how scrawly and childish, my signature looked, and the nice, open-faced cashier laughed.

“I let my four-year-old sign for me,” she said.  “His signature usually looks better on that thing than mine does.”

I thought about that in the car driving home, about how the determined learning and practice that I have invested in penmanship are worthless in certain arenas. For some reason, I remembered magic slates.  If you’re as seasoned as I am, you remember magic slates, too–the clipboard style writing pad that had a shiny, crisp gray film covering a waxy black surface.  They came with styluses, way back in the days before anyone ever envisioned using such a thing to sign a check electronically or to poke around on a Palm Pilot.  Magic slates were available in the coloring book sections of grocery and department stores; they were prizes for good behavior at the dentist’s office. If allowed, I’d always choose to use a magic slate. I don’t know why, but they were very alluring.

I’d press down with the stylus and make a mark–write my name, draw a picture, whatever–but the result was not the same as one made with pen and paper. It WAS erasable, however; lifting the film made whatever markings I’d made disappear, and there was a clean new field–as enticing as untrampled snow–to write upon again. It was elusively temporary art–like making snow-people or building sand castles.

I LOVED magic slates, but my favorite environment in which to write was still with a pen on looseleaf paper.  I sat at the kitchen table a lot, growing up in my house, writing stories and letters.  Once, one of my brothers decided we’d create our own encyclopedia; he put us to work copying articles longhand from the World Book and drawing pictures to accompany them.  That turned out to be more boring than fun; I kept losing my place and skipping a word, and finally went back to my real written love: inventing stories out of whole cloth or fragmented imagination…

At school, penmanship was a thing, a SUBJECT, and we were graded on it.  We spent hours with our heads bent over our lined yellow pads, using our thick pencils to trace the lines of printed letters and then duplicate them–long wobbly rows that, with practice, stopped wobbling quite so much.  Second grade brought thinner pencils, thinner lines–although still with the dotted median.

Practice And then–oh the joy of being in ‘real’ school–came third grade: cursive writing and ink pens. I loved writing in ink; I loved slanting all my lovely linked letters in that same eastward bent. The flow of it was so satisfying.  I wanted to write like the founding fathers, like the signers of the Declaration and the Constitution, with distinctive fluted letters, with furbelows and curlicues.

My teacher, however, was not impressed by my attempts; she sent me firmly back to the Zaner-Bloser workbook. More rows of letters, moving gradually, again, from wobbly to proud.

My fourth grade teacher was appalled at how big my handwriting was. It filled up the looseleaf lines; it overflowed and rambled.  She made me shrink my writing, giving me pages to re-write if the cursive was too effusive.  I learned to be more restrained.

I grew picky about my pens, preferring black Bic Stics if at all possible. Cheap pens that sputtered annoyed me no end.  And forget about pencils–I wasn’t ever going back to using those paltry things. I even begrudged using them for math word problems.

In middle school I discovered Flair pens, with which I could write AND draw–black and white line drawings, cartoons, with boldly inked captions.  I experimented with fancy printing. I explored the art of backhand writing.  My friends and I tried on different styles of writing and different shades of ink like paper dresses, like disposable personalities.

What do you think of this one? 


Out it went. The teachers were not amused.

No pink ink! they mandated.

No i’s dotted with cute, puffy hearts!

Hi! We acceded to the ‘blue or black ink/simple dot’ rules for class assignments, mostly, but we had a party with the notes we passed, folded into thick, tucked shurikens an inch and a half square.  Each of our purses held treasures: Flair pens, colored pens, magic markers.  In class, we surreptitiously penned notes to the person sitting two seats away; dense, intense, two-page tomes to a person we would talk to in-depth in 32 minutes when class wound down.

No passing notes! the teachers ordained.

Some, when confiscating our missives, would read the contents aloud.  We began larding our notes with information, not always particularly true, that we wanted to have disseminated.  Pink ink, backhand script, and an imaginary boyfriend: oh, the joys of middle school penmanship!

And then: high school.  And the teachers didn’t care.  Take notes, do your homework; dot your i however your heart desires.  Papers had to be TYPED.  We were shocked into seriousness, a little; there was no time for a precisely cast backhand script when I was trying to keep up with Mr. Szczerbacki’s rapid fire biology notes. And so much homework!  The volume of work left little time for penmanship posing. But we still decorated the covers and margins of our notebooks with inked pictures, designs, captions in our best fancy scripts.

In college I learned to type effectively and I fell in love with calligraphy, buying books from which to practice–more wobbly lines that gradually grew firmer and more confident.  This was good script for writing letters, and that was a passion, but class notes demanded rapidity and a relaxing of artistic standards. My awful scrawl dates back to those days, although I still enjoy taking the time to make my handwriting flow.

I was thinking about all this as I wrote a quick note to Kim Orsborne the other day, and it got me to wondering, in this age of technological wonders, whether kids even NEED to learn cursive handwriting.  I had a meeting later that day with my young colleague Lindsey Carr; I asked her about it. Lindsey was a fine classroom teacher; she now teaches college students how to be fine teachers; and she has a thoughtful, sharp, well-informed head on her shoulders.

“Handwriting WASN’T originally in the Common Core curriculum,” Lindsey told me, “but in Ohio, they are putting it back.” And she’s glad, Lindsey is, that penmanship is being taught again: she thinks learning to write is part of learning to learn.

Research backs Lindsey up. I googled Handwriting Curriculum, and found this, on  “…current research shows an important connection between writing by hand and learning. One study showing brain scans, training sessions, and behavioral testing determined that participants who wrote new letterforms instead of typing them had increased brain activity.”

Fascinating.  So, when I took my son Jim to the library this week, I searched handwriting books, and I found Sex, Lies, and Handwriting, by expert handwriting analyst Michelle Dresbold.  Dresbold maintains that there’s a clear and immediate link between our brains and our handwritten words. In fact, she writes, “If you injured your hand and had to learn to write with a pen in your mouth or between your toes, eventually [after the rows went from wobbly to strong] you would produce almost the same handwriting that you produced before your injury.  However, if your brain were injured, you would lose much of your writing ability.  It is your brain—not your hand, foot, or mouth–that decides the size, shape, and slant of your handwriting.”

Creativity gurus Mark Bryan and Julia Cameron, too, maintain that there is a loop, a circuit, between the brain, the hand, the paper…and back to the brain.  In their mandate to do daily morning pages, they respond to the question, “‘Do the pages really have to be done longhand?'” (The Artist’s Way at Work, Mark Bryan with Julia Cameron)

“Yes, longhand,” writes Bryan.  “Years of experience have taught us that the morning pages are best done by hand. Computers may be faster, and certainly they are okay to use if you must, but computers tempt us to edit, to shape our feelings into ‘real’ writing. Morning pages are intended to show us our unedited thoughts and feelings; they are supposed to be loose, messy, disorganized, disjointed, and flighty. It is out of this deliberate chaos–a positive form of not knowing–that order will spontaneously be born.”

So handwriting enhances thinking, and it spawns creativity.  And it pays testament to our uniquely individual characters; no matter how hard we try to disguise it, an expert like Michelle Dresbold can tell who we are by our scratchings.  My carefully crafted backhand script would not have fooled her; she’d have picked me out of the line up immediately.

I’m typing this on my I-Pad–not a technological wizard, me, but definitely an appreciator of the ease of composing by typing.  I am not a total Luddite.

But I am very, very, glad that the creative, humanizing discipline of handwriting is going to be taught in schools again.  I like to think of hands touching paper, using a particularly chosen pen, carefully crafting sentences of cheer and curiosity and humor. I see those hands folding the paper carefully and sealing it in an envelope, which they painstakingly address to someone special.  Maybe their handwriting is ‘too big’ or kind of scrawly; maybe it’s an affected backhand that will morph and morph again. No matter!  The act of writing has connected brain to paper–has connected HEART to paper–and it will then connect person to person.

We live in an age of wonders, and those wonders will grow and expand and enrich us.  But they’ll never replace the wonderful act of writing in longhand.  I’ll use the darned stylus, I’ll peck at my keyboard, and that will be fine. But at the end of the day, when my journal flips open, you’ll always find me digging in my purse for my current favorite, a Pentel RSVP pen. I haven’t quite perfected my handwriting, yet.



14 thoughts on “Today, I Take My Pen In Hand…

  1. There *is* a link between pen, paper, and our brains. I was always sure of it when I was writing all those papers in school. The drafts started out messy in every way. My penmanship has always been awful, and I seldom knew where I wanted to go with an idea from the outset. As I went along, however, my thoughts became clearer, and even my penmanship improved as my hand relaxed.

    The fact that you typed this post on your Ipad simply proves you’re a better man than I am. I hate typing on my Ipad. I can only manage short e-mail notes. The pop-up keyboard–very handy in that respect–reduces me to the use of one finger, hunt-and-peck. Of course, the solution is to go get a detachable keyboard, but I’m not that bright or motivated.

    It turns out that I’ve gotten used to drafting and editing at the keyboard for my WordPress writing. The process is much the same for me as it was when I was blogging about baseball every night. Complicated posts take a long time, but *probably* no longer than handwritten work, and I don’t have to decipher my miniscule letters. What I’ve believed for years, though, is that the computer has robbed all of us of the peek we used to have–sometimes–of an author’s drafts, her papers–the *process* she went through to create something. Those changes, extraordinarily valuable to see in the work of somebody like Henry James, for instance, are now gone at the touch of a key unless we deliberately create a “Drafts” file. We’ve lost an entire sea of thought over the last thirty years simply because few people write by hand anymore. All praise to you for keeping the tradition alive.

    1. I confess to having a detachable keyboard for the IPad; I started out typing things on MS Word, and found that its hidden programming and WordPress are not at all compatible! But I have little stacks of handwritten notes that I weave together to–I hope–come up with cohesive posts… My colleague wonders about the lost correspondence of this generation of writers and other notables…If their exchanges are all electronic, will readers 100 years hence have no access to their informal voices? (I have loved reading the letters of John and Abigail Adams, and found the correspondence of FDR and Eleanor fascinating…much of that will be lost…) Thanks, John for a very thoughtful (and affirming) response!

  2. I remember the Magic Slate. I loved having them (“them”, because I wore them out so quickly). I also remember penmanship being an actual subject. We didn’t call cursive, cursive back when I was in school – it was printing and “writing” – I was shocked when DC was in school and it was being called cursive again. Heart dotted ‘I’s – smiley face dotted ‘i’s – yes – that was me. My friend just sent me a photo of a letter and a poem I wrote back in 8th grade, just this past weekend. I had forgotten about the hearts and smiley faces until I looked at them. The poem was typed, on a typewriter and that was horrifying 🙂 (the 8th grade poetry was pretty horrifying too) 🙂

  3. Autism Mom

    I refused to take notes on a computer in law school because I wanted that hand-eye-mind connection. It is a wonderful thing! 🙂

  4. This post reminded me of my experiences with handwriting. In elementary, Writing Class was all about learning how to write O’s and L’s evenly, so we practiced with by writing circles and lines in all sizes. I too fell in love with calligraphy when I was a young adult. Journaling keeps me connected to writing by hand… I don’t think I can do without it.

    Lovely post, Pam, as always!

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