Alchemical Thoughts

The last generation to write by hand?

Posted on: March 2, 2012

I wrote this draft some time around 2007. It has been sitting in the draft cue of my blog for a while. Recently, I have been thinking a bit again about the topic of handwriting. So, I think this is a good time to share this small reflection with my two readers. Plus it may help me reflect a bit more. As an  update note, my daughter is in 10th grade now.

* * * *

I often tell my Better Half that I may be a member of the last generation that ever learned penmanship. Reading danah boyd’s lament on “my long lost handwriting” made me think of that remark again. In my case, I learned penmanship in school; I am the product of Catholic education (three years with the De La Salle Brothers, and three more with Benedictine monks). Her post takes me back to seventh grade religion class. In that class, not only did I learn the tenets of the religion, but I also learned penmanship formally. True, I had been learning it earlier in school, but not to the formal degree I did starting in seventh grade. I can still remember Brother Cesar’s deep voice and wooden ruler; it was a well-used wooden ruler, which he would use to slap on the desk to get our attention as needed. It was basic drill. We took dictation of questions and answers from the catechism. After some writing, we had to look up as he explained the concept of faith, then we wrote some more. I had to memorize those items as well as other items such as the school song. To this day, I can sing the song on cue and even write it out. I don’t remember as much of the catechism itself, though I do recall the basics.

 

This brings us to this day. I still write a lot of my drafts by hand. I took the time to write this out before typing it in. I will note that I also keep a written journal. I don’t write on it as often as I would like, but I still write on it enough. Writing by hand is not just an art to me. It helps me reflect and plan in a way that typing just can’t do. As I think about it, I would have to say that writing by hand puts me in a bit of a contemplative mood. I am sure some of it has to do with the discipline I learned back then. But writing by hand has a certain ritualistic element. Even for something as simple as writing a letter or a note. You have to get ready for it. Set your time to do it, and you have to put some effort. It takes practice as well. danah remarks that her wrists hurt when she was trying to write that letter; she does note that she learned to write at one point, but she has not written by hand in a long time. It shows the skill does decay. In my case, my cursive is pretty decent, but it certainly lacks the small extra curves over letters like “c” and “e” that Brother Cesar would insist on. My notebooks back then were immaculate (they had to be, or else my grades would suffer). Handwriting will change over time; people change over time. Today, my journal is a bit less formal, but it is still very legible. Part of the reason that I continue to write drafts by hand, besides the fact it can be relaxing, is to practice the skill.

 

Handwriting has also been useful in other ways. For one, it enables me to keep good notes. For something as simple as jotting down a title and a call number for a student, good handwriting is useful. Some of my brethren in librarianship, and I won’t name anyone in particular, have terrible handwriting; we could call it chicken scratch. Without a keyboard, they can barely put a note together, and they are very smart, capable people. They are pretty well organized overall; they just can’t write a short note to save themselves. Two, it helps me in writing thank-you notes and other personal messages. I do use e-mail a lot like many people, and I use instant messaging now and then. But those methods lack the warmth and immediacy you can find in a letter or a small personal note. Now, I will grant it has been a while since I have written a full letter. But I still make it a point to send a thank-you note written by hand. It just looks better and conveys your gratitude well.

 

Finally, I look at my daughter’s handwriting. She is in sixth grade now. She was taught some writing in school, but nothing near the formalized lessons I had. Sure, she can write well enough, but it is leaning into chicken scratch terrain. And it is the result of actual penmanship not being taught anymore. The constant emphasis on testing leaves little room for anything else. When you read her planner, and most of the assignments are TAKS check for math or for reading, you know all she is getting is the stuff for the standardized tests. I will note my daughter can type very well. But I can’t help but wonder, as she gets older, if she will have difficulty in writing something like a small note as time goes on. And then I end up feeling like my generation was the last one to actually learn to write by hand.

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