Recalling the Lost Art of Penmanship

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Remember penmanship? It’s a quaint term in this digital age, calling up images of inkwells and quills and parchment. Most of us who learned to read with Dick and Jane also learned to write with the Palmer Method of cursive, elegant loops and graceful capitals and forearm planted firmly on a wooden desktop. The low-tech equipment was a sharp No. 2 pencil and a sheet of lined paper. When you achieved a certain level of competence, you graduated to a fountain pen.

Now it seems that the lost art still has merit. Recent research indicates that students who take class notes in longhand retain more of the information over time than laptop tappers. The process of writing things down stimulates the brain and influences the way we collect our thoughts and transfer the spoken word to the page. Laptop note takers tend to copy verbatim what they hear. The pen and paper contingent selects salient points and organizes them in order of importance.

This compelling argument for legible handwriting brings joy to my closet Luddite heart. It’s not that I disdain technology altogether. I use a computer every day. I text and email and check social media like a real, live citizen of the 21st century. Still, there remains in me a longing for the sight of a handwritten letter among the bills and ads in my mailbox.

Handwriting is as personal and unique as a fingerprint. It tells a story in a way no electronic communication ever could, details a history in the shape and size of characters on a page. Among my most prized possessions is a battered cardboard box of correspondence dating from my childhood. After my husband and a few irreplaceable photographs, it is the thing I would drag from a burning house.

The content of the letters documents the past. Here, on three tissue-thin blue airmail pages, is my mother’s account of her first trip to Europe. Here on heavy vellum is my father’s exhortation to me to work hard and still have fun in college, check enclosed. Here is my grandmother’s wish to me for happiness in our new house in Chicago, and here is a birthday card signed by my oldest son, telling me that I am the apple crisp in the TV dinner of life.

When I revisit this box, it is the handwriting that catches me by the throat every time. My mother’s elegant backhand slant was not an affectation, but a creative compensation for a left-handed child born at a time when lefties were viewed with suspicion. My father’s spiky, emphatic penmanship reflects a man for whom good enough was never the same as good, and clarity of expression the basic discipline of an educated person. My grandmother’s lacy copperplate hand recalls an orphan who spent hours at the convent next door to her childhood home, safe with the sisters who taught her how to write and how to live. My son’s cursive signature testifies to four years of parochial school in New York City, back when handwriting was still a category on the twice-yearly report card.

My own penmanship tells its own story: First the Palmer method at age 8, followed by a transfer to a new and reputedly better school where something called joined manuscript was the chosen way. Then five years with the nuns, who taught me italic script and gothic calligraphy and a connoisseur’s appreciation of Osmiroid pens and quality ink.

All that practiced perfection went out the window when I became a newspaper reporter. I developed my own sloppy shorthand, filling narrow lined notebooks with scrawls legible only to me.   

Today, I write my column on a laptop, nervously hitting the Save button every few minutes. Sometimes I wonder if I would do better with a legal pad and a vintage Osmiroid. The text would never vanish in a single, devastating power surge or unexplained crash. The words might come more easily, flowing from mind to page in a single, fluid motion. Who knows? With a favorite pen, they might even write themselves.

Stephanie Piper's At This Point examines the mystery, absurdity, and persistent beauty of daily life. She has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and award-winning columnist for more than 30 years. Her Midpoint column appeared monthly in Metro Pulse from 1997 until 2014.

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