BY HAND OR BY KEYBOARD?

A while back, I was given an elegant leather-bound journal with blank cream-colored pages, the sort of book commonly used for keeping a diary or setting down items of special interest.  These things invite you to sit quietly and have a conversation with yourself about whatever is on your mind.  Right up my alley.  With few exceptions, I’ve done that every day for the last 25 years while having my morning coffee.  I’m much reassured by communing with myself in this way; I win every argument, I’m justified in all my ways, I put the snakes back in their basket.

But I’ve been doing it wrong.  A proper diary should be written with a pen.  That’s a rule.  Except for the first few years, I’ve used a computer.  (I’ll get to the questions of fountain pen v ball point, printing v cursive later.)

It’s possible, of course, to put a record of your daily life on a computer screen and pitch it into the electronic maw for storage; indeed, the practice serves me well in a variety of ways.  It allows me to set down material quickly, I don’t have trouble deciphering my handwriting, and by using a search engine, I can quickly pull up for review time-abraded bits of my life.  It’s like having a Google mechanism that noses around in my private past (to the extent that I ─ or anyone ─ still have one of those).

A warning, though.  Unaided memory — made-not-begotten, inaccurate, self-serving — may be preferable to a contemporaneous record.  Facts can really mess up a good story.

Despite its utility, a diary formed on a word processing device is a spurious substitute for a true diary.  A “vodka martini” is a tasty drink, but it’s not a martini; martinis are made with gin.  Even a typescript conversion of a diary that was originally set down by hand falls short.  The handwritten diary is rich with information that gets deleted or altered in the act of transcription.  Misspellings, ungrammatical usage, and omissions can be typed as is, but it’s not possible to word-process the shape of letters, the sometimes revealing flourishes, and the purely ornamental touches.

As it happens, my gift arrived just as a spirited argument on this issue entered the public discourse.  A revolutionary change in grade school education was aborning; a number of school districts were eliminating instruction in cursive.  Battle lines were quickly drawn, and each side marshaled incontrovertible arguments.

A.  Stop teaching cursive:

It gives teachers more time to tend to the Core Curriculum now required by education authorities.

In our advanced age, people don’t need cursive any more than they need the abacus and the slide rule.

Learning it requires repetition, and the little scholars find that boring.

People can get by just fine if all they can write in cursivee is their own name.

Anyway, according to one expert, a five-year-old can be taught to read cursive (that’s all he needs, really) in as little as half an hour, even though he cannot write cursive.  This rather large claim calls into service an expression that generations of my family have employed.  I can’t think of any other words that are up to the job.  First you make the sound of spitting out a glob of tobacco juice.  “Ptuui.”  Then, quietly ─ no need to start a fight ─ but with unmistakable self-assurance, you say, “You wouldn’t git mad if a feller didn’t believe that, would you?”  Around 1910, my great-grandfather Jim (he “drank,” you know, but lived to 102) observed that locution to be the skeptic’s response of choice among the gentlemen of Webber’s Falls, Oklahoma, when they met in plenary session in front of the feed store and swapped stories.

B. Continue teaching cursive:

Without it, you can’t read and fully appreciate such documents as the original Constitution of the United  States.

Scientific research shows that the process of learning to write in cursive is good for small muscle development, small brain development, and learning to sit still.  Learning printing does all that too, but cursive does it better.

It’s important that little tykes be required to do some repetitive and boring exercises lest they form the insupportable belief that repetition, boredom, and memorization can be avoided in daily life.  (Actually, I came up with this one on my own.)

* * *

One time I viewed an exhibit of longhand drafts of various works by Charles Dickens.  They made for tedious reading, since I was leaning over a display case.  Besides that, Dickens’ hand was inconsistent and unclear in the way that cursive often is.  Still, those manuscripts were engaging in a way that a printed version of his work could not possibly be.

Here and there they contained a crossed-out word and other changes, but there were astonishingly few such emendations.  (“Astonishing” lacks sufficient force to make my point.  Just try writing a great novel with a pen without making but a handful of mistakes, and you’ll see what I mean.)  Dickens seemed to have the story fully formed in his mind before he attached a new nib and started.  Putting it on paper looked to have been simply mechanical.  This is not apparent in published versions.

Also, the manuscript contained some bit of Dickens, the person.  I found looking at them to be a pleased-to-meet-you-Mr. Dickens experience.  There was something ineffably exciting in realizing that he, Charles Dickens, had laid out the piece of paper and held the pen and formed the words and punctuation and format with his own hand.

I recall that my father wrote a beautiful hand (much superior to Dickens’, to be sure).  I don’t have a single scrap of it.  Some years after his death, in an effort to fill that hole and to keep him close, I spent $100 I could ill afford to buy a Schaeffer fountain pen that looks like the one he used for everything except marking a board for sawing.  I’ve used mine only when it seemed especially important, as, for example, signing copies of my novella, A Franklin Manor Christmas.  Some  people took notice and let me know that I had found the proper instrument for the job.  A ball point pen will make marks on paper, but inscribing one’s literary creation is not an appropriate use for it.

There is still in existence something in my grandfather’s hand ─ a short grocery list, said by my mother to have been jotted down as it was dictated to him over a hand-cranked wall telephone.  The list holds the presence of the writer himself in a way that typing those words could not.  He was a cowboy who left school in the fourth grade, and his penmanship shows it.  Someone in the family framed and hung it after his death.  I think one of my brother’s children has it.

In the house where he and my grandmother lived was a small desk containing pens that had to be dipped into a bottle of ink every few words.  There were even a couple of goose-quill pens.  I suppose no one had gotten around to throwing them away.  The time I’m recalling was during World War II, so I doubt anyone was actually using goose-quill pens at that point.  Rooting around in that desk and making my first efforts to write was an utterly absorbing pastime.  Seventy years from now, my own grandchildren may recall just as fondly fooling around with my laptop.  I doubt it, though.  In the first place, I won’t let them touch it.  But even if they sneak a few minutes of forbidden pleasure with it, making keystrokes just won’t compare to shaping letters by hand.

 * * *

Some forms of written communication simply cannot be executed digitally.

Intimate communications cry out for being written in longhand on fine stationery.  If thank you notes are to carry much weight, they must be handwritten.  Letters of condolence cannot be properly rendered in any other fashion.  If my information is correct, young people nowadays email and text and tweet expressions of undying love.  “Short of the mark” does not begin to describe that practice.

As electronic gadgetry moves ever closer to replacing handwritten communication completely, it steadily deletes an important means of human bonding.  That’s alarming.  What’ll we get rid of next, eye contact?  Holding hands?  There’s probably already a time-saving smartphone app for those things.

That’s not all either.  Give a computer to someone who has the least little urge to be creative, and he’ll peck away at the thing for a month or two, pile up a bunch of words, deem it a novel, and publish it on the internet (probably with indifferent or no editing) — no Dickensian genius required.  Someone has characterized this huge amount of stuff – accurately in my view – as a “tsunami of swill.”  Production would not exceed arroyo level, if the only way to draft a novel or an essay or a play was by hand.

Never mind.  All is not lost.

The person who gave me the leather-bound journal is an executive at a major IT company.  I sent him a thank-you (by email — oops) and asked him about his own use of longhand.  Here’s some of his response (also by email).

“I find that my handwriting becomes worse daily, but I keep at it.  I find it useful for brainstorming and taking notes.  I take a notebook with me to most meetings and later transcribe anything needed to a digital format.  It helps me retain the information and filter it…I retain information better when I write it down by hand…So, I go to meetings and take notes in a journal or on scrap paper, and then edit and think about the content as I transcribe it into a digital format.  It’s a fairly common practice at my company.  I see many people with journals, earmarked and tagged with floating sticky notes and reminders. Even with all the devices available to us, pen and paper still have a place.”

I hope the Bolshevik educationists who want to stop teaching cursive are paying attention here.

A clarification.  I may have given the impression that the argument made by cursive abolitionists is for use of digital format to the exclusion of all forms of handwriting.  That would be incorrect.  They just don’t find sufficient reason to teach cursive in addition to printing.  In itself, printing is not objectionable.

But I’m suspicious.  This bunch may have a two-part strategy; get rid of cursive today, printing tomorrow.  Already, the distinction between “manuscript” and “typescript” is falling into disuse.  I don’t like the trend.  I still mourn the loss of blackboards and chalk.  And the youthful memory of haunting American Express offices abroad desperately seeking hand-written letters on airmail stationery speaks plangently over the years.  That was a different reality from, say, getting a text message.

Now back to my leather-bound journal.  I’ve had it for about eight months, and I’ve not yet made a single entry in it.  I haven’t felt right about desecrating those beautiful sheets of blank paper with my artless and often illegible scrawl.  I have a plan, though.  I’ve ordered a book of instruction in penmanship.  It promises to turn poor handwriting into elegant, flowing cursive of the sort Miss Price so wanted us to learn in grade school.

In preparation for writing in the journal, I’m going to buy some Big Chief tablets and #2 yellow pencils and do exercises from my new penmanship manual.  When I’ve got the letter A under control, I’m going to fill my $100 Schaeffer fountain pen that looks just like the one my father had, open my new leather-bound journal to page one, and write a row of graceful upper-case A’s across the top line.  Then a row of lower case a’s on the next line.  And so on.  When that page is full of A’s and a’s, I’ll practice writing B and b in the Big Chief until I’ve got them under control, then fill page two of the journal with them.

If I manage to get all the way to  Z and z, I’ll try making my diary entries in cursive.

But, now that I think about, maybe not.  A diary written only in longhand would present problems.

If I should want to check on something I’d written years earlier, I’d probably have to read through a lot of stuff that had nothing to do with the job at hand.  As noted, that could take a long time.

Worse, when I’ve tried this in the past, I’ve been dismayed by how boring, grotesquely self-centered and dismayingly inconsequential most of it is.  It was like taking a look in Ann’s lighted 10x power mirror, a most unappetizing experience, which I will never repeat.  No, trying to find something specific in your diary is a job much better done by Bill Gates’ electronic sniffer dog.

So, I’m going to keep using my computer for diary entries and accept that I’m inconsistent.

I’m always reading words and phrases that strike my fancy.  I’ll stick to them for making cursive journal entries.  Here’s one from the other day by Flannery O’Connor.  “She had a face as broad and innocent as a cabbage.”   It has moved me to study as assiduously as I dare the faces of my fellow subway passengers, grading the cabbage likeness of each.  A phrase that generates a more interesting subway ride is clearly worthy of setting down in cursive in a leather-bound journal.

7 thoughts on “BY HAND OR BY KEYBOARD?

  1. Erin Watson

    Not only has cursive gone out of vogue, there are new abbreviations and I don’t even know what they mean. like brb, np, etc. I haven’t kept a diary but have written family stories that I feel nobody knows now that my older brother died. Maybe one day one of the future generation will find it interesting, far more interesting than my diary would be. I always enjoy your musings . Erin

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  2. Alan Pogue

    Finding my black enameled Sheaffer pen with a reptilian skin pattern engraved on its surface to be out of ink while driving on the Katy Freeway in Houston. Scanned the stores on the access roads for a likely place to find a bottle of ink, no Office Depot or Max to be found. Walmart has many items from tires to donuts but no ink for a pen. All the way through Houston I looked until I spotted a Hallmark Card store and thought certainly a card and stationary store would have ink but “No”. Nearing the University of St. Thomas I saw a map and globe store, “Such a fine establishment must have ink for a fountain pen.”, I reasoned. Resisting the urge to inspect every map and globe I went straight for the sales desk and made my plaintive request. The owner told me she had none for sale but that she used a fountain pen and had a brand new bottle. She beckoned me into her office, rummaged through some shelves until she found an unopened bottle of dark blue ink. She handed me the bottle to open lest she be stained. She was interested to see my pen had an interior plunger for extracting the ink. The ever thoughtful owner gave me a tissue to tidy up around the nib. I complimented her on the fine and rare maps she had displayed and told her I knew that anyone who traded in fine and rare maps would certainly use a fountain pen. We smiled in mutual recognition. I hastened to my appointment confidently with a fully charged Sheaffer.

    Alan, who has several fine fountain pens yet still has not reached the level of penwomanship shown by Sister Adrian Clare, principal and eight grade teacher at St. Patrick’s in Corpus Christi, Texas.

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  3. Shaaron

    Thank you Paul, I studied “Italic” years ago which now gets interspersed with cursive. Penmanship is zen for me. Love to practice poems and phrases I like. The other days I used a cursive G on the name Gutierez and the yard worker informed me that I had misspelled his name. Ever thus.

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  4. Carol Brent Haley

    What a timely piece. I have been fusing lately about this very thing. My dear grandchildren send me thank you notes for gifts or visits (thank heavens they do that, not emails), and they look as if a 2nd grader wrote them. All three are very good students. I fear they will be judged by their handwriting, that it does not make a good first impression. I have made the statement that I might start tutoring handwriting and asked “do you think anyone would pay for their children to be tutored for cursive?” Friends have said, I bet, but I doubt it. Only algabra, etc are the tutoring necessities. I’m still thinking on it though.

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  5. Carolyn Osborn

    All my first drafts for fiction and non-fiction are done in longhand, sometimes on cheap colored paper or in an old notebook. I simply find this more liberating. Type of any kind, to me, is like setting something in concrete. This is a practice left over from pre-computer days, however it serves me best. Thurber once divided writers between onions and bleeders. Bleeders are copious; they bleed all over a page. Onions have to be sqeezed in order to get blood from. I’ve always been an onion. Once a draft hits the computer, I make notes in longhand in the margins. Then I kill some more trees.

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