Writing: The Tools Change, the Neurosis Endures

Philip Hensher has written a book–The Missing Ink–on handwriting. In it, according to Jeremy Harding, he:

[T]akes the view that we impress our individuality on a page when we make signs with a pen or pencil, that our culture is reaffirmed as we persist in the practice, and that the production of handwritten texts is a rich expression of both. If handwriting disappears, he warns, ‘some other elements of civilised life may die with this art, or skill, or habit.’

Like most people I know, I write on a word processor. The quality of my writing, when it comes up for judgment, is almost always a matter of content, not form. But there was a time when the form of my written word was a subject of active external critique too: my handwriting used to be the subject of commentary, feedback, revision and sometimes, intense attempts at makeovers.

I learned cursive writing the way most students of my generation did: by filling out workbooks supplied to me by parents. I traced out, steadily and persistently, page after page of model sentences, showing them to my parents when done, and then moving on to the next assignment. Fortunately, this drudgery did not last too long. There was ample opportunity for practice with my school assignments, the finished versions of which invariably provoked comments on the handwriting on display from those who graded them.

My handwriting’s quality occupied a steady middle point between the truly excellent and the dreadful. I was dimly aware of the abyss below and the summits above; I struggled to stay out of the former but could never quite make it to the latter. Not that I tried too hard.  A steadfast devotion to the adequate seems to have been a hallmark of my academic work even back then. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t envious of those whose writing was excellent; I craved the gasps of admiration from our peers and the praise of my teachers. I just couldn’t rouse myself to do anything about it. In that sense, perhaps, my handwriting is revelatory: it often starts off strong and then trails off, its form decaying as the page progresses, thus perhaps acting as revelation of my lack of commitment to tasks undertaken but not completed.

I did mount a couple of serious attempts to change my handwriting. Most notably in the tenth grade, when struck by the pristine beauty of a classmate’s ‘printed’ style, I ditched the flowing model I was most accustomed to, and took his style on. I stuck with it for a year before finding a retreat to my original form more conducive to my sanity. The change had been too much work.

I began using a word processor late: in graduate school. The undergraduate years had consisted almost entirely of  mathematics, statistics and the occasional essay-based exam, all of which I completed with a fountain pen. Since then, my handwriting has, I think, deteriorated, a process I have attempted to rectify on a periodic basis–most notably, by using a fountain pen again–but with little success.

To get back to Hensher’s point, I do not think my ‘individuality’ has been lost by my exclusively writing on a word processor; what is most distinctive about my thoughts comes through in that medium too. But what we do lose by the effacement of handwriting is a distinctive aesthetic pleasure that comes from the beautifully handwritten page. And by taking on the possibility of revisions allowed by the word processor perhaps we do shackle ourselves to the endless draft. And yet, as Harding points out, this can scarcely be blamed on technology; the non-stop reviser of writing came well before the wordprocessor.

The tools change, the neurosis endures.