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In the Last Days of Penmanship

28 April 2010 Stories and Appreciations 4,275 views One CommentPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

My penmanship may not be completely lost, but it is sinking. In the nearly fifteen years since I began writing almost exclusively for the web, I’ve seen my scrawl deteriorate from chicken-scratch to baby chicken-scratch. My lower-case “a” has become a malformed “z”; my sentences lean to port and starboard like seasick boatswains; and my signature has become a pair of conjoined, drunken Fibonacci spirals, with a crossed “t” purely an afterthought. The first casualty of the Internet Age may be privacy, but handwriting is a strong second.

Oh, I held out as long as I could. I’ve kept an ink-and-paper journal, with varying degrees of commitment, since I was in high school. I started out with yellow legal pads and ballpoint pens, moved to spiral-bound notebooks and fine-point Sharpies, and finally to book-bound journals and fountain pens. My friend Gregory gave me my first fountain pen during a bloom period in my journal-keeping, in December 1994; he handed me the Waterman case and said, “Now, you are truly set.”

He was right. Moving from ballpoint and felt-tip pens to that fountain pen was liberated me in a way I hadn’t expected. I could actually feel the pen leading me; the free-flowing ink would push my sentences forward and defy me to keep up. I’d get so excited by the process that I would begin sentences without knowing how they were going to end. More often than not, I’d end up surprising myself. That’s one of the first things I lost when I put down the fountain pen in favor of the laptop.

Writing longhand produces different thoughts, different ideas. Not being able to remove words, paragraphs and sentences without scribbling them out (which I won’t do in any case) forces me to think up other ways out of rambles, rants, and stories so flat they bore even me. Many of my best passages and phrases have been born of simply tiring of a passage and summing it up before my hand starts to cramp, or from my attempts to transition to another line of thought without expending too much more ink from my Cross ATX. Ink cartridges for fountain pens aren’t terribly expensive, but they can be difficult to find.

Sometimes I wish there were a way to do both at the same time — to write longhand, in ink, while those words appear instantaneously in a Google or OpenOffice document where I can bend them to my (secondary) whim. There are special pens that can do that — upload words to a laptop or desktop as you write them — and programs that can parse my scrawl and somehow figure a lower-case “a” from a “z.” But the user experience of those programs and special leaves something to be desired; no matter how easy they are to use, they don’t inspire the same creative impulses as a simple fountain pen and blank book. Bringing technology into the equation, no matter how superficially, will change the solution.

I hope you don’t take this as me wagging a finger at your iPad, and bemoaning the march of progress; that’s not the case at all. I love my MacBook and (to a lesser degree) my Dell, upon both of which this piece was written over a period of several days. That’s one of the benefits of working in digital — the machine holds your place without making judgments. You can pick up work on a Word document years after you started it, and it makes no difference to the machine. A pen-and-paper journal entry, on the other hand, takes on a scorned, accusing look after it’s been abandoned for a while; the nearest way I can think to describe that phenomenon is “You break it, you buy it.” Once you’ve begun a handwritten passage, you have to finish it, or it haunts you.

When you write out a thought longhand, you remember more than just the idea you expressed; you remember the circumstances under which that thought was formed, from the emotions that inspired it to the place where you wrote it down (look for those telltale coffee stains, raindrop splatters, and accidental smears from the bus hitting a pothole). The computer unwittingly disregards that emotional data, and I’d be lying if I said that doesn’t appeal to me sometimes.

Still, I continue to keep a pen-and-paper journal. There have been long time gaps between entries these past few years, and they’re getting longer — but the journal stays on my desk and in my laptop bag, because I never know when I’ll need to power down this machine and pick up my fountain pen. There are some notions that need to be expressed in a medium that doesn’t allow for interruptions or second thoughts.

And I’ll tell you what: Had I written this piece in my journal, it would have been finished a hundred, maybe two hundred words earlier. Would have had a stronger ending, too.

Geoff Carter


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One Comment »

  1. These days, I seem to have trouble stringing enough legible words together to leave a meaningful message on a birthday card: It usually ends up being “xx, Ginny.” Yesterday I took notes during a meeting (shudder); I suspect that today I will be all but unable to read them without recreating the context. Every time someone inadvertently catches a glimpse of my handwriting I feel compelled to lament, “but I USED to do calligraphy, really!” As if that somehow absolved me of the crime of penmanship degradation.

    How I long for that misspent youth of coming in too early to transcribe a poem in Blackletter or Celtic script…

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