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Longhand

August 30, 2009
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I don’t remember being taught to write. Naturally, it was something that happened in school, but the actual process of teaching a child to construct letters, to understand the symbolism of those letters, to combine them to form words and to imbue those words with meaning – it’s a complex subject that some diligent and talented educators managed to drill into me.

I do remember teaching myself to join the letters up, like grown ups do. My roundel script developed tails that allowed each letter to flow into the next. I was very proud of that, the product of several days sat at the dining table during the final wet days of the summer holiday.

Of course in teaching myself to do this I taught myself bad habits that stuck, and in many respects my handwriting has remained the same, nearly a quarter of a century later. For the next several years my handwriting was criticised by my teachers as messy, slovenly, careless, haphazard. It was, and it still is. I was ill-disposed to improve it on the say so of my teachers, my sole act of rebellion for many years. Perhaps that’s why I developed more of an interest in the meaning of the words – it was the content of the page, not the form of the letters, that interested me. And so my interest in creative writing was born.

In my final year of primary school, my teacher became exasperated with me. A year earlier I had been given a calligraphy set for Christmas, and had become quite proficient. She could not understand how my calligraphy could be so beautiful, yet my handwriting so clumsy. I couldn’t explain it, although now I understand that I viewed the script as art, where the form was the important element. The exact angle and thickness of the nib, the flow of the ink, the style to be emulated (Gothic script a particular favourite of mine – angular, strong and ornate). This was art, and so I aimed for quality of form. But in all other types of writing, the script is merely the means to an end. The art is in the expression of the language, not the formation of the words.

I now have a dislike of my own handwriting, and avoid using a pen where I can. It is a silly fear to have for a writer – one cannot always carry a computer around, but a pen and paper are easily transported anywhere. Sitting on a train with a laptop is an invitation to thieves, but who would steal a pencil and scrap of paper? A pen may run out of ink, but only long after my computer has run out of battery power. And yet, I don’t write longhand, despite all the good reasons to do so.

I have long advocated that writers can use their computers instantly, and there is no need to write longhand any more. Perhaps that remains true for some, but I think perhaps it is no longer true for me, at least not fully. I still can’t envisage writing an entire first draft longhand, but there is something inviting about smooth paper, the smell of ink, the sensation of the nib of a pen rushing across the fibres of the page. It feels more real than this virtual script before me now.

Paper is not connected to my email, I cannot instantly chat to my friends via my notebook. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are alien to an HB pencil and a reporter’s notepad.

When I had just turned 17, I laid down a paintbrush, took one last look at the painting I had finished for the expressive element of my art exam, and I did not draw or paint again until a few weeks ago. I regret not having continued to paint, and feel awkward relearning what I used to know. But I miss that connection to the work, the sensation of an idea forming in the mind, rushing through the arms, pouring out through the hands and on to the canvas. I don’t get that when writing, not any more. I feel disconnected from my muse, from my own words. I feel like I’m taking dictation for someone else, and deriving no pleasure from it.

So perhaps it is time to change my mind, to step away from the computer and the world of distraction contained within it, and rediscover my words, to feel them flow, cocooned by my meandering penmanship. To simply write. To write simply.

Paul hasn’t written any fiction in a long time. His fingers have been messy with charcoal, pastel and pencils. Acrylics and watercolours are next.
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8 Comments
  1. August 30, 2009 5:41 am

    I wrote my first two novels while I was at high school. It was in the days before computers and they are both in long hand (including a rewrite of one of them.)

    At the end of my second last year at high school I developed RSI in my writing hand and what went from some cramping developed into a debilitating condition which at its worse restricted the blood flow down into my hand and caused tissue damage.

    It was the worst possible thing which could happen to me – not only was it how I got through my school work (and having to do oral assessments was a fate worse than death for me) it disconnected me from me creative outlet – creative writing. Despite having been told from my doctor and physio to lay off the writing over the Christmas holidays I couldn’t help myself. And despite being barely able to write I completed that second novel for an English communication project.

    After that, I prepared myself for the worst – because of the tissue damage and circulation issues, and because arthritis runs in our family – I might actually have arthritis which would stop me handwriting in my early 20’s.

    I’m grateful to say, for my most part of I have cheated arthritis at this point – but I never take my ability to write long hand for granted.

    Being gifted a gorgeous fountain pen by Annie earlier this year – I derive even greater pleasure from writing long hand – and the collection of coloured inks which have grown. While I spend most of my time composing both fiction and non fiction at the keyboard – I still enjoy writing longhand. I’m always struck with the fact that my hand never quiet keeps pace with the speed of my mind – but there is something good about that every now and again.

    I do remember when I began the conversion from longhand to typing and it felt as though my creative brain just didnt work that way – but overtime it has become like breathing. I just don’t think about it anymore.

    Thanks for sharing Paul.

  2. August 30, 2009 7:40 am

    I hate my handwriting. Loathe it. I always have. I *can* write nicely and neatly, but it takes longer than I am willing to donate to the effort. I was a senior in high school, valedictorian of my class and my father called the school to demand that they flunk me for my handwriting (they refused).

    I don’t take my laptop to the swimming pool for the kids’ swim lessons, or to the gym for gymnastics and at those times I am forced to write by hand. Often, I can’t even read my own writing when I go to transcribe it, because I write so quickly just to keep the ideas going! This made it kind of tough to be a writer growing up before computers, as you can imagine (though far less bad than what Jodi had to deal with, so I really should not complain). What really helped me was when I got an old, clunky, manual typewriter. Sure, I didn’t know how to type and that slowed me down a lot, but at least I could read it!

    One interesting trend I have noticed about myself is that I have almost no luck writing poetry or music on the laptop and that I *must* do that long hand, especially if I’m looking to do anything that rhymes. I have notebooks dedicated to first lines, refrains, etc. For just about all other genres, I have more luck typing them. I can write them when I’m at the aforementioned swim classes and such, but I prefer to go right on the laptop for these.

    A second thing I’ve noticed is that if I get stuck on a story I am typing, if I pull out the pen and paper and start jotting down ideas or lines it will often help me get through the block. So I do think there’s something to your thought about going longhand again to get you writing or drawing or painting — it must have different neural connections that get activated or something. Good luck!

  3. August 30, 2009 7:47 am

    Rob your comment about writing poetry and music on the laptop – made me think of writing my son’s birth story for a magazine. I had several goes at writing it on the lap top – to no avail – and finally it flowed through me when in exasperation I picked up a pen to jot down a few notes. I knew there was something missing and that’s why the story didn’t work on the computer. Handwriting it I had an epiphany about why I had actually at the heart of matters chosen to have a homebirth.

    I still feel as though matters of the soul of go from head/heart to hand through writing – and not through typing.

  4. August 30, 2009 8:21 am

    Rob – I am with you. My handwriting is so crap even I cannot read it. I maintain I was scarred as a child learning to write.
    Most days I recall being sent to the headmaster and getting ‘the cuts’ – a whack over the knuckles or a ruler slammed hard on your open hand – as punishment for having bad handwriting. ( this was in grade one or two – 5 – 6yrs old) My mother used to console me in the afternoons telling me I would just have to learn to type. Back then good old return carriage typewriters were it – so I gave up trying that and it wasn’t till much later on ( like lots) that computers showed up. All my assignments at university were hand written – painstakingly printed as it was the only way I could write and still be legible. I think back and can’t believe how backward it all was and how much easier it is now days. ( yep there I go – sound like an old fart now…)

    I have attempted to correct my writing style – using beautiful fountain pens and lovely paper etc – but to little avail.

    I carry notebooks round and scratch out ideas if I one comes to me – but it takes me a while to decipher them and I often think its just not worth the bother.

    I type very quickly and find when the story is flowing and the characters urging me on – my fingers fly so much faster than I could ever capture with my scrawly writing. I actually feel alot more connected when I am typing than I ever do handwriting.. …..but perhaps I am still fearing the harsh sting of the headmasters wrath.

  5. August 30, 2009 10:54 am

    Add me to the growing list of WAers (and CWers) with crappy handwriting. I could chalk it up to the fact that since I was accelerated through elementary school I missed much of the handwriting instruction. Also I was schooled in that time when handwriting instruction was largely confined to having teachers complain about bad handwriting, but give very little helpful instruction. But looking at the big picture I’m not sure how much difference it would have made.

    Over the years I’ve hard a many generalizations about bad handwriting: Men have worse handwriting than women; Writers have worse handwriting than many others; Those who continued education after High School have worse handwriting.

    All of those MAY be true, but looking at my handwriting now, it looks almost exactly like my father’s, who I didn’t live with after the age of 7, and who dies when I was 17 (so he couldn’t have had that much influence over my handwriting). Likewise, my fiancee’s handwriting is nearly indistinguishable from her mother’s.

    And it does suck, because I adore writing by hand. It’s so visceral, so satisfying. Calming in a way typing on a keyboard can never be.

  6. August 31, 2009 1:39 am

    I have crappy handwriting and am kind of proud of it. It shows character and at least I can understand it.

    I love handwriting ideas and notes in my moleskine with my faux fountain pen. But my hand gets cramped if I write like that for too long though.

  7. August 31, 2009 2:09 am

    My handwriting is horrible. It’s perfectly legible, but it’s spiky and ugly. I suppose that’s better than having beautifully rounded writing that no one can understand.

    I had touch typing lessons when I was about eight or nine and so I’m capable of typing pretty fast. My longhand writing is slow. I can probably write about five times as fast typing than by hand. When you add to that the benefits of being able to easily alter and edit things you wrote earlier, move things around, insert extra paragraphs and not to mention spellcheckers, why would I want to write novels by hand?

    I do write by hand sometimes and I have notebooks full of bits of story, but I’ll always return to my computer.

  8. September 1, 2009 10:31 am

    Interesting that your bad handwriting puts you off writing by hand. I’m the contrary. I have pretty bad handwriting, but there’s nothing I like more than writing by hand.

    For posterity’s (it’s easier to keep) sake and as a matter of privacy I keep my journal online. But I write it by hand. I have voice software so I read what I’ve written to key it into the computer. It takes longer but there’s nothing more exciting than writing this by hand. And like others I scribble in lots of notebooks etc. I also far prefer letter writing (I hate people who call it snail mail) to emails. Emails are for short messages which arrive quickly. A letter takes time and is more thought out. Trod on anyone’s toes yet. Well, if you let me have your address, you may get a handwritten apology from me.

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