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.