Industrial Arts

Eva Murray: Pencil to paper

Posted:  Thursday, January 21, 2016 - 1:30pm

Friday, Jan. 23 is National Handwriting Day, the date chosen obviously to coincide with the anniversary of the birth of famous signaturist John Hancock.

Yeah, I know that "signaturist" isn't a word, but were I writing this out by hand, there would be no little red line on a screen warning me of impending public humiliation by spelling error. Shush, computer; I'll take my chances with this one.

Do people write much out by hand these days? Do you suppose your response to that question has anything to do with your age? We might notice youngers nod a salute to elders who take easily to technology, and roll their eyes at those who claim to be "too old to use a computer," but by the same argument younger people sound silly insisting that "there is no reason to teach penmanship anymore," as though an enlightened case could ever be made for having fewer skills.

A friend recently mentioned online (i.e. typed about) a public library someplace where cursive writing is being taught. In other Internet news, there are still those crazies who harry us with news of small children being punished in school for daring to write in cursive despite the tyranny of their left-leaning, dictatorial, opera-loving, common-core liberal communist pinot-noir-drinking teachers who hate America.


That ballyhoo alone is a good reason to get off the computer now and then. Here's a suggestion: sit down and write something out by hand, maybe just as an act of defiance against such raving lunacy. My mother-in-law and my daughter write letters, thank-you notes, greeting cards and such small niceties to friends because people like getting handwritten mail once in a while. It's a hobby, I suppose, but some say it is also becoming a lost art or perhaps a folkloric old-time skill along the lines of spinning wool or blacksmithing or Morse code telegraphy. Cursive writing will be the next once-common, now-archaic labor requiring volunteer docents at Old Sturbridge Village.

My own social graces reach nowhere near the level of the aforementioned relatives — in note-sending or in any other way — but I do write by hand. (Then again I also...well, yeah, all that other stuff.) Peter Ralston for the Island Journal and Abbie Curtis for the Bangor Daily News have in the past chosen, for some inexplicable reason, to photograph me doing my "writer job" with my messy legal pads, as though working on paper were unusual. You can't read my scribble very easily; it doesn't flow, it surely isn't elegant, and it follows absolutely no reliable pattern. I know people who believe that you can seriously tell a lot about somebody from their handwriting. Mine would probably only prove that I was confused, or perhaps into the cooking sherry.

In all seriousness, I usually start my columns and articles by hand, and move to the computer for the more clerical work after the basic ideas have been hashed out. It's hard for me to think using as linear and monotone a medium as black-and-white typing. I like pads with colored paper, I like blank sketchbooks, I like composition books, and I like re-using the backs of certain utility-company faxes because wasting sharp, clean, office paper seems a shame, despite the fact that the particular corporate entity in mind wants their faxes immediately shredded.

You might have noticed that I haven't used the word "journal." For me, that term is too laden with images of sappy navel-gazing, rigid obligation to record daily details, therapy after some awful heartache, or elementary school. I can just smell the construction paper. Of course most people don't carry so much attitude about their notebooks; go ahead, keep a journal.

I am still a certified elementary school teacher, and if called upon, I can manage proper elementary school penmanship — I think it is Zaner-Bloser style — but I can't keep it up indefinitely and any adult watching me chalk out my letters can see it's a concerted effort. I am not so proud of that.
So in a world of nagging, all-hours business emails, childish texting shorthand 4 U and 4 me 2, and the sad interpersonal development called robo-calling, who doesn't like a real letter, delivered in an envelope, opened when one is ready, perhaps even with some degree of excitement? I get handwritten notes from readers that don't make a heck of a lot of sense sometimes, but they're still fun to receive. For many people handwritten letters are relatively rare, which absolves most any would-be correspondent from judgment regarding the exceptionality of their content—or their handwriting.

People with nice penmanship might be sought out, on occasion, for special tasks. Beverly Smith, late of Rockland, copied out the text of my husband's and my wedding certificate in 1989. We were married in Friends' Meeting, and it is the custom among Quakers these days for everybody in attendance at a wedding to sign as witnesses, so room must be made for potentially dozens of signatures. A nicely-lettered large-format document more like a poster might be in order, and we had just that, signed by all in attendance including relatives and neighbors since deceased, my brother and sister with their first names only, and "Olympia Snowe" and "Alfred E. Newman" because somebody had a sense of humor and didn't think we should be too serious. I treasure that, with Bev's calligraphic effort (and still don't know who signed for the dignitaries!)

During the winter I write my newspaper columns in the kitchen with my feet on the wood stove oven door. I write in coffee shops and truck stops, and back before Matinicus, I wrote in bus depots and train stations. J.P. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a cheap restaurant, or so goes the legend, and I would submit that nothing accompanies a pencil and paper so well as a cup of something hot and a grilled cheese sandwich. People who do not write anything seem to envision the ideal writer's venue a seashore cottage with a twinkling view, Adirondack chairs and hollyhocks, a few distant gulls in the sunrise. That is not the real world.

Not that a good view isn't a worthy topic. Back in the days of the pre-Courier "Village Soup" print newspaper, I sent my regular column once from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, handwritten as neatly as I could manage. The post office at North Rim, AZ, 86052 sold me an envelope and a stamp, and the ranger station folks kindly accommodated me with a photocopy just to be on the safe side. I have no doubt that the editors would not have put up with a regular diet of handwritten copy, but it was accepted. Once upon a time, such was all a contributor could do.

Our daughter taught herself to write in "cursive" — or what my parents called "script" and my grandmother called "writing" — on her own, at a young age, more or less as an art project. Had any teacher ordered her not to do it, life might have got interesting there for a while. On the other hand we spent close to eight years trying to convince our son to laboriously carve out even a legible zip code. People are different. I've never been convinced that uniformity in lettering is terribly important, or that people who write nicely may claim any sort of superiority (and believe me, some did suggest those, years ago,) but on the other hand, it would be a mistake to "write it off" if you will forgive me, as nothing but foolish tradition — obsolete, moribund and a waste of a student's time. By the way, handwriting need not be cursive or whatever you like to call it; lots of engineers and architects have a perfect block-print style that is more elegant and handsome than any curlicues and flourishes could hope to be.

Cuddling up with a pencil and a notebook can be a pleasure. Maybe it's a hobby, sure, but let's not talk about Colonial Williamsburg quite yet. This Friday, write somebody a note. Try out your finest handwriting, any style. It might be fun.

EvaEva Murray lives on Matinicus

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