A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

The Niche Future of Handwriting

My handwriting has never lived up to the Romantic achievements of my parents. My mother’s unique script, a print-and-cursive hybrid, is round and smooth, filling the space between lines as if it were all canvas for her use. My father’s is notable for the way the extension of the capital G on my first name made a small end table. My own handwriting has always served me well, as it is legible, but neither has it left me feeling distinguished, or mature: it is a pragmatic riff on standard elementary print. I round the e’s a bit more than Mrs. Spaulding said we should and I’m inconsistent with the size of my letters, but if I’m attempting to be neat, it’s basically what she taught me.

To confirm my suspicions, I learned from Anne Trubek’s The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting that Edgar Allan Poe would have loved my parents and thought me a bore. “Poe,” writes Trubek, “felt those who wrote as they had been instructed were less original than those whose handwriting departed from what they were taught in school.”

Trubeck would chastise me for my self-consciousness, defending me for the same reasons and in the same way she defends her son, whose penmanship drew the ire of his elementary teachers. Her central thrust is that attitudes like Poe’s are sentimental associations, that examining handwriting is not a window into a soul.

But my problem is I like my sentimental associations.

I’m not alone. We might think of Poe as an eccentric and slightly irrelevant ancestor, but some of our ideas about handwriting are closely related to his. Take Dyana Herron’s thoughts about the beauty of a handwritten letter as an example:

There’s something great about receiving a letter, even just the tactile materials, the ink or graphite on paper, and the author’s handwriting, not just their words in Times New Roman or Arial. There’s something powerful, too, about reading words that were created by hand just for you, not for anyone else, and sent off to be read by your eyes only. It’s like receiving a gift, an act of love.

Herron captures how our love for this kind of letter is difficult to express: “there’s something great” and “wonderful,” but we can’t say precisely what. Yet we do interpret it as love, and we see the handwriting as more intimately part of the author than “just their words” are.

David Foster Wallace taps into the same notion in a drafted preface for The Pale King: “Author here. Meaning the actual author, the real human holding the pencil, not any sort of abstract narrative persona.” Since Wallace wrote his manuscripts by hand the comment may have been a simple description of the scene, but even then, “holding the pencil” builds a firmer image of a real person than “the real human tapping the keys.” A person with a pencil makes the words more intimate, more personal, more real.

Ideas like these are why I advise my students to handwrite thank you notes, yet this ultimately is perception, a sense of a cultural symbol, and despite its associations, Trubek asserts that “medieval scribes proved that handwriting does not, in and of itself, reveal personality or the self.”

She further demonstrates this by revealing our shifting sentiments. Take, for example, the theory of cursive evangelist Austin Palmer, who claimed “penmanship training ranks among the most valuable aids in reforming ‘bad’ children” and that penmanship “is the initial step in the reform of many a delinquent.” Would anyone declare that today? Nor would anyone declare that typewritten correspondence, as opposed to handwritten, is insulting or unprofessional; but that is what people believed at the turn of the 20th Century. If our opinions about handwriting as a revelation of our intimate selves didn’t surface until the turn of the 19th Century, as Trubek asserts, can we really stand by them?

Trubek’s thesis is that we live in an era of transition from one technology to another, that handwriting’s dominance is finished and that, with time, the sentimental attachments people like me assign to it will dwindle and become like Socrates’s argument against writing: an intriguing artifact.

Yet even as I recognize the merits of Trubek’s case against handwriting as an expression of psychology, I find myself questioning her confidence in handwriting’s demise. Her focus is the longform world of handwriting–the letter, the business correspondence, the novel. These forms have migrated to digital media, but does that mean that handwriting is an obsolete technology?

I’m slow to admit it, which isn’t surprising, since in my left pocket I carry a 3.25”x4.5” notebook, and in my right, a pen. Neither are fancy, and I don’t protect them from damage, but they’re useful to me, because if I have an idea, if I hear something interesting, if I think of something I need to do, I can jot it down. My students, in contrast, typically write such things in the notes app on their phone, or they take a picture of it. I’ve written a single due date on the board in a classroom and had students snap a photo rather than write the date in a calendar app or a planner. Judging by the excuse parade every due date, it’s a no better than the old technology; but it’s the dominant way, so should I adopt their method? Should I abandon pen and paper in favor of digital devices?

I don’t think so, partly because when it comes to the tech my students prefer (and to be realistic I should include my peers and elders), I personally doubt my ability to overcome the beautiful temptations of Silicon Valley. What engineer Tristan Harris told The Atlantic’s Bianca Bosker rings in my ear as warning bell:

“You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, . . . “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”

I don’t need a smartphone, and I primarily see downsides in what my life would look like with one: I’d jot a note about what I need to accomplish later (“Sarah’s recommendation letter!”) but would check Twitter just because; I would see that red circle with a “2” on my Gmail icon, so I wouldn’t be able to black the screen until I knew what was in there. Whatever I had been thinking before I had pulled that phone out would be gone.

So when I began to consider ideas for this essay, I opened a composition book and wrote my ideas with a pen. I thought without notifications. I kept thinking even when I got stuck, since I couldn’t run to Twitter or Feedly while I waited for inspiration.

And I’m not alone in my choice. Alan Jacobs, who has thought about these technologies much more than I have, has moved even much of his longform writing to pen and paper for reasons of efficiency and clarity: “When I am writing my thoughts in a notebook I think better — that’s all there is to it. I have a clearer mind and a clearer prose style when I hold a pen in my hand.” Jacobs is describing not a sentimental image of himself but a focus, a freedom from the structure of screens and the web, a reason related to my own avoidance of a smartphone. Both of us are seeing what Nicholas Carr describes in The Glass Cage, that aspects of these technologies do not “extend our productive capabilities without circumscribing our scope of action and perception.” The trade-offs of the digital technology in these areas are too high.

One trait a handwritten technology has going for it, then, is its lack of distraction. Yet I also find my notebook lends me flexibility of form. As I attempt to shape an idea, before I can articulate it, I find myself able to think more widely, more flexibly, with a pen and paper. I do not have to list ideas in a word processor’s bland outlines but can use indents and margins in whatever ways seem appropriate. I can sketch arrows, stars, and circles without clicking on icons. I recognize there is likely some software to enable me to do such things, but is it standard? Would it be on my phone? When I begin to write the article on a computer, would I be able to spread my plan beside me like I’ve done with my notebook as I type this?

Then, of course, there is every professor’s favorite research, the studies suggesting students who take notes by hand instead of by typing actually retain material longer and understand concepts more thoroughly. This is what Rusty Hawkins, a history professor at the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan, explains to his students each semester when he bans laptops from his classes. “The funny thing is,” Hawkins says, “no one ever complains about the ban. Ever.”

Hawkins notes that irony of his students’ acceptance of pen and paper arises from the assumption of digital’s dominance: “We’ve been bombarded with all this info about the coming digital natives, but my students hate reading things digitally. They all prefer having hard copies of articles or books in front of them.”

I’ve noticed similar ironies in my own high school classes. Each year I tell my AP language and composition students they have to use one of my methods for their research paper’s notes. I then offer the traditional index-card method, Zotero, and a format I’ve created that uses a word processor. This year more than half my students opted for the index cards, despite my introducing the method with a story of why I quit using them myself.

Which all means that despite Trubek’s pronouncement of its demise, handwriting still functions as a uniquely pragmatic technology. We can take freeform notes with it, we can access it quickly (no need to load an app, just open the notebook and click the pen), and if we use a sensible system (like a bullet journal or commonplace book), we can retrieve and review materials easily and with minimal distraction.

I’ll admit I’m still cradling under my vest a romantic attachment to handwriting. I wrote a letter to my aunt recently and used a pen and small stationary, to make it more personal and loving.

But I’ll also admit Anne Trubek has exposed my sentimental notions for what they are and that my wider behavior confirms her central claim. I have not written a rough draft of an essay in 15 years. I started a few but each time grew impatient with my fingers, opting to finish the work on a word processor. Even in the classroom, I rarely use a pen to mark students’ papers for more than a brief moment, choosing instead to type my comments into a Word document, which I attach to their paper as a kind of rubric. For me, where speed and revision are priorities, digital technology wins.

Still . . . I remember my dad’s cool G’s primarily because every morning he’d write my initials in three capital letters on my brown paper lunch bag. No app can replace that. So while handwriting has lost its writing monopoly, it still serves a number of pragmatic purposes, ones I am convinced will remain relevant longer than many have assumed.

Writing without Self-Absorption

Writing demands a certain amount of introspection. But introspection doesn’t have to become self-absorption. In my own writing life, I have found that writing can be a means toward blessed self-forgetfulness. As I get absorbed in a subject I’m writing about, find that I am freed from self-absorption–and I am able to do good work. When I stop asking “What will my reader think of me?” I start asking, “What will my reader think about this person or event or idea I’m writing about?” And good things start to happen. I don’t live in that place all the time. I don’t even live there most of the time. But I don’t get much good writing done when I’m not in that place.

Jonathan Rogers

Satire as a Narrowing Agent

“Does anyone know where my needle nose pliers are?”

I had not seen them since my children borrowed them. They had been making ornaments, I think–I don’t really know what they were doing but it involved wire and beads–and I hoped they hadn’t forgotten where they were.

“I put them away last time I used them,” my son declared with total confidence. He is eight-years-old and possesses an appetite for projects. I once walked into the garage to find wood and nails scattered across the ping pong table and my son far away, involved in something else. “This is not a work bench,” I explained after I caught up with him, speaking like a hotel clerk to a foreigner.

For this inquiry about the pliers, we were sitting at the dinner table, and in my disbelief at my son’s response my next words slipped from my lips as easily as unconscious thought. “Right. Like that’s ever happened.”

I mumbled the phrase quietly enough that he didn’t hear me, but his twelve-year-old sister did. She hears everything. And she remembers everything. And that is the problem.

Actually, the problem is multi-layered. The first problem is that my son is just like me. My primary difficulty with his taking and losing my things is that I am usually taking and losing my things; I don’t need his help at being foolish, and when he supplies it, I feel like I’m losing the game in a blow-out. Any frustration I harbor toward my son is frustration that, upon reflection, I harbor with myself. But even if I’m justified in my frustration toward him, even if I wasn’t carrying a log in my own eye, what does my comment accomplish? Does mocking my son motivate him to change?

So I’m ultimately wrong to complain and criticize him. But compounding my wrong is that while my son never even heard me criticize him, my daughter did. Thus, my complaint colored my daughter’s attitude toward her little brother, because she then knew he had frustrated Daddy, that his indifference about losing track of the pliers was Irresponsible.

I’ve been considering this exchange recently as I’ve contemplated the nature of criticism in our American moment, particularly our favorite style of criticism, satire.

It’s not possible to keep up with all the satirical barbs aimed at the current federal administration, though it looks like Americans are trying, since Stephen Colbert is riding his satirical wit to a resurgence, Trevor Noah is using Trump critiques to grow his audience, and The Atlantic is devoting repeated commentary to Saturday Night Live’s artistic choices for skewering the President and his administration.

It’s SNL that got me thinking, because Melissa McCarthy has begun portraying Sean Spicer. I know a bit about Spicer, but I have never watched him work with the press. I know lots of people have taken on watching news as a part-time job, as Tom Papa amusingly observes, but if I get to that point I will question what I’m doing with my life–what would Henry David Thoreau think of my watching a television with Sean Spicer on it? I’m not going to do it.

For me, therefore, SNL’s skits are coloring my perception of Spicer without my having engaged the real person. I’m consuming the satire without knowing thoroughly what is being mocked. And while the skit might also spur me to look into the man’s work, I admit it frames my view of him–will I ever see the real Spicer without feeling like he’s imitating SNL?

In his essay “On Satire,” Aaron Belz shares the insight of Henri Bergson, a French modernist philosopher, who points out that the context for comedy is “our ‘life in common.’”

What I wonder when watching McCarthy play Spicer or listening to Colbert’s live specials is how broad this common life is that I’m sharing. Is my absorbing the satirical version of reality without substantial reference to the original narrowing the breadth of my common reference? Am I cutting myself off from others via satire?

I’ve always been an apologist for satire, justifying Mark Twain’s work, for example, “as a corrective of human vice or folly” (to pull from M.H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms). In this sense, I realize I’ve portrayed satire as a tool for unity, describing satirical jabs as attempts to bring people back to a common and more virtuous vision.

I have therefore seen myself positively in Belz’s further explanation of Bergson’s idea: “One important way we know that we’re living life in common is that we laugh at the same things. We also recognize error together. The joke itself, the thing that causes laughter, is incongruous, but its very existence suggests deeper congruity and agreement.” In this way, the joke I share reveals my agreement with those laughing and those joking, so satirical jokes confirm our common vision and encourage unity.

But now I’m wondering what kind of unity it encourages. Is the satire I’m reading or watching reclaiming stray members through winsome persuasion or tightening the circle against infiltration?

Jordan Peele, a contemporary master of satire, suggests that the dark element inside humans gives us “the ability to scapegoat. Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for fear of being on the wrong side of the mob.” What if our satire is, then, an act of sorting? Of setting borders of congruity and establishing the side of the mob? Are satirists encouraging wayward sheep to return to the fold or establishing which sheep are allowed in the flock?

While I admit satire makes me laugh, I need to ask if it is accomplishing good. Is it pushing me to love my neighbor, or is it pushing me to think he’s a moron?

With those needle nose pliers, I soon came to my senses and realized I should not be angry with my eight year old; I am sorry I was critical of him. My concern now is how my criticism affected the way my daughter thinks of her little brother. Have I encouraged her to love him? I don’t think so. Satire rarely accomplishes that.

Writing thoughts from George Saunders & Margaret Atwood

One thing I found was—maybe it’s more about my approach to storytelling. It’s so simple. You’re in a scene, and you kind of have a vague idea of what the scene is supposed to do, but you’re mostly having fun within that scene. You’re trying to make the lines work, trying to have a nice pace, trying to get some jokes in.

You’re working closely within the text on its own merits. Almost like cooking to taste. At some point it will spit out a plot point.

So, say a bunch of people are sitting around a table talking, and one of them is really grouchy because it’s funny. And you go, “I wonder why he’s so grouchy?” At some point he says he hasn’t eaten in a day. And you go, “Ah!” So the next talking point is: Get that guy some food.

It’s nothing really theoretical, it’s coming out of the natural energy of the piece. And then, having done that, you might want to look upstream to the proceeding section. Why hasn’t that guy eaten in two days?

All storytelling is kind of that—there’s a bit of text that you put pressure on that spits out some desire that a character has and then you follow that. The other part is that every scene raises an expectation in the reader’s mind—that’s part of its job is to make you look in and be curious.

The next thing kind of satisfies that, it’s entertaining, but it does that whole process over again. You can see a whole book as a series of creating an expectation and then delivering a skew on that expectation so it’s not totally satisfied.

–          George Saunders

Not all of my ideas have been amazing. Some have not, NOT worked out! As they say (I think it was Beckett): try, fail. Try again, fail better. Or something like that. We have all had projects that have ended up as smashed eggs on the floor.

–          Margaret Atwood


Saying, “Good for you. Proceed.”

In My Writing Education: A Time Line, Saunders narrates his literary adventures in the Syracuse Creative Writing Program back in the 1980s. He pays particular attention to the generosity of two of his instructors: the short story impresario/memoirist Tobias Wolff and the novelist Douglas Unger. Saunders conjured up that pervasive form of graduate school angst – wanting desperately to impress, while obsessing desperately over potentially being a fool. What stands out is the generosity of “Doug” and “Toby” – how they received criticism as well as gave it, and how they managed to critique their students while promoting their dignity and potential. The whole article rewards a read, but allow me to highlight Saunders’ conclusion:

Why do we love our writing teachers so much? Why, years later, do we think of them with such gratitude? I think it’s because they come along when we need them most, when we are young and vulnerable and are tentatively approaching this craft that our culture doesn’t have much respect for, but which we are beginning to love. They have so much power. They could mock us, disregard us, use us to prop themselves up. But our teachers, if they are good, instead do something almost holy, which we never forget: they take us seriously. They accept us as new members of the guild. They tolerate the under-wonderful stories we write, the dopy things we say, our shaky-legged aesthetic theories, our posturing, because they have been there themselves.

We say: I think I might be a writer.

They say: Good for you. Proceed.

When I read a writer like George Saunders, at the top of his game, it is easy to presume that there has always been an air of inevitability about his eventual success. But how many people simply drop out, because someone eviscerates them with criticism or starves them with neglect? Especially in those pivotal moments, when their talent is underdeveloped, and their psyches are as brittle as eggshells? How deeply do we crave for someone to say to us, or over us, “Good for you. Proceed.” And perhaps, at times, to say it, even when they don’t necessarily fully see it.

Larry Parsley

“Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for being on the wrong side of the mob”

“I think the scariest thing to me is humanity, it’s people. It’s what we’re capable of when we have permission from the people around us. We’re capable of the worst monstrosities that any kind of demon you can drum up in the film, so this one, sort of taking on the ideas of racism, is just one example of that. But I plan to do more movies that explore the human demon, as I call it. It is dark, we are dark. We have the ability to scapegoat. Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for fear of being on the wrong side of the mob.”

Jordan Peele

Writing as a Strange, Magic Device

Anthropologists know that the written word . . . is not merely an echo of a speaking voice. It is another kind of voice altogether, a conjurer’s trick of the first order. It must certainly have appeared that way to those who invented it, and that is why we should not be surprised that the Egyptian god  Thoth, who is alleged to have brought writing to the King Thamus, was also the god of magic. People like ourselves may see nothing wondrous in writing, but our anthropologists know how strange and magical it appears to a purely oral people–a conversation with no one and yet with everyone. What could be stranger than the silence one encounters when addressing a question to a text? What could be more metaphysically puzzling than addressing an unseen audience, as every writer of books must do? And correcting oneself because one knows that an unknown reader will disapprove or misunderstand?

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death