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.

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