Handwriting is Personal

Image by tookapic from Pixabay

The Headline from the Washington Post read: Cursive handwriting is disappearing from public schools. C’est la vie, I think to myself while searching for a gif to add to an email I’d written in Georgia font. There’s irony in that we want our computer fonts to look like the handwriting we now toss out to be forgotten. Humans have moved from quill to fountain pen to keyboard to voice recognition. So between pen to keyboard, we end an era of gliding your hand along the page, tiptoeing over the i’s and crossing the t’s. 

Changes come in increments, but come they do. Leaving our summer cottage with kids in tow, I’d drop off the trash and feed one dollar into a cement post standing next to the trash bin. It was Rakel’s turn to pay. After a minute or so, I stepped out of the car to see what was taking so long. There she was, my bright as a button daughter, smoothing the dollar and trying ever so carefully to feed the cement post. “It won’t take it,” she said as she tried one more time.  A few summers later, my granddaughter, Amanda, declared that my rotary phone didn’t work. No matter how she pushed her little finger into the holes, nothing happened. 

But handwriting is personal. Finding something you wrote as a child is to reach into a treasure trove that holds the mystery of time gone by. It’s personal. You have memories of the young you creating and practicing your signature and later as a teenager, writing the name of a boy you have a crush on in your school textbooks. To this day, I have a high school textbook, Icelandic Literature, with boys’ names in the margins. Ég elska Ómar. Ég elska Sigurd. Ég elska Óla. I can’t recall if I broke up with each young man before recording my love for the next. Not at all sure they even knew I existed. In my defense, the graffiti-covered textbook wasn’t only boring, but the only book we used in a literature class for three high school years. The only reason I still have it is to help me fall asleep. 

The United States dropped handwriting from the Common Core Curriculum Standards but left it to the states to decide. Iceland’s children still learn longhand. Indiana’s reason to continue teaching it was so young Americans could read birthday cards, comments by teachers, and the handwritten text of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In 2010, on a whim, Jimmy Bryant, director of Archives and Special Collections (University of Central Arkansas), asked students in his class to raise their hand if they ever wrote letters by hand, none did.  

Memorizing the multiplication tables is beyond some third graders, but they got excited about learning cursive, approaching it like art. But the blistery winds of change are taking away the ancient art of handwriting, replacing it with speedier methods.

Tim is a prolific notetaker who says that, for him, the act of writing fuses the information. He takes notes after reading books of interest and then rereads the notes to refresh his memory. Tim’s theory has support. Neuroscientists are not sure why, but drawing letters by hand improves children’s letter recognition and memorization. Aleka Thrash at Cornerstone University explains why we shouldn’t be too eager to replace longhand with a keyboard. “Many psychologists believe that handwriting notes or even repeatedly writing down important information by hand is one of the best tools to improve memory retention.” Universities that studied note-taking vs. typed-on-a-computer found that when writing by hand students are more selective and focused on the crucial information resulting in better understanding and retention. Places that eliminated cursive from classrooms are witnessing the negative impact it’s having on some children. The long and short of it, if you want to remember and comprehend, write it down.

My sister, Stella, has the most beautiful handwriting of anyone I know. My daughter, Rakel, learned calligraphy, and her cursive became an art form. When our grandchildren send us a handwritten letter, they stay on the refrigerator for a long time. I seldom look at their phone texts a second time. It’s commonplace to see people at coffee shops pecking away on laptops and tablet computers. It’s rare to see them taking notes by hand. I group-texted six college-age granddaughters and asked if they owned a signature and if they ever wrote in cursive. Lizzy texted “yes” she had a signature, but as far as writing in cursive, “No, I don’t see a reason to it’s usually far less legible than just printing.” Sunnie said, “Yes, but it looks like a 3rd grader did it.” And Moira chimed in, “I’m the same as Sunnie and Liz.” That confirms it, my family is in its longhand twilight time. For these six grand gals, handwriting will never be personal because the staccato burst of hitting the keys can never deliver the feel of felt tip pens or well-sharpened pencils.  For them, “it’s personal” will be something different.

A 1943 photo of Betty Smith, shows the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, writing at the kitchen table with a cigarette between her lips. Her daughter said her mother would get up before the kids so she could write for a few hours. I could relate with the part of getting up before the munchkins and drinking coffee, but while Betty was writing a timeless classic, I just prayed for God to see me through another day. F. Scott Fitzgerald, pen in hand sipping coffee at a Paris cafe. How sexy was that? Truman Capote rejected typewriters. Imagine writing In Cold Blood by hand.

I quit sending out Christmas cards/letters when I moved to Florida in 2014. I’m not suggesting it’s Florida’s fault, just that I already felt so connected to family and friends, many via social media. Also, more and more people were sending cards they’d created online. My judging mind found it impersonal and used it as justification to end the practice.

A handwritten note, curlicue, D’Nealian, or print, is more personal and often displayed on the refrigerator door. Handwriting is our writing fingerprint. No email message, no matter how heartfelt, compares with a letter. It’s how John and Abigail Adams kept their love alive in the months they were apart. Handwriting, in an age where everything is about faster, offers a meaningful way to put value and compassion back into our communications.