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Dancing With Words

What’s the point of handwriting? In Hazlitt Magazine, Navneet Alang argues that it gives us “practical and symbolic resistance to the pre-programmed nature of the modern web” by helping us assert our own voice and style, outside of a technological box:

Handwriting is profoundly bodily. Like an exaggerated, intensified version of the sweeps and swipes we use on a tablet, writing by pen can make muscles ache. Write while crying and one’s hand becomes shaky, write with excitement and watch the swirls and loops of one’s arcs become wild—an inky neurochemical expression that type just can’t replicate or capture. … To write by hand is to always foreground an inevitable uniqueness, visually marking out an identity in opposition to, say, this font you’re reading right now.

Handwriting is inherently physical, and an expression of the individual, Alang writes. But it is also, I would argue, inherently social and familial. Take, for instance, my own handwriting: it’s far from perfect, still strewn with the inconsistencies that Alang rightfully notes are the nemesis of the aspiring writer. But when I look at my own writing, I see a variety of interesting, personal histories reflected therein:

I see the graceful, pirouetting “f,” “l,” and “s” of my mother. She was a ballerina, and I’ve always felt her script lyrically matches her dancing past. It has a sort of artless yet playful poise to it.

But in my script, I can also see the strong capitals, the precise “c” and “t” of my father’s accountant hand: his firm and meticulous script brought glorious form and concision to every post-it note and schedule. It is, interestingly enough, very similar to his banker mother’s handwriting.

My “y” and lower-case “g” are my farmer grandfather’s: he adds a graceful, arcing loop to their tails. It’s such a poetic flourish, one that I always thought slightly ironic (yet beautiful), coming from the practical, jocular man I called grandpa.

As you can see, I’m something of a handwriting thief: stealing my favorite artistic forms from the people I love most. But there’s something fun and even comforting to look at a piece of paper, strewn with journalism notes, and to see an entire family history therein.

Handwriting also tells a history, if you trace it through time: from a child’s first shaky alphabet, to an adult’s final shaky words. Here again, we see life coming full circle. We see a person’s progression, maturation, decay. My other grandfather—a pharmacist—used to write me four or five-page letters in a meticulous cursive. With age, he’s switched to cards, and careful-yet-faint capitals, as his hand trembles too much to write in his former script. Regardless, his distinctive style is there, shouting to me from every addressed envelope I receive from him in the mail, calling to mind a whole history of correspondence and affection.

People talk about the resurrection of handwriting via social media like Instagram or Pinterest—but the problem is that what we’re seeing here isn’t necessarily handwriting, but rather a (worthy and laudable) resurrection of typography. Here, it seems, we need to differentiate between three different, important, terms:

First, there’s handwriting: this is the subject at its most basic. It is very simply “writing done by hand.” Nothing specific here: it could be cursive, print, italic, what have you. It’s just the simple (and importantly physical) work of writing with your own hand, as opposed to using a keyboard.

Second, there’s penmanship: this is a more stylistic and specific term, referring to the way in which we write by hand. It carries with it a certain feeling of quality and finesse. A person with good penmanship can easily write a letter in polished cursive; a person with good handwriting may only be doing so in a simple printed script.

Finally, we have typography: a word that is important to include, because the world of graphic design and printed media has had such a tremendous impact on the way in which we write. Many of the artists you see on Instagram and Pinterest are not sharing examples of handwriting or of penmanship: they’re creating extremely stylized, beautiful letters that are exemplars of their craft—not an enunciation of their particular style or personality (in other words, of their penmanship).

Typography is increasingly popular today. But the simple, quotidian task of writing things down via “handwriting” is growing more and more rare. And thus penmanship—the daily practice of writing by hand, of cultivating a personal style and method of writing—is perhaps close to extinct.

There are interesting scientific studies that Alang refers to, in which we learn that handwriting may develop important cognitive skills and promote memory retention. But what his piece points to is that there are also qualitative goods involved in the work of handwriting that we may lose, if we abandon it altogether to technological devices. Even as computers produce a prolific, perhaps endless amount of stylized fonts for us to choose from, we may lose the humanness involved in the writing and development of letters. And this would be a sad fate—not just because of the physicality of handwriting that — considers, but because penmanship is, in my mind, a deeply familial and personal thing.

Were I to abandon all handwriting, and with it all practice of penmanship, the traces of lineage I see in my script would probably begin to die. The letters from my grandmother, in her spidery hand, may even become indecipherable as my eye grows unaccustomed to a human’s hand—even as I, as a print designer and editor, may grow ever more shrewd in recognizing the differences between fonts like Times New Roman and Garamond.

There are certain human traditions worth preserving, because they are inherently good—regardless of their utilitarian value. They bind us to the past, and give meaningful beauty to our present. Whether I am penning a letter and mimicking my mother’s loopy, graceful “f,” or whether I replicate my grandmother’s angular capitals as I fill out the crossword puzzles she loved, I am participating in a graceful linguistic and artistic tradition that threads through the past, and into the future. It’s not a cumbersome or annoying discipline: it’s a dance.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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