Duff ‘n Stuff on the imminent, sad death of handwriting

Posted in Duff 'n Stuff

PATRICIA DUFF, June 17, 2013

My 18-year-old daughter graduated from Coupeville High School last week and we’re extremely proud of her as she gets ready to go to college in the fall. It’s been a whirlwind time of award nights, breakfasts, ceremonies and parties, of course, but I’ve also had some moments to myself.

I’ve been contemplating not only this milestone and transitional period in our family, but also how different the world is for the generation coming up. Although I’m proud of my bright and witty children, certain things about what they have not learned are a disappointment to me. Take, for example, the death of cursive handwriting.

I remember Sister Helena Margaret, and other nuns of my Catholic school youth, swishing down the rows in her many-layered black-and-white nun’s habit, her rosary clinking the side of my desk as she leaned over to check my lettering exercises. She smelled of soap and rules.  I believe we were learning the Palmer Method and made our way through penmanship practice daily from the first through fifth grades. I was good at penmanship and was proud that I could write so prettily. I aspired to have my mother’s handwriting, which was orderly, legible and feminine looking.

I don’t remember any such concentration on handwriting through the thirteen plus years of my daughter’s schooling and, although her writing is legible, she doesn’t write often in script. In fact, looking through boxes of her saved elementary schoolwork, I could not find one example of her writing in cursive.

Here's an example of my daughter Claudia's handwriting at age 7. No cursive in sight.

Here’s an example of my daughter Claudia’s handwriting at age 7. No cursive in sight.

My 16-year-old son struggles whenever he is required to sign his name, being so unused to writing in cursive.  He has no muscle memory for those rounded shapes and connections compared to typing, which is second nature to him now. Gone are the days of handwriting drills in school, or ever having to write a report or a term paper by hand. They have given over to the honing of “keyboarding” skills and my heart breaks a little more whenever I think about it. I chide myself for not requiring my children to practice cursive more at home, knowing that it was falling by the wayside at school. But 20 years ago, I would not have considered that handwriting might be lost. I assumed it would always be a part of their curriculum.

Kitty Burns Florey has written an interesting book titled “Script And Scribble: The Rise and Fall Of  Handwriting,” in which she devotes almost 200 pages to the history of handwriting and her own connection to her many years of writing down words in ink on paper. The book is full of fun facts about handwriting, including tidbits such as this one about the Scottish calligrapher, educator and “Italic” buff, Tom Gourdie, the author of “Guide to Better Handwriting.” Apparently, as the legendary Scotsman lay dying in the hospital at the age of 91, he was disturbed by the sloppiness of the name-label attached to his bed and reportedly began instructing the nurses in the proper way to hold a pen. That was 1995. Right on, Mr. Gourdie.

Florey gets into chapters on handwriting history, the “Golden Age of Penmanship,” and the consequences of writing by hand in the digital age, as in the case of author J.K. Rowling.

Rowling has written all her mega-selling Harry Potter books by hand ─ the first, famously in a café. … Once, when she complained on her website that she hadn’t been able to find any “normal, lined paper” in Edinburgh, she was deluged with paper from her trillions of fans all over the world ─ from single sheets to a stack of notebooks embossed with her name.

Woody Allen writes all the scripts for his films by hand on lined paper, while lying on his bed, so maybe there is something to the idea that writing by hand lights the creative spark. And what about letters? Think of all the history that has been gleaned from letters; the romances, the politics and the poetry that happens between the folds of a letter. I used to be a proud letter writer and would hound my friends and family to write me back. Email has doused that flame.

Florey argues the benefits of both technology and handwriting in a society. She relays an interesting post-Katrina story, when some parts of New Orleans were without power for long periods of time. Hospital operating rooms were being lit with flashlights, and the lack of electricity also meant that the hospitals were forced to keep records with pens and paper. It’s troubling to hear that the records were largely illegible in the end. In another situation, a hotel without power required its staff to hand-write the names of guests, their addresses and credit card numbers. There was only one employee on the staff of that hotel whose handwriting could be read finally; an older gent on the verge of retirement.  Yikes!

I don’t really have the right to complain. I use a computer to do all of my writing, though I still enjoy handwriting letters, cards and postcards using my nun-induced cursive. But, I find that writing is easier when typing just because I can get my thoughts down faster and more legibly than I can with pen and paper. Although, if I had to, I’m fairly certain that I could keep any record by hand or create a beautifully written love letter, and all would be readable.

Now, if I could only get my children to write letters to me in cursive on paper, my work will be complete!

From my scripted heart,
Patricia Duff

Patricia Duff is a freelance journalist and writer and the editor of this magazine. Whidbey Life Magazine is member supported, but we love all of you equally.





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