Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I have terrible handwriting. My students know this as well (and this is why I generally type out comments…). Sometimes, even I  find my handwriting illegible. And that, I have to admit, is somewhat embarrassing.  Would you be surprised to hear that I never did better than a B- in handwriting in elementary school?

But even given all of this, I’m a huge fan of writing by hand. I think differently when I write long hand. I think in ideas,  in sentences, in big pictures. I think broadly, and I make connections that are impossible to find when I try to write on the computer. I’ve talked to others who feel the same way: there is just something very, very different about the kind of thought patterns that happen while I’m writing by hand.

Perhaps this is because I’ve been trained as a touch typist. On a computer keyboard, words are reduced to rhythms. Each word has its own very specific rhythm and it is my ability to master these various rhythms that speeds up my typing process. But in reducing a word to a rhythm, I lose contact with the idea of the word. I lose touch – and yes, this is ironic, given that I work with ‘touch’ typing – with the bigger picture. Instead, words, sentences – thoughts! – become nothing more than a series of clicks.

From my experiences in the university classroom, I think that long hand writing is still highly relevant for students who, for the most part, were born holding a mouse. An essay assigned to be written by hand during class time is inevitably much more strongly conceptualized and considered than an essay assigned to be written at home and handed in at a later date. This would appear to go against all logic: surely a paper that you had time to think through, write, revise and rethink would be a stronger paper? I’d think so, too. But inevitably, the best papers I get are those that students write in class.

What’s so different about this environment? One of the key things is that they’re forced to write by hand.  And this dramatically affects their thinking. Instead of thinking in a series of clicks that tap out the rhythms of individual words, or in small chunks that are easily erased, students are required to think in terms of the bigger picture. Their ideas flow out of the end of a pen or pencil and such ideas come out not in rhythms, but rather, in whole words, in phrases, in concepts. But they’re also forced, by the very materiality of the medium, to think through the larger picture. They can’t delete an entire passage (well, not as easily) and they can’t easily shift passages around. This results in different ways of thinking through their ideas, and in different structures to express them.

Now, I’ll freely admit that I’m a luddite. I don’t have a cell phone (I never have) and I have no desire to own one. I don’t  watch a lot of tv (although I did discover Bones on our most recent Netflix trial, a discovery that is straining my ‘no TV’ halo) and the kids are limited to only a few hours of video/computer/wii games per week. And I’m certain that my luddite-ishness shapes my appreciation for the art/act of handwriting. But there’s more to it.

Imagine my delight, then, when I came across this article in The Guardian: “Why Handwriting Matters.” It’s an excerpt from Philip Hensher’s new book, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, and Why it Still Matters. Now, I don’t agree with all of the points that Hensher makes, but one thing that really sticks with me is Hensher’s insistence on the materiality of hand writing: it’s not just the materiality of words on a page, it’s a materiality that manifests itself in your body. It’s in the nub that develops on the middle finger of your writing hand. It’s about the pen cap that you obsessively chew. It’s about the ink that you smear when you slide your hand across the page just a moment too soon. It’s about the physical act of scratching out, of erasing. It’s about making sure that your physical presence, in writing, is different from that of those around you. Conversely, it’s about representing your ideas and your ideals in print, about claiming the curls and loops of individuals and groups with whom you identify.

Hensher puts it this way:

“These attempts to modify ourselves through our handwriting become a part of who we are. So too do the rituals and pleasurable pieces of small behaviour attached to writing with a pen. On a finger of my right hand, just on the joint, there is a callus which has been there for 40 years, where my pen rests. I used to call it “my carbuncle”. “Turn right” someone would say, and I would feel the hard little lump, like a leather pad, ink-stained, which showed what side that was on. And between words or sentences, to encourage thought, I might give it a small, comforting rub with my thumb.”

As he points out: “Our rituals and sensory engagement with the pen bind us to it.”

As we move increasingly into a digital, computerised world, do we have similar relationships with our computers? How might I understand the relationship between my handwriting callus, on the one hand, and my hints of RSI, from too much time spent at the computer, on the other?  I can’t gnaw at a computer in the same way that I gnawed at my pens. And gnawing was both a way of staking my claim to certain pens (nobody would want to use them afterwards), but also integral to my thinking process.

And as we move increasingly into that digital and digitized world, what does all of this mean for all of the letters that I spend so many hours reading? And what does it mean for how my students and I relate to those letters? How we understand them? The meanings that we attach to them? Can we even begin to understand handwriting if we have never done it ourselves?

Now, to be fair, even in my ode to handwriting, I can recognize some of the benefits to using the computer, its keyboard and related technologies to construct ideas. There is something at least superficially democratizing about technology. Spell check evens out surface inequalities in educational attainment. And typing makes even the worst handwriter (me) legible to those around her.  Word processing programs offer the opportunity to rethink and rewrite and revise and makes those processes much easier and much more efficient.  There is much to beguile us: everything looks neat, tidy, and professional in Times New Roman, 12 point font and justified margins.

Word processing cleans things up. It can erase class differences (or at least reduce them); it can support even the least-enthusiastic writer. But such a democratising process is illusory. Class difference is not erased. Nor are writing weaknesses. In some instances, typing a document can exacerbate differences that might have been smoothed over in other media. Furthermore, keyboarding can also wash the personality right out of the individual.

What happens to our understanding of the past if we lose contact with writing? How will we understand class? How will we understand gender? How will we understand sexuality? All of these identity categories are clearly visible in the practice of handwriting. And handwriting gives us new lenses through which to analyse them.

In some of the letters written by the Marquise de La Ferté-Imbault and written in her hand, for example, I catch glimpses of a woman who enjoyed an extensive informal education but, perhaps, a less extensive formal education. Indeed, in my first encounter with her letters, I discovered that I learned more from reading them out loud to myself than from transcribing them! In others, however, I lost her handwritten voice. Instead, I read her words through the handwriting of one of her early nineteenth-century descendants, who had transcribed and collected them.

Handwriting itself – the mechanics of writing – is also revelatory: beautiful copperplate script is often the sign of an educated person; of an individual who had considerable access to formal education and who, as a result, spent a lot of time writing. This too, is revealing in the manuscript sources I explore. In the disjuncture between a copperplate body of a letter and the scratchy scrawl, for example, I note the collaboration of secretary and correspondent.

The personality and situation of a letter writer also shine through. In collections of letters written (or at least dictated) by a single correspondent), I come to distinguish among different handwriting styles. I can recognize Madame Necker’s handwriting. I can also recognize that of her secretaries. But I can also trace changes in handwriting: there is a clear difference between Madame Necker’s signature on letters dating from the 1790s and those dating from the 1770s. Indeed, in these later letters, her bodily frailty imprints itself in her signature.

Handwritten letters also bear witness to their authors’ thought processes. Some of the letters to Tissot have scratched out sections. In other instances, as I noted in a previous post, correspondents have added extra notes in the margins, expanding on the ideas they originally wrote down.  In all instances, each writer’s handwritten voice is unique. And this is what I love the most about them. The individuals that wrote to Tissot didn’t write in Times New Roman, 12 point, double spaced. They wrote in their own individual, quirky, personal and subjective ways….

On this rainy Thanksgiving afternoon, I’m spending time with Fanny Burney, working through her remarkable description of her 1811 mastectomy. The only copy available to me is a digital edition of her collected letters. Yes, it’s easy to work with. And yes, I can easily do quantitative analysis. And yes, I’ll admit that it’s fabulous that this document is now so easily accessible to scholars and students and interested people anywhere in the world.

But how I wish I had the manuscript in front of me. How I wish that I could see her handwriting. How I miss the voice that comes not from the words, but from the writing itself. After working so long with archival materials, I feel like I’m missing half the story. And what a loss that is.


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