Failure #15: Master nice penmanship

No child has ever been as excited to learn how to write than I was as a wee tot. By the time I arrived at school, I was burning to write down all those stories I’d been composing in my head over the prior six years. There were stories about detectives and teenage pregnancies and depressed elves to be written!

By age three, I was speed reading those Dr. Seuss books and comprehending a fair amount of the TV Guide. My mother began teaching me how to draw letterforms. In the back room of the Kingdom Hall, she’d draw dots on a small pad of paper and I’d connect them to form letters. While my peers were in kindergarten, taking naps and eating glue, I was at home watching Gidget, practicing writing my name and learning about lazy dogs and the quick foxes who jump over them.

Having proved to my mother that I could sing all the songs from Sesame Street and draw realistic spiders on my bedroom wall, we agreed it was time for me to enroll in public school. I skipped kindergarten and went straight into first grade, where we were taught the Zaner-Bloser style of printing. So, excited—and feeling a little bit cocky with the two years of practice I’d had—I put pencil to elementary writing tablet and began putting circles and lines together to make letters. I don’t think anything made me happier in my early childhood education than the language arts subjects. I excelled in writing and spelling. And my newfound ability to manipulate language provided an escape into fantasy worlds of my own making. The letterforms weren’t elegant but they were legible and easily distinguishable from one another. Life was grand.

In third grade we moved on to cursive writing. In theory, cursive handwriting is flowy and elegant and inspires grand romantic notions. The D’Nealian cursive is none of those things, especially when formed by the hand of a gawky eight-year-old. Suddenly the letterforms looked different, felt different. This is not how I wanted my letters to look. But I scribbled along, hoping one day to be allowed to pursue a classier handwriting style.

Armed with the basics of penmanship, my classmates and I started tinkering with the letterforms. Pulling inspiration from older siblings and fonts from magazine ads, we played with shapes and sizes. The boys tried writing as small as they could. The girls took liberties with dots and line weight. My lowercase a’s went from one-storey to two-storey and back to one-storey again. Then I discovered my n’s and r’s were too similar and began setting my R’s in small caps amidst my lowercase letters. My cursive style morphed into something altogether different. My letters became narrow and started blending together. Hello individuality, goodbye legibility.

Soon after the start of junior high, I got my hands on my mother’s electric typewriter. The quality of my penmanship diminished. When I bought my first word processor, I hardly wrote anything in longhand anymore… Yes, a word processor—that dandy piece of technology that bridged the gap between typewriter and computer. And much like other interim technology—eight-track and laserdisc players and zip drives, the word processor has faded from consumer memory. I must admit, if it weren’t for the internet, I’d still be using my 1993 Brother word processor.

My dream of having elegant penmanship was short-lived. I had Ideas and Thoughts of Great Importance that needed to be jotted down immediately. I couldn’t get bogged down with swoops and flourishes and perfectly centered dots. My mother and sister have attractive, legible, feminine penmanship. To read one of their notes, you can tell that care was taken to form each letter. They make the extra effort for neatness and clarity. My handwriting has devolved into messiness. It’s barely legible and straddles the gender divide as I quickly scratch out my thoughts before they dissipate.

Despite my dependency on the electronic formation of letters, I have great appreciation for the art of penmanship. Handwriting is a truly individual method of expression. It’s personal and human, an intimate form of communication. The way a person handles a pen can indicate mood and personality better than any emoticon. I am saddened by the imminent extinction of penmanship. As schools start encouraging kids to master QWERTY before they learn the ABC’s, we might see the handwriting limited to fine artists and hipsters. Typographers of the future may dedicate themselves to the creation of fonts that mimic great examples of penmanship from the 20th century and earlier.

Could I take on the challenge of retraining my hand and develop a nicer handwriting style? Should I download worksheets of the different styles of manuscript and cursive printing and start over? It sounds like a nice exercise, not only for handwriting but also in patience. Maybe I could develop a system of handwriting based on popular typefaces or a course that teaches elementary level printing and the fundamentals of typography. Think of how much better the pizzeria signs will be in the future! I could inspire future generations of depressed elf stories and failure essays!