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Penmanship

April 20, 2001

I marvel at the diversity of script among people–all of it different, much of it readable.

We see a sampling everyday on the library’s Internet sign-up sheets. I notice that people signing in usually break two of the three P’s of penmanship, namely position and patience.

I don’t know if the three P’s are official. I just made them up. The third P is practice. But in my experience — and I’ve written a lot of letters in my life — position is most important.

Good handwriting requires freedom for the hand to move fluidly. The choice of pen can matter a lot. Many people write better with pencil–I’m not sure if it’s the broad line or the resistance of the point. Some prefer the frictionless fountain pen, but I think it takes skill and practice to use well.

A quick survey shows that most people write with cheap ballpoint pens from local banks.

A longtime friend and correspondent began typing his letters years ago. He was once a lawyer but should have been a doctor,–his handwriting was always illegible.

It took me forever to decipher his letters. He would make a suggestion of the first letter and then sweep an elegant French curve through to the last letter. Dots and crosses may or may not end up in the right place. It looked like Arabic. As much as I prefer handwritten letters, it was a relief to receive his typed.

Many of the names on the sign-in sheets look like the stereotypical doctor’s writing — maddeningly close to a word but still illegible. But, like doctors, we are usually too impatient to write beautifully. And after all, it’s just a sign-up sheet, right?– so move on.

Except that enough people write skillfully all the time to shame the rest of us. The difference here might be practice, but I think it’s also psychological. We don’t value this simple act enough to do it well.

If you’re inclined, of course, you can improve your own handwriting with practice. The library has a few guides. One, entitled “Write Now,” is a system of italic writing based on 16th-century letterforms, which the authors claim are well suited to rapid writing.

The note-taking demands of high school and college overwhelm the discipline and training of grade school lessons. I was a forestry student long enough to take Dendrology, about classification of plants. Our professor droned on and on as he wrote outlines of classification on the chalkboard. Too often, he requisitioned our three-hour lab periods against our will and used them to perpetrate the most unbearable lectures imaginable.

My notes would start out cleanly, degenerate into the hand of a dying man, and soon fail to include anything about the lecture at all. I remember one page filled with large desperate scribble that said, “Nah, nah-nah, nah-nah …”

Raise your hand with me if you ever took notes you couldn’t read later on. It seems pointless, really. We should value our own thoughts more than that.

I didn’t truly appreciate my mother’s skill in shorthand until college, when I could have used it. As kids, we loved how it looked, how we could say something and she would inscribe along, never more than a curlicue behind us. This looked like Arabic, too.

It was neat, looked hard, and went unlearned by me. Many times, even today in our electronic world, I’ve wished I could write that way. Perhaps I’ll practice the Three P’s.

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