By Jim Henshaw
Once upon a time, there were people known as Public Letter Writers. They sat in market places, had a storefront in frontier boom towns, operated out of the back booth of a coffee shop where their clients would not be embarrassed to meet with them.
Public letter writers provided a service to those who could not read or could not write, allowing them to fill out government forms, conduct business or communicate with loved ones.
Many still exist today in third world countries where literacy levels are low. But they are coming back to the first world as well — because our kids don’t know how to write anymore.
Pushed by technological advances, the need to use the kind of Cursive handwriting we were all once taught in elementary school has become less necessary. When you can thumb a mobile keyboard or tap a screen, there’s little need to know how to operate a pen or pencil anymore.
Email has replaced letters to friends and family. Students, journalists and executives in boardrooms take notes on tablets or laptops. You don’t even have to endorse a check anymore. You just send a picture of it to your bank.
45 American states no longer include Cursive in the curriculum of their education systems and those that still too don’t teach it all that much. Canadian educators are moving in the same direction.
Some may see that as an inevitable future.
Last week I met a student at a nearby University who is part of a writing group. She and her colleagues don’t study writing or share short stories. They write letters for fellow students who no longer have such skills. University students. Many of whom don’t even have a signature, opting for print or a symbolic scrawl instead.
I often get complimented on my handwriting. It’s apparently incredibly legible. What few know is that I invented the “font” I use when I was 12 or 13. I’d just gotten a beautiful fountain pen as a birthday present and I loved using it. Problem was I went through ink by the bucket and it was beginning to impact my ability to afford licorice pipes and comic books.
The solution seemed clear. Rather than write less, get rid of all the Cursive curlicues I’d been taught to identify or connect the letters. What evolved was something sans serif, a phrase I wouldn’t learn til years later.
It may have been that invention process that first gave me an insight into something all writers know. It isn’t just about putting words down on paper. The physical act connects you with so much more on so many other levels.
Many times, when plot or character aren’t working the way I want them to, I’ll still step away from the keyboard and pick up a pen and legal pad. Writing by hand requires a very different mental process, one involving parts of the mind closed by the ease of typing.
Sooner rather than later, what I’ve been trying to accomplish is back on track. Likewise, I never sit down to rewrite before the previous draft has been revised in pencil or red ink. Things just go better if I do the grunt work by hand.
I’ll leave the explanation of just how all that works to Master Penman Jake Weidmann an artist and writer who knows just how much we are losing in our trade-off with technological advance.
It’s not just the words on the page. It’s a chunk of our humanity.
First published on The Legion of Decency.