Playing with Cursive

As I understand it,  the word “blog” is short for web log.  Other kinds of logs, or journals, have, of course, been written for years before there was the Internet. I myself have kept a journal—off and on—since I was in my teens. More private than the public blog, the journal has been a place where I could explore what was happening in my life and reflect on its meaning. It has been, and remains, a great comfort.

My first journal ca. 1961

I have been reading one of my favorite authors’, Gail Godwin’s, new “writer’s memoir” about her publishing life, called, perhaps somewhat predictably, Publishing.  In part of it, she reflects on how her methods and attitudes toward her writing have changed in her mid-seventies.  For one thing, she found herself writing Flora (her most recent novel—2013) by hand, after having used only a typewriter or computer for all of her previous work. Why?  Aside from the sensuousness of cursive writing, she says, “Covering the lines [of her notebook] with black, slanted letters wet from the pen connected me with the flow of my whole life.”  Yes.  I would add that, for years, I wrote my journals only in pencil, wanting to be sure that I could erase and change what I had written. I rarely did, but having that option, even when there was no reader but myself, felt right.  And I loved the smell and feel of a sharpened #2 pencil—the pre-sharpened Ticonderogas remaining my favorites.  Yes, on a computer, one may more quickly “revise” a page, but the previous version is usually lost, whereas crossings-out and erasures leave behind a few faint hints about its evolution.

I have been told that cursive writing is no longer taught in the schools, for the assumed reason that people today write only on computers and will continue to do so. It would be interesting to study whether the content of writing changes, depending upon whether or not it is hand-written or typed. My guess is that it does, if for no other reason than it takes more time (and thought?) to write out a sentence by hand than it does to type it (assuming you can type at least 50 wpm—the goal of my high school typing class).  Writing something out by hand grounds it in a way that the “qwerty” keyboard can never do. 

Neuroscience tends to agree:  In an article by Brian Braiker of World News, according to associate professor Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger’s Reading Centre, “those who learn to write by hand learn better.

“Mangen points to an experiment involving two groups of adults in which participants were taught a new, foreign alphabet. One group learned the characters by hand, the other learned only to recognize them on a screen and with a keyboard.

“Weeks after the experiment, the group that learned the letters by hand consistently scored better on recognition tests than those who learned with a keyboard. Brain scans of the hands-on group also showed greater activity in the part of the brain that controls language comprehension, motor-related processes and speech-associated gestures. “

Those parts of the brain also have to do with visual art. And art is a form of play.

There seems to be more “play” in the way hand-written, cursive letters are formed. Even though the computer allows us to choose from dozens of “fonts,” none will ever match the idiosyncracy of one’s own handwriting on any particular day, which can speak volumes about one’s state of mind. They used to say that one’s personality revealed itself in one’s handwriting: e.g. whether the loops were high or low, whether the letters were spaced out or clumped closely together, etc.

The idea of “play” appeals.  Godwin quotes Pablo Casals, the famous cellist, who said, “The first twenty years you learn. The second twenty years you practice. The third twenty years you perform. And the fourth twenty years you play.”  Of course, “progress” never falls so neatly or chronologically into those four categories; and if one hasn’t learned to “play” before the age of 70, it’s likely not to happen at all.

In fact, “play” to me connotes a kind of looseness that I associate with youth.  For instance, because of age and injury, my left shoulder has lost its “play” and I am now involved in a rather labored attempt to regain at least some “play” in that tight shoulder so that I can more easily “play” the piano.

But I think Casals (and Godwin) are correct when they suggest that age (like childhood) provides an opportunity to “play”—in many ways–without worrying too much about the consequences. Whenever Godwin still finds herself too caught up in what the world thinks of her work, she recalls a classmate in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1967 who was criticized by her classmates for going “too far” with experimental writing.  Godwin has never forgotten her reply, which was simply, “So? What do I risk? Obscurity?”

Indeed.

According to my old Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, “obscure” comes from a Sanskrit word meaning to “shield” or to “cover.”   Sometimes “risks” have to be taken in obscurity,  without public scrutiny. And so, despite this “blog,” I still sometimes take my college-ruled notebook, go sit in my favorite restaurant, and risk seeing what unfolds when I take the time to put pen to paper.

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