Handwriting and Personal Identity

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One advantage of a blog is the expression of creative ideas, or at least new ideas, in a rapid way. So I will take advantage of this and hope there is at least a little creativity to be found in what follows.

Personally written messages are becoming extinct. It is so much easier to dash off an E-mail: no walk to the post office, no further worries about whether the message was received, and no long wait for a response. Many of us believe we get way more done in this manner.

When word processors first became easy to use, I was amazed at how my own scratchy handwriting could be transformed into something of beauty by using different fonts (a word formerly known by and large only to a cadre of professional printers and publishers), sizes, italics, and all the other options offered, even color. For those who teach, Power Point became a perceived improvement to the centuries-old method of chalk-and-talk.

As a college teacher, what a great improvement! I didn’t have to decipher countless styles, some which might be considered indecipherable.

But now after more than a decade, computer fonts and laser-printed pages seem to blend together. When reading a stack of classroom assignments, I’m happy when I notice three or four different font styles out of thirty papers.

What happened?

The richness of human expression and its individuality have been lost. I can’t match a paper to a person. When I look back at my own schooling, I remember clearly the handwriting of teachers, friends, and family. I recall Mrs. Nelson’s handwriting. My first-grade teacher, she used a real fountain pen with washable-blue ink. I still have my report cards nearly half-a-century later, and one look at these brings back thoughts of her neat and organized board writing.
Somewhere in the brain other cues occur and I can smell the varnish on the floor or Mr. Toby coming out of the furnace room with coal dust on his shirt. It was a small red schoolhouse. Really! And alive once more.

I fondly remember getting back a paper in graduate school, one speckled with red ink marks on nearly every line. And at the end, some encouraging words written in bold, confident, and expressive penmanship, signature qualities of Eugene Kennedy, toward whom I remain grateful for much learned in school and many kindnesses afterward.

My father’s precise penmanship, the penmanship of the inventor and multiple-patent-holder he was, taught to him by the good Sisters of Saint Joseph, and reflective of his own engineering craft of grinding space-camera lenses to ten thousands of an inch precision, is unforgettable.

Then there are lost sweethearts, family members remembered fondly, contracts signed, checks written, daydreams scribbled in journals: colored inks, tactile papers, penciled words erased, almost infinite, and each a segue and memory into a life lived well.

Many psychologists from Freud to Bettleheim to Rogers and beyond remind us of how those near to us and those loved by us help to create who we are and how we feel about life. For those growing up now, will looking back and countless words stored on whatever new electronic medium, and probably not on gigabytes but on tetrabytes, evoke any emotion?

Keep those letters in a safe place, those scribbled homework assignments from children cherished, carefully signed contracts kept, and know they remain tangible markers of a lifetime, even tokens and signposts for those in the future.

Even as I faithfully upgrade my computer, I still treasure a few fountain pens and bottles of Schaefer and Higgins Ink, and some really good paper made of cotton and rag that keeps the letters from spreading as the tip flows over the paper.

Mental health and handwriting: our current selves and memories of persons in our past…yes, I think there is a clear vector of relationship, a permanent reminder of who we are.

Are you sending out holiday cards and letters?

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