I love writing. Not writing blogs or stories or poetry (although I love those too!), but the act of writing—of forming letters. I think text itself is beautiful.
This is a useful trait for a medievalist, I suppose, as decoding letters and transliterating text is easier if you also think it’s pretty, but today I’m really just talking about handwriting. In a world where some states are taking cursive writing out of schools, lots of things will end up looking like calligraphy, no?
This means I’ve spent and continue to spend some time on my penmanship. My dad was an architect, and architects used to have to learn a particular script, so anyone could read the blueprints. (They don’t teach this anymore, incidently—another skill lost to the computer age.) I learned that blocky script from him, and by 5th grade I went the opposite direction; I decided I needed to have some distinctive features in my handwriting. I practiced pretty lowercase f and s and uppercase H and made them part of my repertoire. I was a geek.
I still am. Now I practice “lettering” with brush tip pens and online tutorials. I still think writing can and often should be pretty. As with any skill, it comes with practice, and I hand write a lot. I still take notes longhand (not that they’re elegant, but it counts), and keep journals around to jot things down that I need to remember or I need to write about.
My son found one of these journals recently. My son has many fine qualities, but his handwriting is atrocious. At some point even I caved and suggested he type his homework. But occasionally I try to encourage him, and truthfully, his writing is getting easier to read. On the way home from karate the other night, where I had been scribbling in my journal while he practiced blocks and strikes, he picked up the journal and started flipping through.
I asked him if he could read my scrawl, as I knew I’d been writing fast. “Kind of,” he said, but it’s weird because it’s a mix of cursive and printing.” Guilty. This was interesting to me. Did he really process cursive differently, so that it was jarring, slowing him down to sort of switch systems in the middle of a word? Is that a kind of dyslexia? (His dad is mildly dyslexic.) Surely not. Maybe? I pressed him to discuss.
When we got home, I asked him to show me the passage he’d been reading. Ah… Out of around 40 pages of text, my kiddo flipped to the one page I had written in Middle English. Yeah. That’s harder to read, but not because of my hybrid script. Too many letters, and not all of the right ones. Enough to make you feel dyslexic, maybe, if you weren’t expecting it.
Which brings me back to scribes and medieval writing. (Was I there? Only briefly.) Medieval scribes sometimes copied texts in languages they couldn’t read. Think of the possibility for errors! And even if they could read the text, “copying” needs to be in quotes, as they frequently changed the spelling on purpose or without thinking. They were human, just like we are.
And writing is a uniquely human act. Maybe that’s another reason I want to give it its due. To honor and appreciate the act of writing, the medium through which we convey our ideas. And one I’m not prepared to hand over entirely to the machines.