The Lost Art of Longhand, by Elayne Riggs
8:30 AM, Bx7 bus southbound to subway: It’s favored by Luddites and techies alike. Early adopter Neil Gaiman, for instance, writes all his first drafts this way, using various fancy pens. (Me, I use my Uniball blue roller ’cause it’s what I carry in my pocketbook.) It’s physically draining, at least if you’re not used to it. It requires both concentration to keep your hand steady, and a heightened awareness of your surroundings, particularly on moving vehicles. It certainly isn’t for everyone; I’d rarely recommend it for myself. But a pad of paper is a lot lighter and more flexible than my laptop, and not having the distractions of checking email and blogs and playing online games forces me to focus on the here-and-now of completing this week’s column. Besides, I need the practice in transcribing relatively illegible handwriting.
My Dad had beautiful longhand. Which amazed me, because he was naturally left-handed which was a no-no in hyper-superstitious Romania in the ’30s. His schoolteachers beat that left-handedness out of him — not entirely, I think he still shaved and did a few other things lefty, but he became right-handed for purposes of writing. I inherited his "sinister" gene, but by 1960s secular America children were allowed to retain such peculiar proclivities.
8:55 AM, "1" train southbound into Manhattan: Unfortunately, I never inherited Dad’s longhand flair. I can add a few flourishes here and there, but only if I slow down and write very carefully and deliberately, and that starts my hand aching again. I figure I’m okay as long as I’m just legible enough to make out a check (I’m mired enough in the 20th century to still use checks on occasion). Damn, I have to put this away now, someone just sat down next to me and I can no longer comfortably use my right arm to prop this up…
12:05 PM, Europa Café, 5th Avenue off 43rd Street: Anyway, I’m not as big on longhand, or "cursive" as we used to call it, as I am on block letters. I’ve spent about 45 minutes this morning practicing my block lettering whilst filling out employment applications, and I expect the same to constitute much of my afternoon. Block lettering has its uses — because it doesn’t flow and you have to lift your hand in between each letter rather than each word, the writing tends to be more precise as you’ve slowed down. You also tend to use all-caps, which is great practice for lettering comics even though most comics are lettered via computer nowadays. And while a fair number of forms can also be filled out electronically now (I’m a veteran of the online application process), you can’t always count on that being true across the board. If nothing else, block lettering is a good skill to know for taking phone messages and making out shopping lists.
But cursive… it always takes me back to when I used to hang out in the West Village in Dr. Strange’s neighborhood. I loved sitting in the cafés — real cafés, not this assembly-line food factory with its garish lighting and lack of personality. Cafés where you had to squint to see the page on which you were writing, particularly when the people around you were smoking… hmm, come to think of it, that atmosphere usually came with a pretty hefty price tag as well. Guess seven bucks for a sammich and another two for a soda really isn’t too bad considering the money I used to shell out for fancy-schmancy tea in those noisy, dimly-lit holes in the wall. But I can’t deny it felt cool to be there, writing on Bleecker Street only a decade or so after it had achieved hipness cred. By and large the people-watching certainly seemed superior to the pickings in this place, a combination of tourists and businesspeople and out-of-work schlubs like me. Then again, I imagine this scene might look pretty exotic to someone from a small town.
Writing in restaurants and cafés has always carried with it a romantic cachet. Especially now when every other Starbucks has internet capability and lots of public spots feature wifi. And being an art in itself, writing encourages doodling. I’ve been away from cursive-for-fun for so long that I suspect I don’t even know how to doodle any more. But I think I used to have the hang of it, back when I took minutes of meetings which droned on and on. I never drew pictures of anything, just random shapes. Still, it’s a good mind-wandering exercise that I imagine has all but disappeared with the advent of laptops.
4:50 PM, BxM2 express bus northbound to Bronkers: On a computer, unless you’ve set your word processor to track every single change, a deletion is forever. You don’t even think about back-spacing to erase a stray thought. On paper, all your errors and changes of mind remain, in case you want to change back for your final draft.
Lastly, I like the tactile sensation of putting pen to paper. It’s different than keyboard playing, quieter, more contemplative, more expansive somehow. A blank, lined piece of paper is more inviting, less taunting than a blinking cursor on a white screen. I’ve heard the same from artists who prefer the "hands on" approach of pencil, pen or brush on board to digital creation. Hybrids like my husband like to use Wacom tablets to draw directly onto computer, add effects and so forth, but I still notice Robin working mainly on boards. Granted, those boards are often blueline printouts of scanned and emailed pencils which he’s manipulated onto standard templates with the proper headers (title, page number, artist names) added on top, and the finished board will also be scanned and uploaded to the company’s servers. We are a 21st century household, after all. But in between those two digital processes, Rob still does the vast majority of his actual drawing by hand. And the steadiness and coordination he’s built up from years of working this way are useful skills in many other endeavors.
Me, I have "the hand of a kack," as Robin likes to observe. So this column-writing-by-longhand is not destined to be a regular occurrence. But it’s sure passed the time in between today’s pavement pounding. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a wrist brace somewhere with my name on it.
Elayne Riggs can be found blogging about all sorts of things here, and transcribed this from handwritten pages between 8:30 and 8:50 PM yesterday.