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A Beautiful Archaic Skill

category_bug_journal2.gif How can a blogger, especially one who blogs every day, forget to blog? That's what happened to me yesterday.

The painter was here to put the finishing touches on the kitchen and dining room, and then Jerry with the snow blower arrived and when the painting was done, I was eager to get the rooms back to their normal condition, pictures hung, furniture replaced, etc. It all took longer than I would have imagined and well - next thing I knew it was nearly dinner time and I had no story written.

Life just gets in the way of the blog sometimes, so here's a quick take on something we elders may be the last generation to know about.

When was the last time you wrote or received a personal, hand-written letter? Not just a birthday card. Nor an invitation with a note appended. A real letter chatting about life. In my case, it has been decades. Perhaps not since my great Aunt Edith died in about 1985.

So imagine my delight when I found this in my mailbox yesterday.

Stan's Envelope

And it's not just any scribbled address – look at the gorgeous calligraphy. It is a letter from a young friend whom I met when we both attended Chris Pirillo's Gnomedex conference in Seattle in the summer of 2007. Stan, who blogs at wanderingstan, has visited me twice here in Maine and he is currently living for a year in Berlin.

Stan has a number of esoteric interests, such as calligraphy, and he didn't stop with the envelope. The entire letter is written in his beautiful hand.


He was kind enough to mention that he isn't, as he put it, “trying to shift our discussion to a new medium,” and I'm grateful for that. Since I took to computers full time in the mid-1980s, my handwriting has greatly deteriorated, so much so that sometimes even I can't translate what I've written. When it must be readable, I print.

In fact, I think I've lost the fine motor skills needed for reasonably clear longhand and when I have occasionally tried to write more than grocery list, I'm annoyed that my writing can't keep up with the speed of my mind as it can on a keyboard.

I'm sure most of you remember the hours we spent in grammar school practicing script – aiming for perfect Os and Ls and Qs – all those flourishes on capital letters. When we were kids, beautiful handwriting was still an admired skill.

There isn't much use for it these days. Kids learn to type pretty much while they're learning to read and who knows how far that will be carried as voice recognition software improves. I wonder if schools will stop teaching handwriting.

It was a delight to receive Stan's letter yesterday. It's almost worth framing as an example of an archaic art.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: My Favorite Job


A lot of schools in our area teach very little handwriting--enough for a signature basically.Now days young people all write like doctors on a perscription pad. We all know that's no compliment!

I do remember the struggle as I tried to make my handwriting resemble the examples that were strung across the wall, just above the blackboard in our classroom. I'm sure I went through reams of that horizontally blue lined paper in my endeavors. The end result, 60 years later, is much like you describe. Illegible scribbles.

I also remember that my Nana and her brother had a 'Spencerian Hand'. Beautiful!

Steven's comment brought floods of memories! Our elementary school also had the handwriting examples strung above the blackboards and we used that horizontal lined paper.

I remember my capital T (upper case to you young'uns) was always ugly to me, so I did my own rendition and got called on the carpet by the teacher because my T wasn't "correct".

Oh boy, can I identify with you, Ronni.
I can't read my own handwriting anymore.

When I am forced to write someone who doesn't have a computer it's painful I keep getting ahead of myself trying to type script. Needless to say, it doesn't work.

Steven and tnwoman...

I'd completely forgotten those strings of letters above the blackboard until you mentioned them. And, of course, that was the only "correct" way for letters to look.

I suppose that made sense while we were still learning - back when the quality of one's handwriting supposedly said something about a person.

I was delighted to find the art of hand letter writing was not dead when my young niece (30s) in the UK sent me a proper letter before Christmas.

My journal, not a daily thing, is still kept in handwriting. It just doesn't seem the same if I do it on the PC, though I must confess to a secret "rants" folder in the computer.

Ronni, you may have a deluge of handwritten stuff now we have your out!

Kids don't even take "typing" courses anymore..they take "keyboarding."

My handwriting is still pretty good, but I'll admit that I can't remember the last time that I hand-wrote a complete letter...just notes in cards.

A letter like that is a gift!

My own penmanship is a source of shame for my mother, who is a 70+ former teacher. It is legible, tho.

Each year I handwrite thank you's for holiday gifts to loved ones. My husband mocks me when I insist on snail-mailing notes to my own pre-teen children (who live with me).

The kids' delight at getting a personal, stamped letter is a delight to me as well.

I love getting a handwritten note.
I would frame that envelope.
Thank you for sharing as it put a smile on my face.
His handwriting is beautiful!!
Like, Erin - I write handwritten thank you notes for any gift, and also when something special is done for me or a compliment to someone.
I send cards and notes to my little granddaughter's 4 and 7.
My daughter tells me they love receiving mail.
Of course - grandma always encloses $1.00.

I'm happy my letter to you made for good post material. ...Only now the whole world can see that I've forgotten that it's no longer 2009! :)

Yes, I remember those "exemplar letters" above the blackboard as well!

If anyone is interested in letterforms and calligraphy, I can reccomend this book as a great inspiration:

My friend, Felicity, in Dublin ireland always writes to me and thinks the intimacy is lost in email and typed. I kind of agree but do respond to her on fancy notepaper but typed.
I love the calligraphy, such a dying art.
I do write a journal and love the sound of the pen on the paper....

My daughter in law, not with calligraphy but with fine handwriting, writes notes like that especially as thank-yous for gifts to her boys that are supposedly from them and might include a bit they did, like a handprint. I always appreciate it and what she is teaching them. I learned calligraphy at one time and had fun with it for awhile but let it go like so many temporary interests. It is beautiful like out of a Jane Austin novel.

A lost art!!!!

I always had good hand writing considering that I was left-handed. Some teachers acted like it was a handicap and I guess it was in a way. I worked very hard on my handwriting because my mother and dad demanded excellence come report card time and Cs were a no-no. After my stroke over 30 years ago, I had to learn to be right-handed -- a huge challenge -- and my handwriting is pretty awful so I avoid writing much and print if I need to write something.

Maybe I'll hand write you a thank you for this needed diversion from the day's news. But if I don't, here it is!

Thank you for this post. I realize that I can write letters in longhand to my Granddaughter and she may find that kind of special later in her life...or not!

I understand from the students now in University that cursive writing is no longer taught in public schools in America. I actually think the heavy "drill" on penmanship that we received in grade school [at least in MY time there] had more to do with self preservation of the teachers who had to suffer squinting through pages of hand scribed essays as we wrote our way through our education.

What a sweet joy to read Mr. James script.

In my primary school (grade school) in England we wrote with pens dipped into the built-in inkwells on our desks. By high school, we had graduated to fountain pens. Ballpoint pens were invented some time around then but their use was strictly forbidden. The teachers said ballpoint pens ruined one's handwriting. I think they were right.


I have a couple of friends who insist on using only fountain pens. I like that.

I spent hours practicing handwriting but I never developed beautiful cursive writing. I took a calligraphy course in 1966 to improve my handwriting. My handwriting is legible but still is not a work of beauty. My left handed husband studying my workbook practiced writing with his right hand and developed a very elegant handwriting.

I have a half-dozen Waterman pens with Calligraphic nibs that I've filed a bit to suit my slant. Whenever there's anything "important" to write (lttrs to Grandchildren, aplications that can't or shouldn't be completed on-line etc.) I pick up my Waterman and loosen the cap. It's really amazing how much better my handwriting is when I have my Waterman in hand.
It is not "La plume de ma tante" but it works pretty well.

His Spencerian hand is gorgeous and a charming example of a lost art. I am also a calligrapher and have tried to bring teaching calligraphy back into our local schools. I offered to teach for free as I think that a clean Italic hand, as taught by the late Lloyd Reynolds, is a great adjunct to learning. But alas, they weren't interested. Italic is a lot easier to learn and retain than Spencerian (however beautiful) and holds up, even through the vicissitudes of time.

What a lovely surprise. The calligraphy is such a lost art but is enjoyed by all who see it. I write actual letters to my mother who refuses to use a computer and to my aunt (her sister) who also will not use a computer. I also write to my best girlfriend's mother since I have known her and her daughter over 50 years now. But you are right, what would we do without email? Or texting? I am in better communication with my grown kids now than ever before.

I love reading your blog. Here is something on cursive I posted on mine (A New Wrinkle) recently:

Where Has All The Cursive Gone?

I've found something new to add to my ever growing "you know you're getting older when..." list. There it was. Sitting in my mailbox. A hand addressed envelope. Actual cursive writing. Those lovely swoops and loops, swirls and serifs nearly made me swoon. I considered saving the envelope and tossing the card. OK, so I'm a cursive traditionalist.

Never mind that some of us suffered at the hands of ruler-wielding nuns who had no qualms about wrapping our young knuckles for even minor violations of the Palmer Method. Our classroom had examples of the entire alphabet, upper and lower case, pinned above the blackboards. There was even a place on our report cards to grade handwriting. That's how seriously we took penmanship.

As a left-handed second grader learning to write with a fountain pen, I was particularly challenged. Oh, I could form the letters correctly, bring the descenders below the line just far enough and the ascenders above it with equal skill. "A" for form. "D" for neatness. I held the invention of the ball point on a par with the wheel. No more smeared papers.

With the unstoppable popularity of the computer, cursive has become an endangered species --practically a dinosaur. All hail the keyboard!

Frankly, I can type way faster than I can write so the keyboard serves me well in a multitude of situations. I am hardly anti-keyboard. But when the message is more personal, like a journal entry, a birthday card or a thank you note, I reach for the Mont Blanc medium point blue ink.

Most of my Palmer Method lessons have been forgotten and my handwriting has morphed into a potpourri of cursive and printed letters. The mix varies depending on the space available and how much time I have to fill it. Yet, even with all my penmanship variations, I have never dotted an "i" with a heart -- a habit I find particularly annoying for anyone older than 14.

There's a hilarious scene in "Take the Money and Run" where the inept Woody Allen hands the "put the money in a bag, I have a gun" note to the bank teller. The teller asks what a gub is, even calls over the manager to decipher the message. Thus the drawback of cursive. As elegant and romantic as it might look, it still has to be legible. 2

Thanks, Mary, for recalling the good old Palmer Method. It can still be recognized in my occasional handwritten notes. However, more and more they are sprinkled with carets, cross-outs and "oopses" as my brain/hand coordination and my spelling slows down. I've become dependent on the little red underline to alert me to a misspelling and the back space and Del keys that enable a more perfect product. I used to hand write letters to my ex-MIL (see what's happening!) but now email them to her daughter who prints them out in large type for her. I do tend to write more often if I can type, a skill I learned at my mother's urging when I was on the college bound track in High School. She said, "You never know when you might have to support yourself", which itself speaks volumes about female expectations in the '50's. Though I grumbled and called it "boring" then, I am soooo grateful now to have learned "touch typing" ! The scrawled "thank you" notes I get from my grand children speak to a lax attention to "penmanship" in schools today. -- And thanks, Ronni, for another trip down memory lane. As the "old" ways disappear, new ways take over. I had my first "Skype" session with my Portland babes last night!

Thanks to Ronni and all who brought back memories of the good old Palmer
Method and being graded on penmanship. As I recall, you weren't supposed to move your hand much when you wrote, but rather move the muscles of your forearm as it rested on the desk. I never mastered that very well, but still had a clear handwriting--not used too much anymore.

My son, in his forties, has handwriting more like printing, but done very rapidly. Not used much, either. My granddaughter wouldn't be able to use cursive at all, or see any need to.

Love that beautiful calligraphy! Began learning it years ago, but gripping a pen for long brought on so much arthritis pain I had to give it up, much to my sorrow.

Now when I have to handwrite (to relatives who don't use computers) I often skip ahead a letter or have other glitches. As Tarzana noted, some of us lose some brain/hand coordination and our letters have to be marked up.

Ronni, those little glitches also can make us forget something habitual, like blogging every day. Recently I read a quote by an elderly doctor, whose name I can't recall (naturally), saying that he thought he'd be able to just do things by rote when he got old, but he found that's not true; in fact, just the opposite. We have to make even more of a mental effort to perform tasks we do every day. Sometimes keeping everything in line feels like trundling a bunch of cats in a wheelbarrow.

As much joy as one may find in receiving beautifully lettered missives, I'll be happy to have the kids spend their time on something other than hand lettering. I cannot imagine how we should expect them to learn everything that we learned 50 or 70 years ago PLUS everything that has transpired or been invented since then.

From years and years of use, my block lettering is legible. Calligraphy or Spencerian lettering? Forget about it. Most of us have things to do with our time, other than practicing hand writing, and nothing is more readable than Arial (or, on screen, Verdana).

To my aunt and cousins who have no computers, I send printouts of electronically written letters. The electronic version is carefully filed for future reference - so I can "remember" what I have already told them and need not repeat myself. I wish that those relatives would learn to do something other than hand writing. Most hand writing is very difficult to decipher, for me. (After 54 years, I still cannot decipher Hunky Husband's writing!)

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