Writing matters

Last fall before the first meeting of Calligraphy class, a mother explained why her son was enrolled. “He wants to be a doctor when he grows up, but his handwriting is terrible! If you want to help people, I told him, what you write must be easy for others to read.” I suspect that many of the parents of the children with whom I work want their child to write competently and with care. Below I will outline two important reasons why writing remains relevant today.

Today’s parents receive a daily education in how digital media shapes people’s interests and goals. Yet many, like the mom quoted above, recognize that we still often face situations where it is quickest and easiest to think and communicate by hand. That remains the main purpose of handwriting, a human invention that reaches back thousands of years. One important moment in its history occurred during the Renaissance when, as the author Jan Adkins writes, “everyday handwriting gained greater importance. Communication was the current of rebirth, running from one mind to another between cities and countries.” Italian writing masters disseminated a slanted, current (running-together) script known today as Italic. Here it is in use at the San Francisco Public Library:

Blogx - italic example SFPL.jpg

Italic’s structure lends itself to being written quickly, and its letters, derived from natural hand movements, make it possible for young children to learn. For centuries the written Western alphabet has been taught systematically in public schools throughout Europe, and the Italic hand has often been the model. Today in the United States, it is rare that handwriting gets much formal treatment. No national standards exist for it beyond the first grade and the standard instruction that is offered is deficient—a subject for a future post. Lately, the de-prioritization of writing seems to have accelerated: some parents of elementary-age children recall that their own writing lessons spanned several grade levels, and that Writing was given roughly equivalent emphasis to Reading and Arithmetic (the so-called “3 R’s”). Whatever policymakers think, parents and teachers today continue to see a need for young students to be trained in how to write in a legible, controlled hand.

Beyond utility, a more important reason exists for learning to write well. It is more difficult to put into words. People enjoy making deliberate marks by hand on a deeper-than-thinking level. I glimpse this in the faces of the eight-to-ten-year-olds experimenting with the thick and thin marks made by a chisel-tipped pen dipped in ink, and with five-year-olds who smile proudly at the long line of zig-zag chalk lines that they have transformed into a snake. Scientists deem such enjoyment a “useful cognitive exercise.” In the rush to produce digitally-literate future workers (a push that is felt worldwide), we sever ourselves from both an ancient human tradition and a basic human need: to be understood, to communicate clearly in our own voice. Of course, this is a skill that emerges gradually, out of many years of sustained practice.

For an excellent introduction to the history of the Western alphabet, read “Letterbox: The Art and History of Letters” by Jan Adkins.

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Sources of Inspiration

I first encountered calligraphy as a boy when I found a large book on the English artist William Morris on my mother’s bookshelf. It was full of beautiful pictures—Morris was a tireless designer and activist printer—but an image of an unfinished medieval-style manuscript page fascinated me beyond all the rest:

Morris-calligraphy

I wanted to pick that old piece of paper up, scrutinize its fine, careful writing and beautiful borders of colorful vegetation, and pick up a pen and brush to finish where the artist had left off.

I kept this memory in mind as I tried to spark (or deepen) an interest in calligraphy in a group of upper elementary students in Berkeley last fall. Over eleven one-hour meetings, the class practiced simple Roman capitals and small Italic letters, first in pencil and then with dip pens: the same materials that “real-life” calligraphers like Morris used more than one hundred years ago, and that calligraphers still use today. Initially the idea of 9 and 10 year-olds using indelible ink seemed risky, but I followed a colleague’s somewhat mystical advice to “assume that the students already know what to do.” This proved to be among the course’s best features: by and large students rose to the challenge of loading their own Brause 3mm pen nibs with black Higgins Eternal ink, and took care to clean their equipment with water, a rag and an old toothbrush at the end of each session. The students’ intuitive care for the writing tools was exciting to see. Such respect contributes to a writer gaining control over her pen, and not the other way around. No page of beautiful writing could ever be completed without it.