From Virginia Woolf’s heart-breaking suicide letter, to Queen Elizabeth II’s recipe for drop scones sent to President Eisenhower; from the first recorded use of the expression ‘OMG’ in a letter to Winston Churchill, to Gandhi’s appeal for calm to Hitler; and from Iggy Pop’s beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan, to Leonardo da Vinci’s remarkable job application letter, Letters of Note is a celebration of the power of written correspondence which captures the humour, seriousness, sadness and brilliance that make up all of our lives.
Using a typewriter has challenged me to think, and write, in an entirely new way. Over time, I’ve learned that the defining trait of a typewriter lies in its sole use as a writing tool and that its most valuable qualities are what it lacks. Without the luxuries of seamless editing and a quick spell check, I am forced to slow down and place a heightened importance on each thought and word; a typewriter demands conviction in one’s thoughts. Typewriters have earned a permanent place in my heart, and using them nearly every day has allowed my love of words to extend to the machines that makes them permanent.
I’ve been looking for quite some time for the right typewriter for me. This gives me some hope that it remains out there.
Immediately after every lecture, meeting, or any significant experience, take 30 seconds?—?no more, no less?—?to write down the most important points. If you always do just this, said his grandfather, and even if you only do this, with no other revision, you will be okay.
Computers, texting, IM, Twitter, Facebook—all great technologies that have all but made the concept of “by hand” obsolete. Why write a letter when you can shoot off an email? Why pass notes in class when you can text them (showing my age, I know)? As a result of our migration away from writing by hand, it feels as though we’ve lost sight of an art form. Efficiency has usurped legibility.
In no way is this a missive against computing or using computers to complete tasks once done exclusively on paper. Neil Gaiman may write first drafts of his novels with a pen, but many writers just want the words out of their heads and on the page as fast as possible and for that, one cannot beat a full laptop battery and a blank screen in Scrivener. Instead, this is an acknowledgement of a deficiency I realized later in life regarding a, for lack of a better pun, signature part of my identity—my penmanship.
My handwriting has never been horrible, but I’ve never been happy with it. I’m not giving any doctors a run for their money. However, I’ve always envied those who could jot on a Post-It with the caligraphic elegance of someone writing out table numbers on wedding placecards.
My father’s all-caps penmanship was the first I studied, with its clean, sharp angles and deliberate strokes, like Rockefeller Center in words. I wrote my name, I transcribed passages from books, and took notes all in capital letters in an effort to mimic my father’s style. As a result, I developed a slower, but much clearer way of writing.
After that, I took special note of the way he wrote the letter “R”, which is perhaps the only “flowing” letter in his alphabet. One stroke. He doesn’t go down and double back up the stem, then complete the large horseshoe and kickstand like a normal R. He goes up, swings left with what looks like a backwards “P”, then crosses over the stem and travels down.
I watched him form that letter over and over again, which was easy since it’s the first letter of his first name, and practiced it myself any time something I wrote called for a capital R. It wasn’t enough for me to draw the letter by itself repeatedly on a page. I needed to work it under my fingers, to become familiar with the shape and comfortable enough to compose it along with the letters that preceded and followed it in a school handout or essay.
Once I’d mastered it, I did the same with the cursive lower-case S he weaves into the hybrid print/script style he uses when writing quickly.
And that’s the best piece of advice I can give to anyone looking to improve his or her handwriting. It’s what any music teacher or coach will tell a student who wants to hone a skill: study the greats. J.R.R. Tolkien, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson all had incredible handwriting, most likely due to an early educational focus on legibility and years of refining their styles. In addition, they no doubt utilized tools and techniques to keep their hands and wrists in check.
Remembering the joys of nature—the wild flowers, the smooth pebbles, the beams of sunlight, the flight of birds across a sky traced with wispyclouds—he mingled round and angular, light and dark, trailing vines and curling stems, slender upstrokes and shaded downstrokes, swooping capitals and judicious flourishes.
An example of Spencerian script can be seen here. 
Spencerian script also incorporated the “whole-arm technique,” which relied on the writer’s entire arm to create each letter, as opposed to utilizing mainly (or only) the wrist. These days we let our wrists do the writing, which can result in choppy “chicken scratch” when rushed.
For those interested in trying their hands (another pun!) at the whole-arm method, the easiest way to start is with a chalkboard. With chalk in hand, compose each letter of the alphabet using the shoulder to do the heavy lifting—not the wrist. Go slowly and make broad strokes. As this gets more comfortable and you’re able to increase speed without a loss in quality, make the letters slightly smaller. Only when the letters are small enough is it time to move to pen and paper. This is not an easy thing to master, but the results are a prettier, more fluid script.
Of course, not everyone in the 1800s had the time to devote to the flourishes and swoops of standard Spencerian. As a result, variations on the script were developed, including a “business” Spencerian that “could be markedly faster and less ornate than the script one might use to copy out a poem or write a love letter.” This came about after individuals such as Charles N. Hall worked to improve their penmanship using the original Spencerian techniques.
Put another way, by studying the handwriting of others, one person was able to develop a style uniquely his own. This has been my goal for roughly 10 years and I like to think I’ve made some progress during that time. I’m always working at it. I’ve been trying my hand at more ornate capital letters and have a particular fondness for John Adams’s capitals, as written in his many letters to his wife, Abigail. They’re fancy without being too ostentatious.
The key to my success thus far has been emulation and constant practice. I start slowly, rendering each new letter one stroke at a time, then build up speed until my S-es and Fs flow effortlessly from my pen. Once they’re under my fingers, my natural style mutates the original letters so they no longer belong to Adams or Jefferson, but to me. That’s my capital M in “Marks.” That’s my R in “Rat.”
The journey from scratch to script can be arduous. You will have plenty of moments where you’ll want to jam your pen into the table and walk away, but to me, the benefits of better penmanship make the frustrations worthwhile. My notes are clearer and more pleasing to read. The first draft of my current novel could be in a museum and I wouldn’t feel ashamed at the handwriting, just the choice of words on the page.
The Cramped is a love letter to the analog. It celebrates the art of doing things the long way and I can’t think of a better way to leave you, dear reader, than with a quote by William Morris that kicks off Script & Scribble and inspires us to appreciate that art:
A true source of human happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life and elevating them by art.
But it suddenly hit me that, if my grandchildren can’t write in cursive, will they also be unable to read it? Will they never be able to read the notes written by their grandparents, or even by me? Will the stash of WWII letters my parents wrote to each other will be gibberish to them? If they do original research that involves pre-21st century documents, will they need an interpreter for the handwritten ones?
The loss of cursive knowledge is a serious problem I feel. While my six-year-old daughter is familiar with it, and it was part of her learning in the Montessori pre-school she attended, it will likely be a distant memory to her in short time. For me, I have not written in cursive with any regularity since elementary school (30+ years) when it was required. That said, this short article has given me pause to make sure that my daughter can, at least, read cursive. If for no other reason than it may be a lost skill that few others have.
When I need to read deeply—when I want to lose myself in a story or an intellectual journey, when focus and comprehension are paramount—I still turn to paper. Something just feels fundamentally richer about reading on it. And researchers are starting to think there’s something to this feeling.
Yep. I find this to be true for myself as well. What is interesting, and what the writer mentions and researcher corroborate in this story, is that I find I can read things that take less immersion either on screen or on paper. When deep engagement is required, it has to be paper for me.
Later in the piece he writes:
Maybe it’s time to start thinking of paper and screens another way: not as an old technology and its inevitable replacement, but as different and complementary interfaces, each stimulating particular modes of thinking.
This Royal typewriter belonged to my grandfather. He learned to type on it 70 years ago. I wonder if he had to hunt and peck at the keys as I do now.
It is an interesting device. Fascinating and interesting and frustrating and wonderful, all in its own ways. How often do writers today pine for a distraction-free writing tool, one which gives you nothing but your thoughts, a blank page, and the means to put your words onto that page. This typewriter is the very embodiment of what so many wish for today.
An oldie but goodie from Shawn. It is often true that what many of us look for in our modern devices is a recreation of what we had long before them.
When it came to choosing a notebook to use for drafting my next book, the last thing I knew I wanted was “fancy”. I didn’t want anything that made me self-conscious about doing the work or feeling OK with making a mess. I wanted something utilitarian, functional, and with enough room to stretch my ideas. I also guessed I might need more than one — so it had to be something I already had a few of on hand.
I settled on a spiral bound notebook that I received for free. I have several, in fact. It’s a branded promotional notebook from my friends at Clockwork — a local interactive agency. These were handed out at just about every tech related conference here in town for a couple of years. So, I always picked one up if I saw them and put it into my (large) pile of unused notebooks. I always appreciated the design. Each page has boxes in the header and footer for metadata. They are grid-ruled — a nice subtle dashed grid on recycled paper. A lot of pages too! In other words, I always liked them but did not have a use for them… Until now!
Most times, you don’t need a fancy notebook or perfect pen. You just need to get started. Just find something — anything you can live with — and get to work. The perfect notebook — the perfect anything — is always what is right for you and the task at hand.
If anything, the goal of this site is to help you find that and, then, to encourage you to stick with it.
This post was first drafted in the generic promotional notebook written about above using a Uniball Signo 207 Micro with black ink. A scan of the draft is available for download (PDF).