A cursive state of affairs

Three nights ago my son asked me to translate (his word) a letter he received from a customer communicating something related to my son’s home business. Was the letter in German, for which I have some crude (very crude) translating skills? French? Sometimes he does receive notes in those languages.  This time, not so. The letter was in English but composed in cursive handwriting, and my son was at something of a loss to decipher it.

I saw this day coming. When he was a child, I tried to teach him to write in cursive but he found it burdensome. The abundance of keyboards in our household eventually shouted me down. So that mysterious letter when it arrived might as well have been written in a foreign or archaic language–maybe even an argot as arcane and encrypted as the language of the birds.

As if in accord with some cringe in the cosmos, an article appeared the following day on the KSL News website announcing that the teaching of cursive handwriting skills may be on its way out of the public school curriculum. If you go by the news article, debate on whether or not it should be taught can hardly be called “hot,” but it is interesting. One side says that knowing how to write in cursive–also called “longhand”–helps develop literacy and cognitive skills. The “keyboard camp,” as the article calls the interest group dismissive of cursive, calls longhand “archaic,” saying, “kids simply don’t need to write as much these days.”  Indiana schools have chosen to discontinue altogether teaching penmanship skills to their elementary students.

First, I love how people trot out the word “archaic” by way of mounting irrefutable argument for a thing’s uselessness and for the necessity of disposing of it. Second, while I’m totally stoked to learn that I’m proficient in a specialized and increasingly rare skill–composing in and reading longhand script–I’m also faced with my magical know-how’s practical problems: 30 years of my journals, which at first I kept in obedience to Mormon church authorities’ urgings and later because I saw the sparkling virtues of recording my unlikely adventures, are set down in cursive writing. My journals are a legacy I want to leave to my kids. Several years back, a representative of the BYU Lee Library asked that I consider donating them to the library. Why would anybody want my journals? Because they contain records of my relationships with professors whose presence at BYU during the time I attended is, in some ways, definitive of BYU’s history during that period. These professors include such influential figgers as Marden Clark, Arthur King, Clinton Larson, Leslie Norris, and others. Whole conversations with these folks are recorded therein, in longhand. I turned down the request for several reasons, but mainly because I want my kids to inherit the journals in the originals, with all the idiosyncrasies of my longhand style intact.  But–darn it–the little darlings can’t read them.

Not to detract from the wonders of the electronic frontier and its exotic keyboard gateways, but I’m in the “cursive writing skills help develop memory and other cognitive skills” camp. And not that keyboarding doesn’t come with its own brain-building perks. Better, I think, to nurture skills in both métiers. Under certain circumstances, I’m also something of a sensualist. At any time during my journal-keeping days, I could have typed them (I did, a few, but they’ll need to be re-typed in order to survive many more years). Beginning in the early 90s, I might have committed them to computer memory. But since the late 70s I have enjoyed the feel of picking up a journal, carting it to some meaningful place, and in my own, individualistic style recording events that have affected me deeply. Also, I enjoy the freedom of movement and the expressiveness of cursive that emoticons can’t rival, even when animated. To this day, when I read complex language, I keep notes in longhand, copying passages like a medieval monk in a monastery library.  I do it that way, first, to rethink the idea by shaping with my own hand the words of another’s difficult thoughts–a form of repetition–and second, to savor the sensations of scribing in my own pen strokes strangers’ thoughts that stir my own thoughts and feelings. And you know, no one can affix spyware to my handwriting as they can to smiley faces or free cursors. The independent, untrackable (some would say inscrutable) scratch of my pen moves in a sphere separate from that electronic one where I merely use somebody else’s tools, usually after agreeing to allow them to exploit for their own commercial purposes my twitch for articulating thoughts in the Great Electronic Out Loud.

The article does a bit of hand-wringing over the prospect of valuable family documents being “lost in translation” as “family journals and handwritten letters would all look like hieroglyphics to generations who can’t read cursive.”  I think that statement a little silly, sound-bite hyperbole. But after my recent experience with my son, my mind’s eye flits uneasily over all the longhand letters from students, friends, and family members that I’ve kept for posterity, all the boxes of handwritten notes, including what amounts to “chats” that took place during BYU classes as I passed scraps of paper back and forth with friends during lectures. I came across one such chat recently, tucked inside my copy of Gadamer’s Truth and Method from Jim Faulconer’s hermeneutics class back in the 80s.  My part of the conversation was written in a rather florid longhand. My partner in conversational crime–whomever it was–bespoke himself in a plaintext closer to printing. We were discussing reasons for Arthur King’s unusual behavior in class that day. I also made mention of Eugene England’s hosting a gathering at his home that evening to discuss the quality of teaching in the English department; only students were invited. It’s another scrap of my life–and Arthur’s–and Eugene’s–where they intersected, a shard whose meanings might someday require a graphologist to spell them out for the uninitiated.

The keyboard gang complains that cursive writing’s readability varies from person to person and can be difficult to read. Yes. That’s one of the hazards of individualistic practices–they require critical thinking skills to interpret them. Will standardizing letter strokes via keyboards and drop-down selection bars of common fonts correspond to greater intelligibility and insure seamless communication?


For now, I’ll continue keeping my journals the long way around–in comfy nooks, in bed away from a noisy household with me propped up on pillows, or on the back porch steps in morning sunshine. With a gel pen or one of my fountain pens, which allow for sharp sweeps of the pen tip and gliding stokes, I’ll set down my take on the story of my life in a black track of symbols set in relationship to one another, spelling out thoughts via their varied arrangements, embellished with my unique way of inking. I’m not very sympathetic to “I cannot read a closed book” complaints. The kids will just have to figure out a way to crack my cursive code. My youngest daughter shows a spark of interest in learning to write in longhand, though she can’t yet read mine. Perhaps she’ll come through for me. Or maybe by the time the two ambulatories are old enough to be interested in what their mother was up to when she was much, much younger, there will be an app for converting even the most idiosyncratic longhand to boring old universally readable Times Roman font–BabelFish for cursive script. If that ever happens, we might then have reason to worry about thousands of visual inflections being lost in translation

19 thoughts on “A cursive state of affairs”

  1. Cursive and I never really got along. A big part of that, though, is my left-handedness. I hope some day to remedy that by learning calligraphy, but the time and desire for such discipline is lacking at the moment.

    I’m also not sure which contortion to use. Perhaps it would just be easier to learn a language with a right to left writing system.

  2. I haven’t been particularly diligent in journal keeping, its pretty sporadic, but I do have a lot of early stories and outlines in longhand and I still do it today.

    And when I say a lot I mean more than twenty spiral bound notebooks dating back to my preteens and at least as many finer leather bound journals that looked classier as I aged. One for example is only for dreams (or nightmares) and it is always longhand.

    The thought that kids today could not or would not keep learning cursive is a surprise to me. It hadn’t come up with my family yet, because I got a late start and my oldest is only seven and about to go into second grade.

    I’m going to have to watch this.

    p.s. And I would love to hear more about insights from Leslie Norris

  3. Wm, I’d give my right hand to be left-handed.

    Or, if I had a choice between being left-handed or being able to write in longhand, I’d choose left-handedness over longhandedness, hands down.

    It looks like lefties might have some neurological advantages over righties when it comes to brain injuries. My husband is a suppressed lefty–it was smacked into latency during elementary school by imperialist right-handed schoolmarms. (That happened to my mother, too.) I think that being born lefty provided him significant advantages when he suffered his big stroke two years ago; in spite of the size of the area of damage at the back of his right cortex, he retained a lot more of his abilities–especially his language–than might have been expected.

    You can look at my post here as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek,gee-isn’t-this-interesting, why-don’t-my-kids-don’t-understand-me ramble. Interpreting the letter for my son and the appearance the next day of the news article on cursive writing prompted me to write a few words about the subject. It seemed easier than responding to Laura’s post, which would pull an lot more out of me, if I even work up the nerve to respond at all.

  4. As a librarian, I have people sign their new library cards. I take a sweet delight in the awkward scrawls of children trying to print letters they have only recently learned to form.
    Along come the teens, deliberately distorting their letters into indecipherability to match the latest thug/gangsta style. They show their individuality by looking like everybody else.
    I enjoy the flowing cursive of seniors, even when it starts to spiderweb with age. They learned the script style in their youth, and have never forgotten it.
    Then, there are grown-ups, more and more often, who print their signatures, because that is the only way they know how to do it. I look upon them as I do the people who ask “What time is it?” and, when I point out the 24-inch clock face on the wall, they respond with, “Yeah, but what time is it?”
    Many “archaic” skills are vanishing, replaced by the easier methods of the modern world. I still know how to use a slide rule to solve mathematical problems. I add, subtract, and do long division without a calculator. I can look at a clock and translate the position of the hands into moments of my day. My miniscule, left-handed longhand may require a Rosetta Stone for translation, but I do write that way (I admit to printing messages that are for public consumption). I don’t own an e-reader, but that’s mostly because I am scottish and cheap…and I do like the smell of old books in the morning.
    I lean toward Luddite-ness, and agree with Ogden Nash that “Progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long.” Nevertheless, I use computers, write for an online magazine in my region, and have succumbed to the call of the cellular, although I resent its intrusion each time it rings (and it DOES ring, since I refuse to inflict my musical lack of taste on everyone within earshot), and I need my daughter to download any digital pictures I take.
    I have the best–and worst–of both worlds, and relish them all, because I have found that you Can have “archaic” and eat it, too.

  5. David, you remind me that I have a few large journals and spiral notebooks filled with writing from when I was a teenager. I came across some of those a few months back and read some of the stories out loud to my husband and kids. A good time was had by all. Those stories are not likely to be re-rendered into typed versions.

    But none of my family members mentioned above would be able to read those stories in total without an interpreter. It’s an interesting problem, though hardly of the same magnitude as dealing with a loved one’s profound health issues, or one’s own. But in elementary school, problems loomed larger. As I learned cursive writing, I never imagined it would pass into the realm of the archaic. The classroom environment made it seem an absolutely necessary skill to me. Like you, I’m surprised to find it slipping into the same category as underwater basket-weaving classes.

    I also remember that teachers could be pretty dogmatic about how students should form letters: “NEVER lift your pen when you write a word–don’t put breaks between letters!!!” I’ve had my revenge on this one. My longhand involves lifting my pen several times when I write medium to longish words.

    Re: Leslie Norris. Besides being my thesis adviser and a great friend (I left my dog in his care in his office at BYU once at his request), he rescued me from a difficult situation when I was a master’s student at BYU, something that I lacked the experience to know how to handle. It’s a wonderful story…to me, anyway. Others might not like it so much. “You say and do nothing,” Leslie commanded. “I will stand in front of you in this.” I did as told. And he did as promised. Clinton Larson plays the antagonist’s role in this tale. I ought to get this story down, because … well, I don’t know why. Because to me it’s an important story in about the turns in my own life.

    Maybe I should write it out in longhand first and see how it feels. 😉

  6. Terrence V. McArthur,

    A delightful post that reads out loud like a narrative poem. And I love the punchline, which expresses my sentiments exactly and in similar spirit.

    Thank you so much for commenting! Great fun.

  7. Patricia – Who was the BYU librarian who wanted your journals?

    Wm – I have a lefty friend who studied Arabic and loved the writing system for that very reason.

    Also, I’ve gotten two jobs because I could read “archaic” printed scripts: Fraktur (formerly used for German) and cló Gaelach (formerly used for Irish).

  8. Katya–I don’t recall his name. He approached me during an AML conference several years back. If I remember right, he sat on a panel of some kind–maybe focused on Gideon Burton’s Mormon Literature and Creative Arts Database?

    Sorry I can’t remember more.

  9. No worries. I know a couple of people over there, so I was just curious if it was someone I’d heard of.

  10. I write most of my first drafts by hand. I love pens and ink; I collect both. I don’t know if my cursive is terribly good anymore–my penmanship has mutated over the years into something between cursive and print, but it does have a distinct personality. I look forward to the gleam of wet ink and the smell of good paper; those delights have yet to grow old.

  11. Melissa, I used to collect fountain pens, so I can relate. A fountain pen I won for a BYU writing contest way back rocked my longhand world the first time I used it. But fountain pens require upkeep, and circumstances have led me to go the cheap gel pen route, especially when I head off into desert canyons with my hiking journal. However, I’ll still fire up the Mont Blanc star pen for stay-at-home, personal journal writing.

    Cool to learn about your love of pens and inks. It’s fun to know there are others out there who enjoy the finer tools of handwriting.

    One funny little story. I was working with a student–a Navajo–about a year ago on one of his papers, and, seeing that I needed a pen, he handed me his. The instant I held it in my hand I could tell it was quality. “Wow,” I said, feeling its heft and admiring its styling. “It’s German engineered,” he said proudly.

  12. My first bout of journaling coincided with the advent of the Flair felt-tip pen. O, how many felts sacrificed their tips to keep me in pens!

    Flair pens were available in many colors, so journal entries were in shades that matched my moods and/or whims, sometimes changing in mid-sentence. The pages were filled with my experiences, ideas, wishful plans, and the frustrations of life in community and state colleges. I wish I could quote them, but they were on three-hole binder paper and vanished somewhere between college and marriage.

  13. Like my father before me, I eventually settled on a cursive-block print hybrid, which I proceeded to gradually degrade into a jerky scrawl. My journals and notebooks can be dated to the half-decade by the style and neatness of my handwriting. I expect someday I’ll be awarded an honorary MD for the compactness and inscrutability of my penmanship.

  14. Besides the handwriting challenge, I have two more. Most of my Ukraine journals are written in Russian. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Writing in Russian helped me learn Russian, I thought Russian would be in my life forever, and I imagined my children would know the language, too. My Taiwan journals are in English, but my descendants will probably never be native speakers of English. As long as English is an important international language, I’m sure some of them will make a point of learning it well enough to muddle through the odd volume of my personal history (if I do anything noteworthy enough to make the effort seem worthwhile), but I imagine a few here and there will find languages less than the fun they are to me.

  15. Terrence V. MacArthur,

    Felts are selfless creatures, apparently; I hadn’t thought of them in that light. I shall think the better of them here on out.

    The pages were filled with my experiences, ideas, wishful plans, and the frustrations of life in community and state colleges. I wish I could quote them, but they were on three-hole binder paper and vanished somewhere between college and marriage.

    To suffer in such a way the vanishing of one’s history and its original color-coding! I don’t think I’d be so stoical at such a loss.

    Okay–maybe I will consider translating the journals (at least) into standardized computerese and stash hard discs copies off site or in flash drives in a fire-proof box. Or maybe I had better get a fire-flood-and-other-unanticipated-disasters-proof-box big enough to hold all those years along with perishable and irreplaceable letters from friends and loved one–especially the two or three I have from my thesis chairman Leslie Norris, written in his beautiful, caligraphy-esque script. Toward the end of his career at BYU, Leslie had a BYU email account, but to my knowledge, he never “got” communicating by machine and continued to compose letters in what must have been a time-consuming longhand style as telling in appearance as his words were in meanings.

    Yeah, I better do that.

  16. Besides the handwriting challenge, I have two more. Most of my Ukraine journals are written in Russian. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Writing in Russian helped me learn Russian, I thought Russian would be in my life forever, and I imagined my children would know the language, too.

    I do hope you added yet another layer of challenge by casting at least some of your personal history in poetry, too. 😉

    About this:

    (if I do anything noteworthy enough to make the effort seem worthwhile)

    I muse from time to time over how others will have to decide whether I’ve done something of meaningful effect–I’m too close to it all to even guess. Things you do throw off sparks that fly beyond your range of vision. This is especially the case with language, which since writing was invented has become a more durable form of action, capable of traveling distances, like light, for centuries. Barring any cultural blight of censorship or other unfortunate act resulting in massive accident, such as may (or may not) have resulted in the burning of the library at Alexandria, what you do in written language might continue to cross-pollinate other languaged minds and produce new strains of flowers and fruit forever.

    If my kids acquire the reading skills needed to follow me through my journal writings, they’ll find, at times, some comfort; at other times, the OMG of revelation.

    Mark (and maybe others), you might find this old post of interest, especially since you dropped by my fb page and read my remarks upon “discrete combinatorial systems.”

  17. Your sis sent me a link to your article– this is a subject near and dear to my own heart! I really enjoyed your article. And I’m glad to see your writing is still going strong! I’m a southpaw and still write in longhand much of the time (even make my own ink!) I’m homeschooling and trying to teach my kids penmanship (my son is RH and my daughter is LH). It’s a challenge (even as a lefty trying to teach a lefty), but like you, I feel it does good things for the brain, so we persevere. You might like the Fountain Pen Network… it’s about the only social media I haunt any more. They talk pen, paper and ink there. Penmanship too. I’m fiberdrunk over there, if you decide to check it out.


  18. Teri! Nice to hear from you, and thanks for reading my piece.

    I’ve been reading a lot of funny stuff about southpaws. For instance, I didn’t know the devil has been traditionally portrayed in art as being left-handed. No wonder all those rightie schoolmarms smacked lefties with rulers whenever they caught the little devils writing with that hand on which the uncharitable goats are said to be herded off to eternal fire.

    One of the reasons longhand writing might not have taken with my son (also homeschooled) but appears to be with my daughter might be because boys find longhand awkward. Girls are said to learn it more easily and to be more likely to develop it as a pleasurable skill. Anyway, that’s what the article reports–that boys don’t like cursive writing as much as girls do. Maybe that’s true–I don’t know. Explanations like that sound to my ear like the weird rationales given for oppressing lefties all those decades.

    I’d love to see your left-handed, cursive, homestyle inked, fountain penmanship. Send me a card? I know–I’ll send you one first. I’ll check with Sis for your address.

  19. Oh yes, the devil and left-handedness. I’ve heard that one.

    My own experience bears out what you said about girls and boys. My 6-year old daughter writes better than my 10-year son! Maybe girls just settle down and focus better in the younger years.

    Will be watching the mailbox! I’m not much of a penman, myself, but I’m always happy to show off my inks! :o)

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