Tuesday, December 18, 2012

This Was Not Written Out Longhand: Thoughts on the end of pen and paper

On a recent Slate Culture Gabfest they touched on the death of composition in longhand, based on Julia Turner's piece about Philip Hensher's book, The Missing Ink), which asked "It's 2012. Do you know what your handwriting looks like?" and ponders whether we've lost something in the era of word processing. The closing line of the article's opening paragraph asks: "When was the last time you used pen and ink for writing, and not just for jotting?"

I do know the last time I wrote something with actual paragraphs with a pen: Monday, June 26, 2006.

I looked.

Having kept a journal on and off since 1988 I have dozens of binders filled with pages on which I scribbled thoughts I had. For the first 16 years or so I only had a pad of paper and a pen to compose the entries. And thus I could go check for the last one on that lined notebook paper. (I didn't care for the college-ruled—the lines were too close for my taste—opting for wide.)

I must concede before we get any farther along that I never had good penmanship. When we learned cursive in elementary school mine was merely passable, and then as I got into junior high and high school the need to take notes turned my longhand into a quasi-shorthand (not that I ever knew shorthand), and as such even when I composed something that wasn't merely notes my handwriting had a barely legible quality. The few times I recall writing a letter (probably the last time around 1996) I'd have to make a concerted effort to make my words clearer. The journal, not intended for anyone else's eyes, did not garner that effort.

As the years passed and found myself composing entries that weren't merely whatever came to mind but something more focused the act of writing without easy revision did force me to think more about what I was trying to say before I put the pen on the page, and I think it helped my first drafts be better. Sure, there were times when I'd cross out entire paragraphs or draw lines with arrows to show where something should be shifted were that possible on a piece of paper; there's no getting it all right the first time.

Also, there were the little scribbles in the margin when I was trying to remember how to spell something. Undoubtedly there are countless instances of misspelled words in those pages, documented for posterity without any spell checking software to catch them.

Beyond that, there were doodles or little drawing from time to time, drawn while waiting for inspiration to strike. Or on occasion the frustration of whatever troubled me would get expressed not merely in the profanity I spewed but more in the evident pressure of the pen pressed into the paper. I recall a couple particularly angry moments where I held the pen like a knife, essentially stabbing the pen practically through the page as I slashed letters that sometimes were so big they were one on a page.

After my wife got me the blahg here in the 2004, the journal did act as something of a farm system for the posts. The inefficiency of taking what I'd written out on the pad and transcribing that on to a computer eventually prompted me to try a small laptop (something I could take on the train with me) in 2006, and after a  period of transition that's how I've composed every entry for almost six years.

At the time I did lament slightly how the electronic format doesn't capture the same output as the handwritten stuff did. The spell check makes it seem like I know how to spell everything right. If I write out a sentence and then totally change my mind and delete it, there's no lingering evidence of the process, only the end result. If I have a horrible day at the office and need a bit of journal venting on the ride home, it's simply not the same to type F… U… on the keyboard as it was to jab that onto the pad with a pen; to change the font size isn't cathartic in the same way.

Perhaps an unintended upside to handwritten pages is the possibility of obfuscation of meaning. When I look back at some of the drivel I composed, some of it is so risibly banal that I like to think when my scribbling renders some words essentially illegible it offers the potential of the content being misconstrued as somewhat profound. Granted, that's unlikely, but with that chicken scratch there are times where not being able to figure out exactly what I wrote could spare me some embarrassment should anyone ever make the mistake of trying to read it.

A couple years ago I started a project of scanning those pieces of paper to TIF files, under the guise of having a backup of sorts, should anything unfortunate happen to all the binders. Glancing at the content while waiting for the scanner to run over the page on the glass, I had moments where even I wasn't sure what I'd written, and I have to believe that probably was for the best.

With the pages composed in electronic format with the word processing application, the thoughts that may have been better kept undisclosed—not because they're shameful but because they're poorly formed or hideously uninteresting—do not get that pseudo-benefit of the doubt, or at least camouflage of indecipherable characters.

(It's entirely likely that aspect of it was something better kept to myself. Oh well.)

I can say this: I know the transition (to only typing) is irreversible. After so many years of not writing longhand I sometimes struggle to put legible letters down even when called upon to do something as mundane as fill out forms at the doctor's office. Composing something lengthy with a pen is now utterly out of the question.

However, when I think back to the years I carried the pad and pen, and how in the tiny train seats I had to contort my body to get my hand into a position where I could get any words on the page, and how my writing hand would feel after holding that pen for long periods, I don't look back at that aspect of composing that way with much fondness. The electronic format may not leave the same sort of artifact, but I find it ultimately less taxing on my body to do (not that the netbook on my lap is without its strain, as typing always has been, but it's easier to sit upright, without crouching a bit over the paper). Also, I can type faster than I could write things out longhand, so when I'm "on a roll" inspiration-wise I compose more than I ever could on that pad. Whatever I can claim to have lost is more than compensated by what I've gained. In its way it served its purpose but it was far from perfection.

Whether what gets composed is of any superior quality because of the means of composing is highly arguable; in the end, that initial capturing of thought is a function of the quality of inspiration, and that relies not on whether one's fingers hold a pen or are pressing keys but solely on what's going on up in the noggin—the same thing that makes us nostalgic for one or embrace the other.

We really need to keep that thing between our ears better occupied, regardless of what's going on with our hands.

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