Tuesday, January 25, 2011


The other day I read an article about Emily Dickinson that gave me great pause. It stated that Dickinson published only a dozen poems in her lifetime because she didn’t like the way her poems appeared on a page when published, preferring her handwriting as it added to the poem’s meaning. She liked her own calligraphy and slashes and thought her poems looked much better in her own script than those dozen that appeared in print. I have no idea whether she used the Spencerian method or her own brand of calligraphy, but she churned out about 1800 poems that now appear in various typesets in books throughout the world. And none of them showcase her original script writing to emphasize the fact that, to her, presentation was all.

I’m happy that writers today aren’t judged on the basis of their handwriting, or I’d be in hot soup. Friends once complained of my “distinguished, indistinguishable” handwriting and sighed in relief when I began typing all my correspondence. I never could assume the position for writing Spencerian style – you know, the shoulders square, upright position that Spencer advocated so that you wouldn’t “become hollow-chested (?) or round-shouldered,” and I never mastered the free use of the hand when holding the pen, as I was a pen/pencil pincher from the get-go.

In one of my books, OLD RIDGES, published in 2009, I include a short story, entitled “He Was So Smart,” a sketch about my struggles with penmanship and my desire to excel in handwriting so that I could surpass a fellow classmate named Tommy Cox who wrote a beautiful flowing script. I even went so far as to purchase a grey Scripto pencil like Tommy used because I thought it would produce a script that outshined his “writing the right way.” Miss Williams, my third grade teacher (in the story and in real life), would demonstrate the practice of fine writing with the words: “Think of flowing water. Let the lines flow. Don’t pinch the pencil (ouch for me!). Grasp it gently and make the letters ever so faint. People will judge you by your handwriting one day. They’ll be able to tell if you have fine character by the faint, delicate curve of your letters.” I tried to keep my lines straight and my curves curved, but my mind raced ahead of the pencil and forced me to write dark letters with spaces in between. “Never erase,” Miss Willams would cry. “Never erase. Start over. Erasing shows up as frailty of character. Take another sheet. And sit up straight. Young ladies don’t slump.” She finally took pity on me and went so far as to give me an “A” in handwriting to reward my intense effort.

And so through the years, I tried to develop a fine hand but never achieved either a Spencerian or a Palmerian hand, or even a block printing that was masterful, until…until I enrolled in a shorthand class in high school. The squiggles of shorthand perfectly matched my racing mind, and I practiced writing the short way night and day, finally entering the Louisiana State Rally and winning first place in the state with my squiggles and dots written in ink, mind you, when other competitors took dictation using a pencil. Finally, I thought, finally, someone recognizes that I can write a good hand, even if it is still undistinguishable and looks like another language.

Many years later, with the memory of that shorthand achievement in my mind and feeling a need to brag about it, I decided to call Miss Williams in Baton Rouge where she had lived since the day I graduated from the third grade. I calculated that she'd be in her 90’s and had no hope that she was still alive, but some strange incompletion caused me to pick up the telephone and call her. She answered in a faint voice, and I introduced myself as one of her former students. I mentioned the year I had been under her tutelage and that I had won the Doherty Award (a school award for good attendance, punctuality, and highest grade average) and she hesitated, then talked about teaching so many students during her lifetime, finally confessing that she didn’t have a clue who I was. My heart sank but, like a terrier with a pants leg, I persisted. “I was in the third grade class with Tommy Cox,” I said, straining for recognition. “Oh,” she said, “Oh, I do remember him. He was sooo smart!” A lifetime of trying to achieve excellence died. I almost explained to her that I was the girl who had such a horrific handwriting but managed to chat above my disappointment and actually corresponded with her for awhile. When I called her a year later, the telephone had been disconnected, so I knew that my handwriting teacher had died.

To belabor a point, I’m glad that my writing career doesn’t depend on my handwriting and that my typing teacher had more confidence in my ability to use an old Underwood, that after some experience as an administrative assistant and as a supervisor of secretaries, after moonlighting by typing theses to put a spouse through LSU, I became an accomplished typist. Fortunately, I’ve transferred this skill easily to the computer so that I can turn out these non-scripted blogs in legible type, and the memory of Miss Williams and Tommy Cox is slowly fading.   Sincerely yours...(unsigned)



Jayne said...

I feel the same way about my handwriting. I'm glad it's no longer a big deal.
But my daughter, who not very long ago had to submit--w/her classmates--to the Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest, was not. She dots her i's with big flowers, and crosses her t's with tree branches, and knew that she'd never be recognized for her penmanship (and wasn't!). Makes me wonder what one would say about her writing.
I loved this post. Not to worry that your former teacher didn't remember you... you've still achieved excellence. ;)

Anonymous said...

As a teacher, I'd much rather spend valuable class time on teaching the art of writing rather than handwriting. With the miraculous talent of word processing, spelling is also a belabored issue in schools. Let's stick with the important lifelong skill of expressing yourself with words...as you are so apt at doing.