Why Write? Penmanship for the 21st Century

After (shamefully) not writing any new posts for six months, here I am writing my second post in a single day. I’m on a roll!

I’m writing this second post to counter the negative sentiments of my earlier post, “Ink – Written by Hand,” in which I wrote about the future of handwriting appearing to be in jeopardy. This second post offers a more positive outlook.

After writing the first post, I was following some related links when I found myself on the Beyond Calligraphy Facebook page. Although Beyond Calligraphy is chiefly about Asian calligraphy, among its posts I discovered an amazing TEDx MileHigh Talk called Why Write? Penmanship for the 21st Century, given by Jake Weidmann, who I’d never heard of.

While watching the video (watch it at the top of this post), I learned that Jake is the youngest person to achieve the title of Master Penman, one of only twelve in the world. As such, he has much to say in support of the humble pen.

He begins his talk by sharing his fears for penmanship, when he says about the pen, “for the first time in history the value of this amazing tool hangs in the balance.” And he reveals, shockingly, that 41 out of 50 states in the US no longer require handwriting to be a fundamental part of their curriculum.

But then he takes a more positive stance when he states, “the pen is… the baton passed from one generation to the next.”

He adds, “I believe that typing is a very fundamental tool that children need to learn. However, they should not be learning it at the expense of handwriting.” This comment received the most favourable audience reaction of his entire talk.

He went on to say, “It is not technology that is the direct enemy of the pen, it is our dependency on technology. And the greater we grow our dependency on technology, what we may soon find is that we’ve created the most technologically-advanced way of creating illiteracy.”

Screenshot 2015-10-07 17.12.02For those in the audience who had given up on good penmanship, Jake had a few words of advice. “To those of you who say, ‘my penmanship has sailed and sunk… I write in chicken-scratch,’ let me encourage you a bit.” Then, to the backdrop of a monochrome photograph of a handless man and a fine example of ornamental script, Jake stated, “this is JC Ryan, The Handless Penman, a man without hands who made his living from penmanship. Any more excuses?”

Jake’s talk is, in turn, educational, thought-proving, inspiring and humorous. Watch the video and hopefully, like me, you will be enthused by Jake’s passion for penmanship and you’ll believe that there may be hope for the future of handwriting after all.

Jake concluded his talk on penmanship with a promise. “More than a form of writing or a communication, this is an art form for me and, as an artist and as a master penman, it is my goal to see that it lives on to see the dawn of a new generation.”

A few hours ago I was writing about the demise of handwriting, and I hadn’t a clue who Jake Weidmann is. Now I know. He’s the youngest ever Master Penman, an expert speaker, and quite possibly the saviour of penmanship.

Ink – Written by Hand (a short film about handwriting)

I’m grateful to my son, David, a designer, who regularly sends me links to interesting calligraphy-related items. Despite being a non-calligrapher, David has a knack of discovering calligraphic gems that I somehow remain oblivious to.

He recently pointed me in the direction of ‘Ink – Written by Hand,’ a short film about handwriting by filmmaker/cinematographer, Ryan Couldrey (watch the video above).

Screenshot 2015-10-07 11.19.17Ryan filmed Tanja Tiziana, a freelance photographer from Toronto, Canada, on her short journey to rediscover the written word. The resultant film is a beautifully-shot, nostalgic glimpse into the lost art of handwriting, which will appeal to anyone who has an interest in lettering.

During the film, Tanja states that since most children now own a smart phone or tablet, they are more likely to text a message than to pick up a pen and write it longhand.

“It’s wild to think that, as an art-form, (handwriting is) completely lost to a generation,” she concludes.

Personally, I have difficulty comprehending the possibility that future generations will not discover the joy of putting pen to paper. In a previous post, the demise of handwriting in schools, I attempted to remain optimistic about the future of children’s handwriting. But reluctantly, and resignedly, I have to accept that Tanja’s view is more realistic than mine… that one day handwriting will become extinct.

Hopefully, that day is a long way off!

***

Immediately after writing this post, I discovered a comment on a blog about handwriting. The comment reads as follows…

“It genuinely saddens me and a host of others that cursive/italics is no longer taught in a majority of schools. My mom, who has terrific penmanship, wrote a birthday card to my 16 year old daughter. Daughter texted me a photo of the card and asked me to translate it for her.”

Oh dear! Lets all hope that, in terms of the next generation, the daughter is the exception rather than the rule.

***

If you liked the video above, you will also enjoy ‘Ink Spills’ (extended interview clips) here.

Find out more about Ryan Couldrey, and watch some of his other short films, on his website.

And finally, for anyone who is interested, the nib that Tanja used to write the final credits is a Nikko G.

Handwriting: so much more than a means of communication

Artwork

My recent post, The demise of handwriting in schools, prompted a comment from Clare, a former calligraphy student of mine. In her comment, Clare wrote at length in support of handwriting. In particular, she shared a story about how moved she was when, many years after her father passed away, she rediscovered a hand-written letter that she had received from him years before. She explained that on re-reading her father’s letter, his handwriting made her feel very close to him.

In her own words, Clare wrote, “it moved me more than anything else could, because for that moment he was with me. Letters on the paper physically written by someone who is no longer here… a special link to him, I felt a little bit of him.”

Beautifully written, and very moving. And I know exactly how Clare felt, because a few years ago I had an almost identical experience.

A few months after my elderly mother passed away, I was leafing through some old photograph albums of hers. Hidden between two pages, like a long-forgotten bookmark, was a creased and faded white envelope, inside which was a folded piece of ruled notebook paper. On opening the paper I discovered a short handwritten poem, and instantly recognised the handwriting as my mother’s. I was overjoyed, because that poem is the only surviving example of her handwriting.

My mother's handwritten poem

My mother’s handwritten poem

As my eyes traced her neat lines of script, I experienced a strange sensation that is difficult to describe… a heightened sense of my mother, almost as if I could reach out and touch her. I wasn’t even making sense of the words, so my sensation had nothing to do with legibility or the sentiments of the poem. It was the comforting familiarity of my mother’s handwriting that was emotionally affecting me. The looping, curling letters were so recognisably hers, were such an integral part of her, that I momentarily felt an overwhelming closeness to her. There was nothing religious about the experience. But it was unforgettable.

I can only assume that, many years ago, my mother saw the poem in a book or magazine and liked it so much that she decided to make a copy of it. Without the aid of technology, she had no choice but to write it out by hand. Nowadays, no-one would take the time to do that. Even I, a calligrapher, will scan, photograph, or type a section of text that I want to duplicate for reference. All in the name of efficiency. Yet, if my mother had used a typewriter to make a copy of the poem, the resultant block of text would have been sterile, and would not have affected me in the way her handwriting did. So, I’m grateful that she wrote the poem by hand. And I’m pleased that, for whatever reason, she slipped it between the pages of her photograph album, unwittingly allowing me to discover that hidden treasure so many years later.

Both Clare and I shared something very special because of simple handwriting, in that it brought us closer to our late parents. It would be a shame, then, if the doom-mongers are right, that handwriting will eventually become a forgotten skill. To prevent that possibility, we all need to write. If only to allow our children to feel a little closer to us in our absence, to remind them of the person we once were.

Needless to say, it’s not the quality of our writing that’s important. We’re not attempting calligraphy. It’s simple handwriting. All we need to do is push the pen around awhile. Be ourselves. Just write. Ultimately, that’s all that matters.

The demise of handwriting in schools… my opinion (well, sort of).

Scottish-SunMid-November, I received a phone call from a journalist from a popular Scottish tabloid. He explained that he was preparing an article about the demise of handwriting in schools and, since I am a calligrapher, he was interested in finding out my views on the topic.

Since I teach calligraphy, and have also taught handwriting, it’s obvious where my alliance lies, and I would have been happy to simply write a few paragraphs for him, (not only in support of handwriting for school pupils, but for adults too), but he opted instead for a question and answer session.

As his interrogation progressed, I got into the swing. I attempted to be interesting and amusing in my responses, offering anecdotes and personal experiences related to handwriting. After around ten minutes the journalist thanked me for my contribution and explained that the article would be published the following day.

“You’ll need to buy a copy of the paper,” said my wife, but I didn’t agree. I was more than familiar with my own opinion on the demise of handwriting, so why would I want to pay to discover what was already there inside my head.

As it turned out, I’m glad I didn’t buy a copy, since the article didn’t get published. I only found that out by surreptitiously leafing through a copy of the paper in my local Tesco. I wasn’t particularly disappointed by the article’s absence, so I put the experience to the back of my mind and moved on.

Then, the week before Christmas, I unexpectedly received an email from the journalist. He confirmed that, after a delay, the handwriting article would definitely be published on December 21st, the final Sunday before Christmas.

Needless to say, this news necessitated a further visit to Tesco for a sneak preview. I leafed through the newspaper, and there, on page 14, was an article entitled, “They think it’s scrawl over.”

As before, I intended to read the entire article for free, but it was a full page spread, and my loitering was obstructing genuine newspaper-purchasers who tut-tutted me into submission. I reluctantly parted with my 80p, headed home, and settled down to refresh myself on my own views about handwriting.

The premise of the article was that handwriting was becoming obsolete with the texting generation. It posed the question, “Do pupils’ illegible answers mean it’s time to axe written exams for tests on screens?” And there, halfway down the page, was a thumbnail-sized photo of yours truly, next to a large “NO,” with my views printed alongside. There was also a large “YES,” next to a photo of someone who totally disagreed with me. There I was, in print, at loggerheads with a complete stranger. I hadn’t expected the article to be presented in such a combative format. Nor had I expected my views to be be portrayed as if actually penned by me, and not the journalist.

But I didn’t write that, was all I could think of as I read the article.

Without the context of the journalist’s questions, my answers had become little more than a list of fragmented bullet points. The sentences were short, abrupt, and they continuously changed topic. My anecdotes were abridged, the grammar poor. The more I read, the more I cringed, and I was tempted to visit local newsagents to buy every available copy of the newspaper, just to prevent anyone I knew from reading the article.

In despair, I showed it to my wife. “It’s not too bad,” she said, but her barely-disguised grimace told a different story.

But maybe she was right. Maybe it wasn’t too bad. But it wasn’t me. It wasn’t my writing. And the views I had shared with the journalist now appeared stilted, disjointed, and tended to trivialise the seriousness of the subject matter.

A featured quote leapt from the page, supposedly attributed to me, which I don’t even remember saying. “Writing is a way to stand out from the crowd,” I had apparently suggested, as if I considered penmanship to be, above all else, an antidote to anonymity.

Well, maybe handwriting does offer that advantage, but that particular point would not feature in my personal list of 100 reasons why handwriting should not become obsolete. On reflection, if I was ever again asked to extol the virtues of handwriting, I wouldn’t need a full page spread. I would simply quote Samuel Johnson, who said, succinctly, “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”

So maybe pupils should try it.

Simply put away their keyboard… pick up a pen… and apply a little effort.

The pleasure would be theirs for the taking.

My caffeine-fuelled morning of procrastination

Deuchars coverMy intention this morning was to surf the web briefly. A quick peek at the net, I promised myself, just until I finish my first coffee of the day. But it didn’t work out like that.

Unexpectedly, I found myself distracted by a succession of very interesting creativity-related links, which necessitated a number of refills from the percolator. Not that I’m complaining!

Since I found the links to be both interesting and useful, I thought I’d share them. They’re not strictly calligraphic in nature, but they are connected to the craft, in that they include a free graphic design book, a short video on creativity, and a podcast interview with a hand-lettering artist.

So here is a quick summation of the virtual gems I discovered this morning, (while drinking coffee and neglecting the work that should have claimed my attention).

Marion Deuchar's hand-lettered Annual Report design

Marion Deuchar’s hand-lettered Annual Report design

I started at Brain Pickings Weekly, a blog to which I subscribe. If you are a writer, a reader, or simply interested in creativity, you’ll love Brain Pickings, which describe itself as, “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why, bringing you things you didn’t know you were interested in — until you are.” Through Brain Pickings, I have discovered many useful articles, books and links, including those described below.

From there, a link led me to an excellent FREE graphic design book, The Vignelli Canon, which you can download here in PDF format. A hard copy of the book presently costs £12.80 on Amazon. The book has earned 5 star reviews, so it’s worth grabbing a PDF copy while it’s available. Did I mention it’s FREE?

My next link led me to an excerpt from a lecture on creativity by Monty Python star, John Cleese, called “Five Factors To Make Your Life More Creative.” This thirteen minute Youtube video is both humorous and insightful, and more than a few of Cleese’s observations about procrastination struck a chord with me. In fact, this morning, this entire post of mine is borne of procrastination. I really need to knuckle down!
If you have more time, you can watch the entire thirty-six minute lecture here.

My final link led me to a Graphic Design podcast called Design Matters on iTunes. Find it here. I listened to the most recent broadcast, which features an interview with Marion Deuchars, a designer, illustrator, and lettering artist. Among the topics discussed are her views on the expressiveness of hand-lettering. Interestingly, in 2002 Deuchars designed an Annual Report for D&AD, in which she used no photography or typography. She wrote all 5946 words of text in pencil, and sketched all of the illustrations by hand. Due to such an original approach to the document’s design, it is one of the few Annual Reports that people actually want to read. You can see why in the page that I’ve featured at the top of this post, and those on the left. More of Deuchar’s illustrations and hand-lettering can be found at Marion Deuchars.com.

Uh oh, I’ve just realised that it’s now approaching midday. What began as a few minutes’ surfing at 9am has ended up stealing my entire morning. I’d better start my work now.

But first I’ll fire up the coffee machine… pour myself another strong cup of Java… maybe do a little more surfing while I drink it…

An effort to improve American handwriting

Today I came across an online article in The New York Times, dated 8 September, 2009.

Image from The New York Times

I rarely see newspaper articles promoting the merits of cursive Italic handwriting, so despite the article being a year out of date, and directed at poor penmanship in the USA only, I was encouraged to find cursive handwriting receiving some badly-needed publicity. I’m not aware of any recently published UK-based newspaper articles on this topic.

As someone who writes cursively on a daily basis, and who teaches Italic, I think it’s worth re-posting the article for anyone who would like to make a start on improving the style and legibility of their handwriting.

Handwriting resources by the authors of the article, Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay, can be found here.

The full New York Times article on cursive handwriting can be found here.


I need to learn "scratchy writing"


It happened again today… a call from a TV production company asking if I can produce some old-fashioned writing on parchment that would be featured in a commercial for a famous whisky brand.

“When do you need it?” I asked.

“What are you doing right this minute?” the woman replied, somewhat ambitiously.

It turns out that even if I had been idle ‘right that minute,’ my area of calligraphic expertise doesn’t encompass Copperplate, or “scratchy writing” as it’s normally described to me by the uninitiated. And scratchy writing is what she needed. It’s what they always need!

Over the past few years I’ve been asked countless times to be the calligraphic stunt-double for actors in TV programmes and commercials… or at least my hand has been asked. The undesirable rest of me will apparently remain off-camera.

But nobody ever wants a nice flourished Italic, my alphabet of choice. They always want Copperplate. And they always want it written authentically with a quill. And they always want it scratchy.

But despite my best efforts, I’m hopeless at writing in a scratchy fashion. And that’s why I’m still waiting for my fifteen minutes of calligraphic fame.

Or, at least, my hand is.

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