Beautiful writing John !

‘To be able to dance with one’s feet, with concepts, with words: need I still add that one must be able to do it with the pen too – that one must learn to write?’      Nietzsche.[i]

‘Writing is a consciousness-raising and humanizing technology.’    Walter J. Ong [ii]

I know how important writing is, but not how important the tools we use to write with are. Around 3500 BC, Mesopotamian scribes began recording daily events, trade, taxes, prayers. They had high status being highly trained to write cuneiform for many of the languages spoken in Mesopotamia and different types of texts written by scribes (70% of the scribes we know by name were sons of society’s elite, including royalty).

A reed stylus was their main tool to make wedge shapes to create cuneiform signs by pressing the stylus into clay or wax. As a child I used paper, crayons and pen, and until yesterday I never knew I had such fine handwriting, at a certain stage of my life.

beautiful writing

Mrs Dear’s fine judgement, St Mary’s Worthing

Then later when ordered to do joined-up writing, as the cursive hand was called I remember being put into a remedial class. The vicissitudes of school! A while back I found an essay from university (mid seventies), I wrote it but couldn’t read much of it. I realised the skill lecturers had to have back then to decipher all the different styles of handwriting thrown at them.

Graphologists claim to read your personality from your handwriting. A postcard written by Hitler in January 1915 reveals his megalomaniacal psychopathy it has been claimed. And then there’s the art of forensic analysis ‘Twenty-one distinguishing characteristics. According to one standard textbook, that’s the number of handwriting elements that may reliably help distinguish a person’s writing. These include the dimensions and proportions of the letters, the spacing both between and within words, and the way in which words and letters are connected.’[iii] Perhaps it is a dying art in the age of texting and keyboards.

Philip Hensher argues that handwriting has value, that mechanical writing dulls our human capacities: ‘Our rituals and sensory engagement with the pen bind us to it. The other ways in which we write nowadays don’t bind us in the same way. . . We have surrendered our handwriting for something more mechanical, less distinctively human, less telling about ourselves and less present in our moments of the highest happiness and the deepest emotion. Ink runs in our veins, and shows the world what we are like.’[iv]

‘The first thing is handwriting is a skill which has to be taught. . . . So the decision is do we continue to teach children because we think handwriting has a particular value?’ Angela Webb[v]

At my interview to be accepted as a PhD candidate, one of the panel asked, ‘How do you write?’ I was puzzled, not knowing what he meant. He had to explain do you use a pencil, pen or computer. Poets don’t write onto computer like novelists. Most poems are more organic, visceral, immediate. Wallace Stevens used to walk his poems to work, to think and find their rhythm, and scribble them down. At the office his secretary would type up his poems as she was able to read his angular, difficult handwriting. Poets no longer have secretaries so have to use computers or tablets.

draft of prose poem

draft of prose poem

I write poems on scraps of paper, envelopes, shopping lists, anything then type them up later and then work on them again. Often the scrawl at each iteration is hard to read. A font seems tailor made for bureaucratic procedures, but enables a smooth read.

[i] Nietzche, The portable Nietzche,  Ed. W. Kaufman, Viking, 1976, p513.

[ii] Walter J. Ong, ‘Writing is a Technology That Restructures Thought’, in Gerd Baumann Ed., The Written Word: Literacy in Transition, OUP, 1986.

[iii] Nina Rastogi, Murder, She Wrote: How forensic handwriting identification works,

[iv] Philip Hensher, ‘Why handwriting matters’, The Observer, 7 October 2012.

[v] Angela Webb, Does handwriting have a future?,, 7 August 2016.