The post-handwriting age: letters written with pens on paper

The “post-handwriting age” is a phrase I’ve been using in conversation for quite some time, in part to apologize for my almost unreadable scrawls, and in part to comment on our culture’s increasing disinterest in maintaining our hold on this particular skill.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a rant on kids these days and their illiteracy resulting from things like spell-check, or txt rlz *lol!!*, or everyone’s increasingly short attention spans resulting from everything being too readily available on the internet. All this may be true, but that’s not what’s on my mind today.

I was born near the end of the post-handwriting era. In school, starting in primary/kindergarden, we began learning the alphabet–how to read it, how to write it. First, there was printing, then learning how to write in fancy cursive, and then being allowed to complete assignments in fancy cursive if we displayed suitable intelligence in subjects unrelated to how elegantly we wielded the #2 pencil. Being granted permission to write in flourishes, curlicues, and loops was the epitome of scholastic prestige in my grades 1 and 2 classes. It meant bare utility was covered and there was room for flare and panache.

My spelling skills demanded maximum respect from the outset, but I was very bad at the physical task of both printing and writing in cursive. As I was coldly informed by a frustrated high school English teacher, my ascenders hit my descenders. I cannot keep within the boundaries of the ruled lines signifying the limits and aims of schoolwork.

I tried to rein in my exuberant penmanship; but I also resented the establishment’s erroneous belief that I needed reining in in the first place. By the time this conversation had occurred, I’d become a passionate reader; I wrote all the time. I didn’t believe words were meant to be too neat. I thought they should explode, and my hand-writing, if not the content thereof, followed suit in joyous, messy mimickry. Or led the charge. It doesn’t matter: the point is, my personality inheres in my hand-writing in many detectable ways, which is something that simply cannot be reproduced by words processed through a machine. There is no font that adequately reflects the size and lean of what occurs when I wield an actual old-timey pen.

But before this conversation with my disapproving high school English teacher occurred, the hand-writing era was already beginning its slow demise. In grade three–that’s 1983-84, my gawd–we had our first computer class. I recall that spending time looking at the screen gave me a raging headache. That it bored me beyond measure. That I yearned to go back to our regular classroom to be forced to write something on the blackboard in front of my vicious and unforgiving peers.

Luckily, computers didn’t become an integral part of my learning experience until university. Until then, I submitted almost all of my assignments in carefully hand-written editions. But then, there was the carpel-tunnel baptism by fire that was 1993: first-year university. My university instructors wouldn’t actually accept assignments that weren’t produced via an early version of Word(Perfect?). There was naught to do but get on board the tech train and try to hold on.

I quickly learned to type. And I saw the advantages immediately: not having to re-write any assignment, multiple times, in an anxiety of typos, because I could just make changes to the file and then print it. Being able to see exactly how many words I’d already written and stop in time. Not developing that weird hand-writing mini-tumour on my right middle finger–you know, that hard, slightly discoloured nub that forms on the inside of the top joint? If you do remember, then you too were born and educated in the hand-writing era. (What calluses do the children of the digital era have? This is not a rhetorical question. I type a lot and have no obvious signs of how much time I spend churning out blubber-and-slush in Times New Roman.)

So, this isn’t, in the end, a meditation on the physical act of writing exactly–although if you find yourself writing by hand much these days I suspect you’ll be as appalled as I am at how weak and gimpy your hand gets inside the first three minutes. Rather, I’m thinking about what we’re losing as the result of regular handwriting going by the wayside. For me, the biggest–maybe the only real–loss is letters. Maybe others feel they’ve lost more.

 I had a ridiculous number of pen pals when I was a kid–12 at one point, I think, and they were all over the world: USA, Turkey, Australia, China, New Zealand. Probably more. I kept in best touch with the ones from USA and Turkey. And then there were the friends from high school who went away to uni, and certain cousins across the country. I used to glory in writing letters; I invested all my minimum wages in fancy writing paper and borrowed books from the library instead of buying them.

But then, inevitably, the new reality was too much for everyone. I would write a letter and get an email in response. I persevered for a while but it’s too demoralizing to write 5 full pages and receive only 3 typed lines in response. So, eventually, I gave up on letters. The saddest thing? My rich and long-standing handwritten correspondences were not transferred to the more efficient format of email; no, all those correspondences died. Every single one. I don’t write letters to anyone and I can’t remember the last time I received one. Actually I can: I got letters in South Korea (1999-2000), and then it was all done.

I’m sure the rapidness of digital communication is part of what’s devalued written communication between distant individuals; what’s the hurry, what’s the big deal, when you can shoot off an email anytime, without having to go through the hassle of either buying stamps or going outside? But then, of course, that’s precisely what makes most of us not bother–it’s not meaningful, most of the time, to write an email. It is meaningful to write a letter though–it’s really personal, whether we want it to be or not, and it takes some work.

And maybe that’s the thing. Handwriting is labour. Physical labour, but intellectual labour too–almost no one will send off a 2-line letter, but a 2-line email? That’s standard. I’m not even saying there isn’t value in such emails; I am saying that the value of patient, prolonged, considered, drawn out conversation has, sadly, become a casualty of our move away from everyday handwriting. Or, it only occurs in person or on Skype. Perhaps the post-handwriting age is also the Bladerunner age (only the good bits, of course; I don’t predict life turning into a dystopic nightmare because we’re not writing by hand!)–and all that’s left us is to do is enjoy it.

No doubt you’re wondering why I don’t just starting writing people letters again; surely, guilt will make at least some respond? The fact is, I know that if I had to sit down and try to write someone a letter (but who? here’s the first rub), I wouldn’t know how. I wouldn’t know what to say, how to begin. I wouldn’t even know why I was writing a letter! For who do I want to remain in touch with that I don’t already email or call frequently? (Another nail in the coffin of letters has been, of course, the advent of affordable and/or free long-distance calling–a castle in the air in my youth; I remember my high school boyfriend having a guest from England and her boyfriend racking up 800 pounds sterling of long distance charge in one week. That would probably be physically impossible now.)

So, this post isn’t just a lament for hand-written letters; it’s also a lament for the part of my brain that’s capable of conceiving and creating them. It’s really dead. If email hadn’t killed letter-writing for me then my dissertation (on representations of letter-writing in Renaissance lit) would have. Moral? Be born in a different era. Or, don’t write your dissertation on something you want to continue to love with a blind and enduring passion–like letters, or cake, or cats. Conclusion of moral and sad story. 🙂

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11 Comments Add yours

  1. Stefanie says:

    Take heart, letter writing is not dead. There are lots of very active blogs and websites devoted to writing letters and obtaining pen pals and most of the people are in their teens and 20s. I am a long way from my 20s (I had my first computer class as a high school sophomore about the time you had yours in 3rd grade) but I have a very active group of five pen pals three of which came along in the last year through various connections and a sixth pen pal who writes only now and then. I had a handwriting teacher I met not long ago who told me that the middle finger callus is from holding the pen too hard and by golly, she was right! Loosening my grip also solved cramping hand problems too. Imagine! 🙂 I am a devotee of beautiful paper and fountain pens so writing letters allows me to indulge and is oh so satisfying. If you would like a letter, email me your address. Of course, I would expect you to write back! 🙂

    1. Colleen says:

      I will send you my address; I think I have your email. I will write back. I can’t guarantee that it’ll be readable, in any sense of the word, however. :p

  2. Barbara says:

    I found myself embarrassed and chagrined after sending a message of condolence as an email the other day. I had broken some code of correct behaviour deeply entrenched in my psyche. I was full of self-reproach for choosing the easy way. Humiliated by what I had dared to do.

    And I felt as well that instead of creating a significant artifact, I had contrived something ephemeral. My note won’t pile up with the others as symbols of affection and loss. The receiver will not have substantial evidence of my caring. It was, I now think, a mistake to choose that easy way, not that it made my feelings any the less, but because it appeared to diminish them.

    Is there now an new protocal for such things? I have no idea, but would suggest that there should not be.

    My handwriting and stationery are in good order. It would not have been so hard

    1. Colleen says:

      Protocol–I never know anymore. Almost no one I know sends Festivus cards, for example, but those who do are REALLY offended when they don’t receive one in return. Someone sane and believable needs to write an etiquette book for these things.

  3. 1983-1984 I was writing letters at a furious pace. I was in the Marines and that was really the only way to keep in touch with people at home. Long distance was expensive. Computers…well they looked like something out of science fiction. I think the last letter I wrote was to a friend who died five year ago. It seemed like the thing to do. My handwriting was and still is atrocious, so bad that I could hide my misspellings with malformed letters,

    A few years ago a friend talked to me about “Hey lets write letters instead of emails”… That eventually lead to just IMing. I keep a little brown note book with with and I hand write notes in it. Notes from reading, thoughts, random ideas, what Patti Smith said at her last concert. That is the extent of my hand writing, but it is the most personal and the most memorable things I write.

    1. Colleen says:

      Getting snail mail is amazing…it must be more amazing still receiving it on base, yes? I don’t know why I think that exactly; no doubt, my notions of what situations look like are entirely wrong, as I’ve drawn them all from tv and movies. But still.

      I don’t think I handwrite almost anything anymore. I don’t even handwrite grocery lists–I just send myself an email and take my phone to the store with me.

  4. Alex says:

    Your post reminded me of the time when I too sort out the most beautiful writing papers I could find. I had friends in France at the time and I would stock up while I was visiting because they always had a far better selection than we ran to in the UK. Even now, if I am writing to someone on the computer rather than just sending a quick email in response to a request I will use those sites that allow me to send the message on a decorated sheet. It seems so much more personal.

    1. Colleen says:

      Interesting work-around for the digital era. But what about the font–can you choose that? Because receiving an email in comic sans is really upsetting.

      If/when I ever get to France, I’m going to hunt down some superexcellent writing paper. 🙂

  5. Biblibio says:

    t the end of middle school, my best friend and I were going to different high schools. My friend gave me a one-paged letter on the last day of school, detailing our early friendship and commenting on how we’d probably lose touch soon, and what it had been like until that point. I responded. We began writing long – and complex – hand-written letters, often calling each other to give a heads up to the other that a letter was on its way (we still lived in the same town). This was eight or so years ago, well into the digital age. Though we often communicated online, there was something special about the letters. There was something romantic and idealistic and thoughtful about them, something far more honest than anything we could ever say online. When I moved abroad, I started sending letters to all my old friends. This kept up for about a year before all of them – including the original friend – stopped responding. Our internet communications virtually ended. We lost touch.

    But I still have all of these letters in a drawer in my room. Unlike our old email exchanges (which I rarely read, and when I do mostly just make me laugh), the letters bring me straight back to that period. They occasionally bring me to tears. There’s something about the letters that can’t compare to anything else. So I’d like to think that letter writing isn’t fully dead, it’s just a lot less common. It crops up when people really need it. And then it’s pretty amazing…

    1. Colleen says:

      What a great story, though I’m sad to hear the correspondence has trailed off. I don’t know if I have any of my old letters sadly; if I do, I don’t have any idea where they might be. I’ve succumbed to all-encompassing and irresistible compulsions to throw everything away over the years and I think it’s possible that most of my letters are gone. If so, shame on me!!!

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