WHAT WRITING IT DOWN ONCE MEANT

By Paul

I used to do a lot of writing, but that was a long time ago now. What I’m talking about is not merely putting words together to form ideas, but the actual taking of pen or pencil in hand and moving these implements in certain predictable and orthographically acceptable ways on paper, so as to make written forms into words, paragraphs, and eventually stories or letters, or other such material meant to be read.

Nowadays, however, the only time I actually write something down, at least in this quaintly old-fashioned and revisionist sense, is when I make a grocery list, or when I occasionally write a card to someone. And, yes, I do still write and send cards, that is, actual paper or cardboard forms placed into envelopes and put into the mail to be received, please God and the Postal Service, in the recipient’s mailbox in what was once considered a reasonable timeframe. Two or three days was considered quite good, and no doubt still is.

What has brought all this to mind is that I wrote a card to a couple of friends just this morning, and it reminded me how odd, but at the same time how good, it felt “to write” something. It’s not that what I’m doing now, that is typing at a word processor, isn’t a form of writing, I suppose. As with all things language-related, it depends a lot on exactly what your definition is. My only point is that at one time in many of our lives, at least those of us older than somewhere in the 30 to 40 year old range, writing meant mainly one thing: the physical action of moving pen or pencil over paper.

Naturally, in order to write well, you had to have some training. But we all got that in what used to be called grammar school. It was called that because you actually learned grammar – and its corollary, writing – in such places. I still remember my second grade teacher, Sister Mary Jacinta, rapping my knuckles with a ruler because I couldn’t seem to quite get how to form my letters properly according to the old Palmer Method. I’m not sure what she might have done if I’d written something like “OMG, u 2!” instead of “Oh my God, you, too!” She probably would have gone apoplectic and considered such misguided verbiage as the work of the devil himself.

But I’m wandering a bit away from my original point about the actual act of writing things down on paper. The truth is that I both miss it and I do not miss it. Sorry for the ambiguity here, but I really do feel a kind of pull of opposites about all this. I loved the feel of a nice pen, or even of a good sharp pencil, number two preferably, and the blank smoothness of the white page in front of me. There was something so tactile about the process, which is utterly missing now when I sit down in front of a computer screen. On the other hand, I’ve always been a reviser. I remember, in fact, once being told in college – and I’ve never forgotten (or disagreed with it for that matter) – that “writing is re-writing.” I constantly change and move and rearrange and add and delete, until in the end I feel at least relatively secure with the notion that I’ve gotten down some approximate facsimile of what I was attempting to say. And, let’s face it, a word processor helps an awful lot with that procedure. Do you not remember doing draft after draft on paper, with circled bubbles containing new and different words, and arrows pointing hither and yon, and words scratched out, with new ones squeezed into spaces too small for them to fit? And yet, sometimes I miss even that.

There’s something so deeply personal about handwriting. I always thought of it as a kind of self-revelation. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about the art of handwriting analysis. I never studied it (OK, I’ve read a few articles about it here and there over the years, but always took it with a grain or two of salt). And I’m at least somewhat skeptical that you really can tell if someone is lying simply by how that person forms letters. Still, Sister Jacinta would, no doubt, be appalled today at my handwriting. I left the Palmer Method behind years ago for my own brand of a combination of cursive writing and printing that is peculiarly mine. And I still find other people’s handwriting of great interest, whenever I do happen upon it anymore. I believe that it says something about who they are. How can it not, after all? It’s the expression, honed and developed and personalized over a lifetime, of our very thoughts, and what can be more personal and revealing than our thoughts, even if, or perhaps especially when, when we think we are hiding something?

All that is lost these days. Today we write emails and send cryptic encrypted notes via telephone, something dubiously referred to as texting. I don’t want to be texted by anyone, but I’m always amazed and somehow very pleased when I get something “in writing” from someone. And I do mean writing, in the sense of handwritten, which I cherish in a way that I may not with something that’s been printed out by a machine.

I recently came across, tucked away in a drawer, a letter my partner had sent me over thirty years ago. He was traveling in Japan at the time with the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company, and he took the time to sit down in a hotel room one day before heading out to the local theater, and he wrote to me. He actually wrote. And what I have today is an artifact of his care and affection, in a way that I would probably never have kept an email communication.

Of course, time marches on, whether we like it or not, and I don’t hand write letters myself anymore either. I’ve given up, and I have resorted to some forms of electronic communication, although I still resist FaceBook and the abbreviated barbarity of Tweeting. But I do miss those wonderful, cursive, deeply personal and personalized forms of communication that we used to look so forward to seeing in our mailboxes.

Those times will, I suppose, never come round again, and all I can say is I’m sorry for the younger generation. Enjoy your handheld devices, and Tweet away, but know that you’ve missed out on something very special. Something that revealed a part of the personality of your interlocutor, which printed symbol can only hide. For now, I’ll remember this each time I write down bread and milk on our grocery list, or when I send a get-well card to a friend, or when I stumble across a letter from a loved one from long ago and far away. Now, that was really something to get! That’s what writing was all about.

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