What Emojis Can’t Express: How Handwriting Reveals Our True Selves
Neil Serven Ponders the Lost Art of Penmanship
When I was in fifth grade, our class was joined by a boy who had the most exquisite handwriting. It was astonishing to watch, and worse, he had no idea how good he was at it. Penmanship in elementary school was about following rules, which I thought I did well, but my grades in that area were atrocious to the point that I was made to do extra practice exercises, an assignment that offended me for what it implied about my priorities. My handwriting mattered to me. I liked it when something came out looking nice. I wanted that to come through in the work I put out in the world. To that end, I envied my new classmate to the point of bitterness.
It was a comfort to see this precise sentiment presented in the opening pages of Fleur Jaeggy’s 1989 novella Sweet Days of Discipline, which was first published in English in 1993 (for New Directions, translated by Tim Parks). The nameless fourteen-year-old narrator boards at a school called Appenzell in Switzerland.
She is thrown for a loop when a new, slightly older girl named Frédérique arrives, with looks like “those of an idol, disdainful.” Our narrator is both enchanted and put off by Frédérique: “She had no humanity. She even seemed repulsed by us all. The first thing I thought was: she had been further than I had.”
The narrator finds many points of fascination with Frédérique, the first being her handwriting:
In our lives at school, each of us, if we had a little vanity, would establish a façade, a kind of double life, affect a way of speaking, walking, looking. When I saw her writing I couldn’t believe it. We almost all had the same kind of handwriting, uncertain, childish, with round, wide ‘o’s. Hers was completely affected. (Twenty years later I saw something similar in a dedication Pierre Jean Jouve had written on a copy of Kyrie). Of course I pretended not to be surprised, I barely glanced at it. But secretly I practised. And I still write like Frédérique today, and people tell me I have beautiful, interesting handwriting. They don’t know how hard I worked at it.
Like Frédérique, my classmate seemed to have a sense of style and grace that the rest of us lacked. You might have thought he had traveled to Europe, or that his parents allowed him a little wine with dinner. His pen was a high-end metal ball-point instrument that rested in the crook of his right hand. He confidently looped his lowercase o’s and didn’t fret about his ascenders reaching the line overhead. Curves where the rest of us made sharp angles. All rules tossed to the street, yet everything connected in a light line and looking like it belonged.Now we handwrite because we want to, not because we have to.
Elementary school granted opportunities to read the handwriting of your peers—grading each other’s spelling tests, secretly copying homework, exchanging valentines and later, notes. Many of us were clumsy, applying needless pressure with our fingertips, mistaking a bold line for integrity. The boys’ handwriting was jagged, angry, all over the place. The girls, meanwhile, had taken to that cultish bubbly writing that had become a thing—when had it become a thing?—where the o’s and a’s looked like they were about to explode and leave traces of soap on the paper.
I took note of those classmates who developed a consistent hand and looked for those who went rogue—an attempt at an a or a g that resembled the typeset design, the t crossed with a loop continuing from the end of a word, the z that retained its zigzag. I borrowed these affectations for my own penmanship, a way to entertain myself through the banality of composing vocabulary sentences.
There is a term used by both educators and forensic analysts, graphic maturity, that refers to the point when our handwriting stops looking childish. The criterion for when that point is reached seems to be subjective. While I wouldn’t have known the concept then, I had a vague notion that my handwriting might show that I had turned a corner.
I have never subscribed to the strained idea that the characteristics of one’s handwriting provides a subtle indicator of one’s personality—small letters mean you’re an introvert, long descenders mean you’re adventurous—but I do think there is something visible that communicates an attitude, a willingness to show through muscular coordination and flair that we know ourselves better than what we are taught.
I remember being excited to learn cursive, which to that point felt like the secret domain of adults, used for the business of writing checks or notes not intended for younger eyes. Cursive felt like a rite of passage, akin to learning how to drive a car or taking up smoking. Our third-grade teacher, Mrs. L, was big on rainbows, and she taught some modified version of the Palmer method using cards that showed the correct pen-strokes in rainbow order.
Devised by A.N. Palmer, the Palmer method was supposedly devised to encourage movements with the arm rather than the fingers. But the alphabet we were taught was designed by a committee of cranks, with needless rococo handles and pen-leaps that broke your rhythm. Ugly and unreadable, its only point seemed to be to gauge how well we could follow directions. I later realized that handwriting is taught with the same understanding as grammar or piano, that you must learn all the rules before you figure out how to break them. It is then that we find grace.
In Thomas Mann’s 1954 novella The Confessions of Felix Krull, the title character recalls observing his father’s penmanship:
At the time when I was still digging great pothooks in my slate I already dreamed of guiding a steel pen with my father’s swiftness and skill; and how many scraps of paper I covered later on with efforts to copy his hand from memory, my fingers arranged around the pen in the same delicate fashion as his. His writing was not in fact very hard to imitate, for my poor father wrote a childish hand, like a copybook, quite undeveloped, its only peculiarity being that the letters were very tiny and prolonged immoderately by hairlines in a way I have never seen anywhere else. This mannerism I soon mastered to the life.
A budding conman, Felix’s ultimate interest is in forgery. But there is something authentic to his recognition of his father’s penmanship habits as a mannerism. There is a point, growing up, when we notice our parents’ obscure, household talents, the tricks they pull off with a humble zest that not everyone can manage: whistling in tune, cracking open an egg with one hand, forming a Windsor knot.
For my mother, it was shuffling cards. Staying home to watch me, she played a lot of solitaire, knew variations of solitaire. She could pull off that satisfying double-shuffle where the cards bend into an upward arc only to fall lightly into place on top of one another. All with a cigarette in her mouth, eyes squinting in the smoke.Left to express our agonies in a prefabricated, toothless font, we feel our personalities being held back.
My mother’s handwriting, familiar from calendar appointments and absent notes to my teachers, was secretarially neat and compact, though being left-handed she held the pen in that torturous hook-around style that lefties use to avoid smearing. My father, having trained as an aeronautical engineer, dispatched with cursive entirely and opted for the utilitarian, blocky all-caps they teach in mechanical drafting. Rarely called upon in any correspondence with his children, it would create a unique impression when used to compose, say, the thank-you note from Santa for the cookies we had left out the night before.
For a while, I worked on my handwriting by imitating my classmate’s, until it reached a balance of looking both dashed-off and executed with care. I exerted my independence and tossed those Palmer letters to the curb; I added an extra loop to my lowercase o and made my s look like an actual, sinuous s. I sawed the rococo handles off my Ms and Ns. From then on I can distinctly remember trying on different affectations in my penmanship—the way one might try different accessories or accents, thinking it would make some statement about the kind of person I wanted to be.
Time and a lack of sustained practice have deteriorated those skills. I have lapsed in sending Christmas cards, rarely need to write a check, and there are no teachers to show off for anymore. I compose pretty much everything in Word now, or else my phone’s Notes app, and only keep a notebook at all for those loose thoughts—unread by anyone but me—that I want to get down while the phone is out of reach.
Likewise, they say, handwriting is going the way of the dodo. I don’t think that’s precisely true—it sounds like one of those lazy assumptions about technology, that it exists to flatten, to eliminate anything that brings a tactile, objective permanence. It may be, rather, that the objective has changed. Now we handwrite because we want to, not because we have to.
The sensations that handwriting brings still matter—consider the cult of Blackwing pencils, or the satisfying heft of an upmarket pen with a nib that creates just the right friction on the paper. The most tactile form of writing might be performed by the beachgoer who draws a message in the sand with their finger.
Digital media has merely altered the way we leave our affectations, with emojis—like tattoos, drawn by some other person’s hand—providing the wink and the flair. But I would argue that it’s a way that humans have become more childish. Left to express our agonies in a prefabricated, toothless font, we feel our personalities being held back. In lieu of the flourish with the pen, we turn to artless eggplants and all-caps shouting—a cowardice that forgoes the risk of putting out something with a true, personal insignia, a way of letting history know that the mark left there is ours.