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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Letters and the death of handwriting

I tried to write a letter to a friend last week. By hand. Well, more than tried, I actually did it, though I don't know yet if she got it, or read it. Or could read it.

I used to write letters all the time. Great epic letters, some that covered a dozen pages and took over a week to write, with illustrated envelopes and sketches within. That was long ago, about twenty years ago. I still have collections of letters that were written to me, and I'd like to think that the recipients of my letters might still have them tucked away somewhere. I tried back then to write letters on a typewriter*, but they always felt impersonal.

Things have changed since then. For a while I was a master of long-form e-mails, lengthy and complex compositions written for the enjoyment of a single person. Eventually I turned my writing efforts to blogging, where multiple people could read my writing over time, and I did not have to worry about a single hiccup in AOL wiping out all of the e-mail messages I had ever sent and received.

Yet sometimes I find myself trying to communicate with someone who has limited access to the Internet and is not always available by phone. In these situations letter-writing is the best bet. Letters have many advantages: they are portable, can be randomly accessed at any point in their body, and will function in situations where a computer or internet connection is not available. Indeed, all that is needed to read a letter is a minimal amount of light and the ability to read.

That last bit is tricky. Being able to read is important, but you're in for a hard time if the person writing the letter has not written it legibly. I discovered last week that my handwriting has degenerated over the years into a sort of ornate scrawl, a shorthand with a ridiculous number of swoops and flourishes - imagine if Thomas Jefferson had written the Declaration of Independence while drunk, in love, and working on his third pot of coffee at 3 A.M., all while trying to get it to the printer's by 8:00 that morning, and you have some idea.

This isn't just a degeneration of my handwriting. It's an evolution. This is an ornate sort of shorthand, complete with visual encoding of complex detail in the form of occasional sketches of TIE fighters and dinosaurs that are interspersed throughout. This is something I developed in college and have elaborated upon during my years of employment. Rereading notes from a presentation or a meeting hours or days or even weeks later, I can extract enormous amounts of information from the mnemonic encoding of my handwriting. (Much beyond that, and I'll have no idea what it's supposed to mean.)

The problem is now that the parts of my brain associated with writing are no longer bound by the speed at which I can write. If I try to write neatly, legibly, in longhand, I find my brain racing ahead of my hand, tapping its foot impatiently, even just saying "Oh, forget about it, just skip that part and move on." Meanwhile my hand, desperately trying to keep up, scrawls out words that resemble lines with bumps, and writes letters and even entire words out of order. My new limit is my typing speed, which while pathetically slow is still faster than I can write longhand. Even my ornate shorthand is too slow; in practice, it is used to create an outline with hooks, a skeleton which I can flesh out later. Hardly ideal for letter writing.

So the letter I wrote last week looked horrible, to me at least. I am waiting to find out if the recipient found it readable. In the meantime I am working on another letter - typed out on my computer. It will lack the charm and personal connection of being handwritten, but at least it will be readable.

*"Typewriters" were sort of like computers without CPUs or monitors, combinations of keyboards and printers. Some of them were electric or electronic, but truly ancient "manual" models were entirely mechanical. The tendency of the "keys" (letters on metal arms that struck against an inked ribbon and left impressions on the paper) to get tangled with each other when the "typist" would type too quickly led to the QWERTY layout of the keyboard in an attempt to slow users down. Examples of manual typewriters can be seen in larger museums.

1 comment:

Betz said...

so then, do we call this moving foreward? where one can find any information they need on the internet, so do not even know the smell of a library, or the feel of an encyclopdia?
and yes, who cares how your handwriting long as you can type an e-mail.
some call it progress, i do not know what to call it.