On Handwriting

When I was a kid, my teachers put much stock on clean and neat handwriting. Since kindergarten, the Writing subject wasn’t about composition or sentence construction, but the finer points of print and cursive. An entire hour of school was devoted to the Writing class: direct and indirect ovals, parallel lines, and the cursive form of letters. “Writing well” wasn’t just about one’s grasp of prose, but one’s grasp of the pen. “Learning how to write” was just that: learning how to write.

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Our teachers taught us the difference between D’Nealian and Zaner-Bloser cursive (mine’s a cross between the two), but the importance of it. The Writing assignment was quite brutal by today’s standards: an entire notebook was filled with nothing but cursive forms and shapes, with painstaking effort given to headers and descenders under threat of pain (usually from a wooden footrule).

But like prayer responses and the Litany, it’s something most of us carried through adulthood. Today, I still maintain neat—although shaky—cursive handwriting, for no real reason other than it being there.

At least for now, I think so.

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I don’t particularly enjoy fountain pens, since I tend to vary pressure along strokes. It’s also hard to write with the rather blunt point of a colored pencil. I prefer technical pens and sign pens (right now, I’m a big fan of Uni Pin Fineliners), but I still keep a couple of Cross and Parker pens for that sense of occasion.

Ballpoints are a different matter. They’re cheap, but finding a really good ballpoint needs more than the little stub of paper they leave at displays in the bookstore so that you can test writing quality. For me, a good ballpoint never smudges: that means high-quality ink and fine product engineering, which means buying rather expensive pens for something as simple as taking notes. To remedy that situation, you have to use a cheap ballpoint as often as possible (to keep the ink running), and store it correctly (never store a ballpoint horizontally). But for the most part, I try to stay away from a ballpoint unless I have it handy on my desk.

Gel pens are a bit of a pain to use. Because I store my pens horizontally, the gel ink tends to form air bubbles inside the tube. To get around that, you sometimes have to tap the pen hard against a table, or heat up the end with a cigarette lighter. The tips of most gel pens aren’t much help, either: they tend to break easily on rough surfaces (like, say, handmade paper) and don’t take too well to varying pressure.

Technical pens are awesome. While technically a marker, my preferred pen brand draws in very sharp lines (which matters, considering how I form my cursive) and does not smear. It’s cheap, too: almost any school and office supplies store carries one at 0.3mm, so I don’t have to deal with multiple colors or widths when taking notes.

As a stickler for good handwriting, paper matters. As expensive as they get, there’s no substitute for a Moleskine notebook or a Rhodia pad. Don’t get me wrong: I like cheaper notebooks (I have a few Corona and Green Apple ones strewn around my apartment), but they don’t fit well for the occasion of writing. Some are too grainy, and still others tend to catch on the end of a very fine-tipped pen. Splurging on a notebook may seem kind of extravagant—a good thousand pesos for one—but it does matter in the end. We all invest in occasions, don’t we?

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But let me dwell on that a bit: the occasion of writing.

Maybe life took over, or maybe I just lost a passion for it along the way, but I haven’t written a lot over the years. As a friend of mine once said, the reason why we never really let go of our hobbies is because we want some measure of sanity in a world that straddles the abyss between stress and boredom. Some have their drama, some have their music, and still others have their toy collections: I have writing to lean on to.

Whenever I write by hand, I tend to disregard the lessons on proper posture: I hunch over my desk, almost kissing the paper, as the pen dances along inches from my cheek. The ritual of handwriting is an intimate dance under lamplight: between ink and paper, thoughts and words, past and present.

It’s never a good way to write—and if I’m honest, it’s a painful way to do so—but it somehow brings me closer to things I have ignored (or to be more precise, given up on) over the years.

I guess that’s why writing is an occasion: we live in a time where not too many of us get the chance to just sit down and write. There are too many hobbies in this world. There are too many deadlines, distractions, dreams, and destinations that keep us from intimate contact with our own words. Why should it be so?

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Maybe I still can write a few verses. Maybe I can still write a few lines from memory. Maybe I can still translate a few pieces. Either way, maybe I can still write. Maybe not to the standards of an ad agency copywriter or an award-winning poet, but enough to hold on to things other than work. That I could still be a “meantime writer:” to write things in the short (but many) meantimes I have despite what I do for a living. Without the polish that comes with good old fashioned discipline, words—in good old pen and ink—lose luster.

I guess that’s the lesson of the Writing subject, so many years ago. Handwriting will never serve a practical purpose in the work we do: the audience to our efforts will be a few friends, colleagues, and Instagram followers. The real reason that it’s still there, I guess, is the joy that comes with a discipline slowly forgotten, but definitely most fulfilling.

Now distraction-free writing apps… that’s another thing altogether.

Marck

ID for almost everything: @marocharim

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