Cursive Writing

When I was a child, I learned to write in cursive using the A Beka Books homeschooling curriculum. I resumed journaling in cursive a couple years ago, after decades of writing with block letters (printing).

Cursive

Although my motivation to relearn cursive was to make my daily journaling more special by setting it apart, I didn’t simply regain what I had forgotten. I found something entirely new, and learned a great deal I’d never known before.

When I was a child, I wrote cursive with a pencil, filling journals with what I look back on as mostly rote retellings of the day’s events. At some time in my early teens, I began to write with a ballpoint pen. I still recollect the feeling of trying to learn how to use the pen. It was a bit frightening; I felt out of control. I recall gripping the pen tightly and making my fingers and arm ache. I remember my grip slipping down towards the point, slippery with sweat, getting the ink on my fingers.

I always wondered how my older brothers wrote so quickly. Their pens darted more quickly than my eyes could follow. When I tried, I only produced ugly scribbles. I stayed slow and forceful. Beauty was more important than speed or relaxation. Muscle cramps be damned.

One day my father commented that I shouldn’t be writing with my fingers. I should balance my arm on the muscles of my forearm, he told me, hold my fingers steady, and write with my whole arm. He demonstrated.

I thought my father’s writing was terrible, and I was irritated at the suggestion that I could do anything wrong. No one had mentioned technique to me before. I was just supposed to copy the letters by tracing them, and I had learned how to do that. And besides, everyone always complimented my beautiful penmanship.

I ignored my father.

* * *

As my teenage years gave way to my early twenties, I abandoned cursive writing. I admired my neat block printing. I thought it was precise and clear, and easier to write. I still gave myself a conceited A+ for penmanship, based on consistent, evenly spaced printed lettering. I never wrote cursive anymore.

I had some role models. A land surveyor who hand-lettered maps in block capitals of a particular style; my Scoutmaster’s writing; an architect. All influenced my idea of what “good” handwriting looked like.

My writing changed over the years. During college, I felt the need to take notes quickly. I wrote without looking at the page. I rarely read my notes. They were practically illegible anyway. I wasn’t even sure why I was taking notes, but I thought it might help me learn the material better by hearing, seeing, and writing.

* * *

Later in college, I stopped writing on paper, switching to a keyboard instead. I bought a copy of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing and taught myself. I’d grown up without computers and didn’t know how to “touch-type.” I typed as I wrote: rigidly.

As I continued towards the end of college, I did an increasing amount of typing, and it became more complex. Programming demanded a lot of numbers, square brackets, and other special characters. I began to develop repetitive stress injury. My arms hurt constantly, and the muscles in my forearms and the little-finger edges of my hands twitched incessantly, night and day. My thumbs occasionally spasmed and contracted into my palms.

One summer I took a 5-week trip for foreign language immersion, away from computers. When I returned home, my arms and hands were still convulsing. I began to worry about my ability to complete college. In the middle of writing my senior thesis, I switched my keyboard layout to Dvorak in desperation.

For the first couple of weeks I was nearly insane with frustration. Typing “baron” on a Dvorak keyboard layout produced “xaprb.” My fingers kept doing the wrong thing. I was a fish out of water. I would try to type a simple word such as “the” and I’d forget where the “h” was located. My fingers had no muscle memory. It was like being in the foreign country and struggling for a familiar word. By the time I found the “h” after a half dozen false tries, I would be unable to remember what I’d been thinking. Sometimes I wasn’t even able to figure out how to spell the rest of the word. What is the third letter in “the,” anyway?

One day it clicked, and I began typing in Dvorak. Slowly at first, then eventually well enough to get by on basic daily tasks. I also bought a larger mouse, and stopped arching my hand across it with my fingers splayed. That helped.

I continued typing on Dvorak for the next five years or so. Despite the enormous decrease in finger movement on Dvorak, my typing was still very slow. Dvorak had some frequently-used letters in even less convenient locations, especially those that required stretching my little finger up and away from my palm. The twitching and convulsing mostly stopped, though.

* * *

After college I rarely wrote by hand anymore. The exception was that I continued to journal, with a few periods where I lost the habit, but always regained it.

I’ve journaled in many ways over the years. Sometimes I wrote about the day, sometimes about my feelings, sometimes my memories from childhood. Gradually, my handwriting continued to change. But it always remained forceful and tense.

Sometimes I grew frustrated with writing. No matter what I tried, my writing was physically difficult and painful.

* * *

I taught myself guitar when I was 10 or 11 years old, and at times played several hours a day. The Mel Bay books and library books on classical guitar technique all emphasized the need to be relaxed. I could relax for a few moments, but as I concentrated on the music, my body automatically tensed, and when my attention turned to my fingers I’d notice that I was once again mashing the strings into the frets with an iron grip.

* * *

When I founded VividCortex, I found myself buying and filling books full of notes. As in college, I felt the need to write things down, but now my motivation was clearing my mind. Writing things meant I could give myself permission to forget them, and I was experiencing a tremendous amount of stress due to managing many different tasks. I wanted to follow through on every thought or idea, but I knew I couldn’t. I also knew the unfinished things would recur and bother me, so I wanted to just get rid of them. Writing them down felt safe. Putting a little square beside them made me feel even better: it was a checkbox. Now I’d be able to scan quickly and find unfinished tasks and ideas.

I also started journaling again, trying to cope with the stress of rapid task-switching, feeling hopelessly inadequate, all while keeping up a facade of competence.

I got back in practice with handwriting. My printed lettering grew a bit neater and wasn’t quite so difficult. But with all the note-taking during the day, journaling in the evening didn’t feel special. It felt like more of the same.

I wanted journaling to be therapeutic. I wanted to escape. The plain, functional printed writing felt mundane. And I knew it wasn’t very attractive or neat. I remembered when I used to congratulate myself on my writing.

I felt at times like an utter failure. In a time of crisis, I decided to begin writing cursive again, just as I’d switched to Dvorak during the middle of writing an epic treatise on XML and music notation. I knew it would be frustrating, and I didn’t need any more frustration, but I needed something to get me out of the ditch. Maybe, secretly, I wanted to relearn beautiful cursive handwriting so I could feel okay about myself again.

* * *

It was painful at first. The pen went all different ways. I didn’t remember the right way to make some of the letters. I decided I didn’t care and plowed on. Who cared if a capital T looked like an F. Not me. Gradually, I practiced and remembered and got a little better and remembered something else again. How many loops in a lowercase “z” again? Oh, right. Why was it so hard to get uppercase C and E to have attractively shaped loops? And why did an uppercase K look like an H? Eventually I made shapes that pleased me more and looked like I thought they were supposed to, while at the same time becoming more accepting of them as they were.

Over time, I developed spasmodic typographical errors: I would write “time” and there would be a t, followed by some number of spikes and humps. Sometimes I’d be unable to control how many, and end up with two or three letters “m” joined together, the pen jerking up and down too many times. It felt out of control, which was not what I wanted.

Something else worried me: I was once again gripping the pen too hard. I tried a few different types of pen. I’d been using felt markers in my notebooks, but they didn’t feel good. Ballpoint pens felt better, but I was still cramping my hand and tensing my shoulders.

* * *

But then something happened. It wasn’t just that the writing was pleasing to look at. That, yes. But more importantly, it felt better to write.

Maybe my body was tense while I was writing, but my mind was more at ease.

It had a lot to do with the letters themselves. Joined together, they flowed. There was no discontinuity. I realized that when I was writing printed block letters, each letter was a thought. Each time I lifted, moved, or placed the pen, marked the boundary of a thought. But in cursive, there was no mental boundary between glyphs. A word became a thought.

Sample

And then the pen started to move by itself.

It still went crazy sometimes, leaving out loops or adding too many in. But when I dared to pause my thoughts—almost like the mental equivalent of holding my breath—and just watched what happened, the pen would write a whole word of its own volition. I wasn’t doing it. I was just the observer. My role was merely to try not to interfere.

And then the pen would lift itself and the next word would flow from its tip onto the paper, and the next.

The more I let this happen, the more I became a participant, the more absorbed I became. At times I became conscious that I could not see anything outside of a dime-sized area around the tip of my pen. I’d blink and snap out of it, aware of the room again. Aware that I felt more at peace, that the noisy, self-critical parts of my brain had grown a bit quieter.

I still was very tense, and when I’d come to full consciousness again I’d have a stiff neck and aching knuckles. But I’d also have that light, spacious sense of having suspended the world for a time.

Journaling was special again. Different, but not in the ways I’d expected. It was meditative. It helped me place a barrier between the stress and anxiety of the day, and the night. It helped me fall asleep a little bit more easily.

* * *

One day I decided to treat myself to a special pen as a reward for journaling, to give myself an incentive. Something extra to look forward to each night. So I bought a fountain pen. My mother always wrote with a fountain pen and said it was nice.

I looked on Amazon and picked out what seemed like a good value for starters: a $15 Pilot fountain pen. I didn’t know anything about fountain pens. I wasn’t even sure what to do for ink or how to take care of it.

I was afraid of damaging the pen at first, because the tip just looks so delicate. I was also afraid of spilling or smearing ink. But those fears vanished quickly. It was easy to adjust.

Again, journaling became more special, but not because I’d given myself a present. This time, I realized I’d stumbled upon the solution to a lifelong problem: fountain pens are easy to write with.

You don’t have to press hard. Friction plays no role. Unlike a ballpoint pen, which requires enough pressure to deform the paper around the ball and grip it to roll it, a fountain pen works by capillary action. Just touch the paper and the ink flows. You need practically zero pressure.

The result was remarkable. During writing, my brain, which was already thrilling at the sensation of letting go and letting the words write themselves, was finally able to really let go and get out of the way. My fingers relaxed of their own accord. My hand lightened. My arm and shoulder became free. The pen—such a solid, balanced weight—glided through space freely, drawing my arm with it.

I was balancing my arm on my forearm muscles, brushing the paper with the heel of my hand, keeping my fingers mostly still and steady. The writing was coming from my wrist and arm, not my knuckles. I was completely flowing, in the zone.

And depending on how much and how completely I let go, I write quickly now. The pen moves faster than I can really track with my eyes, yet the shapes of the letters are nearly as elegant as slowed-down writing.

I guess fathers do know things sometimes. It just takes a son a few decades to understand it.

* * *

I’m not the only one who’s discovered this. It turns out that ballpoint pens might have helped kill off cursive writing. I’m so glad I discovered a fountain pen. I’m almost literally (pun intended) in love with writing now. I’m also glad that fountain pen technology has advanced so remarkably since the ballpoint pen came on the scene, addressing many of the reasons ballpoint pens were superior at the time. Those advances have made my writing experience more pleasurable.

Edit, August 2017: I’ve bought a few fountain pens at this point and continue to enjoy writing in cursive with them. I journal every single day on my favorite writing paper with a purple Pilot MR Retro Pop with a medium nib.

Pilot Metropolitan Fountain Pen

* * *

What is it about cursive writing that’s so special? Some people think the griping about the loss of cursive skills is just old-timers who can’t let go of things that are past. I can tell you it’s more than nostalgia. Cursive writing has very real value to me as an individual; value it never held when I was a child.

I started to get interested in drawing at one time, and my wonderful, amazing wife gave me a copy of Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain. Among other things, this book taught me the origins of the phrase “split-brain syndrome” that we use in clustered database systems. (It comes from Nobel-Prize-winning experiments on patients with severe epilepsy.) But that’s not what I remember the most from this period of my life.

This book’s gift to me was an improved consciousness of different modes of thought. As I practiced drawing, I began to recognize what they call “right-brain” and “left-brain” thinking. Now, I’m not at all sure that these types of thought actually occur physically in these parts of the brain, but I learned to identify many flavors of thought: logical, procedural, verbal, musical, sonic, spatial, structural, and perhaps more. Maybe science would put these into different categories, but what I know is that they each feel different to me. And through meditation, I started to recognize and describe the types of thoughts I need and use when I’m doing different things. Speaking to a group of people, drawing, writing, running, remembering, designing a complicated program, debugging and checking the logic of that program: all are very particular combinations of various kinds of thoughts.

Writing in cursive in my journal is different than printing letters. It’s even more different when using a fountain pen. It makes my brain behave differently.

I think cursive is special for several reasons. A cursive word is a single, complex, flowing line, composed of many repeating units and basic atoms, which has a meaning and shape as a whole, but also has component parts. This is completely different from simple disconnected stick letters. Writing in this way activates and concentrates different parts of my brain, different types of thoughts.

That’s why it’s so meditative and therapeutic, so calming. So flowing. I doubt that I’ve ever been “in the zone” while writing one letter at a time, but it happens all the time with cursive.

Oddly (or perhaps not), I can’t use my fountain pen for ordinary writing. It’s jarring. I can’t take notes in cursive, nor can I write printed letters with my fountain pen. My fountain pen is for journaling (and sometimes letter writing), in cursive, and my brain locks up awkwardly if I try to do anything else with it.

* * *

Having relearned cursive, I have discovered a great love for hand lettering. I see it everywhere and admire it.

A few examples. Wendy Xu created some stunning lettering for a recent New Republic article. I could hardly believe it was done by hand, but by relaxing my eyes I was able to get letters from different parts of the page to overlap and I could see that the shapes were not perfectly the same.

Quote

I look at computer fonts and I think about how they might have been inspired by or evolved from handmade letterforms. Lettering and typefaces hold more meaning for me now. They’re more special.

I also enjoy calligraphy. I have not practiced it myself, but I like to watch videos of people writing with pens, brushes, and the like. Here’s one I found somewhere:

Here’s another I found on This is Colossal.

Buying a book on calligraphy has deepened my appreciation for it, even though I’ve not made time to practice it.

* * *

There are many resources for learning to write in different styles. There are many styles of cursive, for that matter: Spencerian, Palmerian, A Beka Book, ZB, the list goes on. The IAMPETH and Michael Tull have helped create a revival of sorts by making vast amounts of tutorial and demonstration material available online in various media (PDF, video…)

I’m continuing to improve my writing, in the sense that I feel better when writing. It’s no longer about my ego, nor do I kid myself that I have writing like Wendy Xu. (I’m pretty sure that when I was a teenager, I thought my writing was that good). It’s about finding peace with myself, with the way things are, and watching myself write shapes that I find beautiful. And, more importantly, feeling that I am more relaxed and creating more beautiful writing today than I was a year ago.

I hope you find enjoyment and beauty in writing, whether your own or someone else’s.

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I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.


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