The Story of How Handwriting Evolved, and May Soon Die Off (From the NY Times)

THE HISTORY AND UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF HANDWRITING
By Anne Trubek
Illustrated. 177 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.

“I never saw a hotter argument on so unexciting a subject,” the Dutch scholar Erasmus declared in 1528 in his treatise “On Handwriting.” As Anne Trubek’s new book, “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting,” demonstrates, 500 years later the debate simmers on. Trubek ­traces Western script from Sumerian cuneiform to the Roman alphabet and on through Carolingian minuscule, Spencerian and Palmer scripts. When an Ohio second grader joins in to whinge about achy pen-holding fingers, handwriting — and specifically cursive, now eradicated from the Common Core curriculum — becomes as hot a topic as in Erasmus’s day.

Yet Trubek’s intriguing history is something of a bait and switch. As a writer and professor at Oberlin College, where she offers a course called “Technologies of Writing: From Plato to the Digital Age,” she’s the expert reporters call when weighing the merits of teaching traditional penmanship — she’s skeptical — and her book is a eulogy, urging a long goodbye to handwriting as we know it and an embrace of a neurological metamorphosis already underway as we adapt to new technology. But her revelatory deep dive also shows just how much we stand to lose.

Of course, as Trubek points out, resisting this probable, if not certain, transformation is nothing new. “Unsurprisingly, the most vocal opponents of new technologies are those who dominated the old,” she writes. There’s Socrates, for instance, railing against the treachery of writing, which he thought inferior to oration and risky too, eroding the necessity of memory.

“Writing preserves only the thought of literate peoples,” Trubek points out, quoting the scholar Barry Powell, attentively exposing the politics of access in her subject. In ancient Egypt, as in so many cultures, only well-born boys learned writing, and whether used as a branding tool of church and state or as a signifier of privilege, script is never neutral. Ambitious 17th- and 18th-century clerks changed their fortunes by mastering difficult new hands, while aristocrats wrote sloppily “as if in open proclamation of scorn for the arts by which humbler people oftentimes got their bread,” Thomas De Quincey noted.

Perfecting penmanship became a Christian ideal in 19th-century ­America, one occasionally credited with disciplining the mind, initiating an era of ­pseudo-psychological graphology that lingers today. Handwriting’s sketchy scientific past makes good reading, but Trubek errs in underplaying the contemporary research that shows handwriting’s role in cognitive development. Studies show that a child drawing a letter freehand activates the neurological centers that reading and writing do in adults, while using a keyboard ­produces little effect. Children composing text by hand generate more words more quickly, and also express more ideas. Students who take class notes by hand better retain that information, and, fascinatingly, not only does the brain process capital letters and lowercase letters differently, but block printing, cursive and typing each elicit distinctive neurological patterns. It all seems more tantalizing and tangible than the “advantages ­unimaginable” Trubek believes the future holds. She calls the science behind the new studies “fuzzy” and judges their findings unconvincing. But while American public education has abandoned cursive, France surveyed the evidence and ­began teaching connected script even earlier, at age 6.

A tension between style and substance pitted ornamentation against speed at the start. As Trubek tells it, the Sumerians’ first notations were solely bureaucratic, recording financial transactions in symbolic shorthand. By the medieval era, scribes went through 60 quills a day copying a single book for some three months, reaching perhaps the “apogee of handwriting in the West,” she writes. Though their work was “neither creative nor original,” occasionally a little ego spilled into the margins. “Now I’ve written the whole thing,” one monk scribbled. “For Christ’s sake, give me a drink.”

How we write is delicately connected to what we write and why. Trubek suggests relegating cursive to art class, but removing it to the realm of the exceptional limits our expectations of experiencing beauty in the day-to-day. Today’s second graders, including my own, will learn to type — one day, my daughter might even out-key Stella Willins, who banged out 264 words per minute in 1926. But we can’t quantify the value in an ability to forge a rare harmony between utility and beauty, the handsomely scripted grocery list, the love letter, the diary I write just for myself.

“We will lose something as we print and write in cursive less and less, but loss is inevitable,” Trubek concludes. Though one technology often supplants another, that doesn’t necessitate concession. Considering its rich significance, instead of hustling handwriting off to the graveyard, perhaps what’s called for is resurrection.

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Getting the Hawk off the Ground: shot down

injured hawkHour of the Hawk, the mystery I have been working on for a year, was critiqued by editor B over breakfast. It is no longer on the wing. Or more positively, it has reached a new, exciting launch pad -at the top of a Jeffrey PIne. It lies there disconsolant, at present, but both critic and writer agree that there are parts they love: the goat chapter, the romance novelist, Arta Dietzen, and even the penultimate surprise. Both of us laugh at Jesus, the cable man. We want to keep the concept of the elderly, possibly psychic, Joanna and her friend, flying around on their golf cart in search of  the serpent in the mountain Eden of Bear Mountain Place.

(Why am I not lying on the floor, kicking and screaming and bashing my head? For one, I’m told this is the nature of writing. Just when you think you’re done, you’re not. For two, I destroyed my-3 year-old MacBookAir ten days ago. The tea spilled south. The laptop was north, three feet away. Safe as houses. But… the intervening newspaper sucked up the tea and helpfully ciphoned it into the solid state inards through the USB port. I didn’t throw a tantrum then either. I spent two hours waiting for a Mac Genius to deliver the bad news, all the while worrying about Hour of the Hawk. When I plugged the new Cdn $1500 (with extended warranty) computer into my external hard drive, there was my hawk baby, alive and well. What’s money when life is at stake?)

Critic B has no complaint about the writing itself,and he likes the voice. He expected that. He was one of the few who read my e-book Never Tell, recovered memories of a daughter of the Temple Mater, as well as an unpublished manuscript telling about my recovery from life in the cult.

But Hour of the Hawk has too many characters. I had heard this rumor from Critic A and immediately, resolved in my heart that Evie, the telepathic goat farmer, was going to stay.

Critic B began by mentioning that. He had got confused trying to remember who was who. Much to my embarrassment, neither of us could remember the name of the kingpin in the conspiracy. That character is typically absent when he should be front and center. I mean he says he will be at this meeting or that and fails to be there. He has reasons for that. But he obviously isn’t real at present. Neither the protagonist nor the reader connects with him.

Some characters may need to do double duty, while others may be set aside for the next “Old Girl Mystery”, but still others, like Oliver Warren, CEO of  El Halcon Ranch, may just need to be developed.

Soon the discussion of character morphed into one of structure, the real problem. It went on for most of the morning, sitting, standing, retreating to fresh air on the deck -very fresh, 40 degrees of mountain air swirling through the pines- pacing, hand-waving. Me still in my hooded onesie, which makes me look  like a large white rabbit. The pellet stove belting out heat. A winter storm coming on.

I saw how my story was like washing pegged to a clothes line whereas it needs to be a power pulley line, each event powering the next.

I thought we had finished, but when Critic A returned from yoga, the seminar started up again. She is also in the early stages of writing a book, so now there were two students in this peripatetic class. Where was Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. (Any character can be humanized by one good act such as pouring a saucer of milk for the starving stray.) All we could find was Save the Cat at the Movies. Same theory, illustrated through the examination of many, many movies. We did manage to print out three copies of Snyder’s Beat Sheet, the fifteen steps of a screenplay. (Screenplays are typically 100 pages-20 intro, 60-rising action and 20-climax and resolution.) Critic B is most familiar with that type of writing, but I have come across similar structural breakdowns while researching synopsis writing for novels.

The prospect of listing major events briefly on 3 by 5 cards and arranging them on a tack board seemed less daunting then than it does now – we all got excitedly high on creativity- but what else do I have to do through the long Toronto winter.

My protagonist Joanna Hunter is not a detective nor a forensic expert, so she and her side-kick (the old girls) have to rely on MIss Marple’s methods- snooping, intuition and reasoning. I have to put Joanna in more danger as she closes in on the miscreants. And too much of the climax happens off-stage, reported rather than witnessed.

The first person narrator lends immediacy, but limits point of view. I already have two passages that are third person. Why not a few more?

All the books I have read about editing stress the need for a good editor. Good editors cost money. Critic B is my son-in-law. Do you suppose I will get invoiced?

 

 

 

Getting the Hawk off the Ground: editing a mystery

db exp:hatThis is the 4th in a series of posts about writing my mystery Hour of the Hawk. See links to the others.

https://115journals.com/2015/04/06/writer-unblocked/

https://115journals.com/2015/11/03/getting-the-hawk-off-the-ground-writing-a-mystery/

https://115journals.com/2015/11/07/getting-the-hawk-off-the-ground-editing-con/

At a certain point in the editing process, I began working on a more authentic voice. In Hour of the Hawk, I was using a first person narrator telling the story in the past tense. Past tense lends distance. First person doesn’t. Because my narrator, Joanna Hunter, had a history similar to mine, one of my first revisions had been aimed at eliminating quirks and ways of speaking that were more me than her because, of course, we were different people. I liked the new, sparer, less elliptical, more direct voice. Then I got the bad news. The voice was not authentic, which is to say, uninteresting. “A lot of it was only mediocre,” said Critic A.

So glad I keep my kitchen knives sharpened to a gleaming edge!

My authentic self was fascinating, she added, and so, therefore, was Joanna’s. Where was my effervescent personality, my wicked sense of humour? I needed to let things fly. Characters hooked readers and made them read on. And I needed to love all my characters, even the irresponsible guy who put honey in a tire swing to attract bears, and ended up getting killed by one.

I wrote the beginning again. I sent it off by email. “Not working yet,” replied Critic A. I went back to work. Several weeks later, I knew enough about Tom Braddock to write a book on him alone. He had a Chumash great grandmother and a college football career, as well as three kids, and an articulate, wife who worked at a Bakersfield hospital. Most of all, I liked him. He passed muster.

But Critic A had more to tell me. I needed to create a relationship with my reader. Joanna, for example, knew what it means to age. A person could be spiritual and loving but also skeptical and cynical. That reminded me of one of my favourite sayings: Samuel Beckett’s advice to a young writer, “Despair young and never look back.” I find that hilarious, especially with a glass of Guinness. (My biological grandfather was Irish, I have just discovered.) The notes I jotted down from that long distance conversation also include the words,”dangerously compassionate”. Don’t ask me.

So I went to see Phillipa C. on Dundas W. in Toronto and arranged for her to take a series of portraits. I brought along props. I thought I would be painfully self-conscious. I wasn’t. I have done enough acting to know how to slip into a character. When I saw them a few days later, I learned more about Joanna.

I knew she wore jeans and a cowboy hat. I’d forgotten the leather jacket. I knew she was the survivor of a dangerous family and had cop phobia. (Does knowing about a crime make you guilty?) I knew she had a rock and roll side, a toughness she could trot out driving on dark desert highways. She was capable of salty language and had once been taken to the principal by a senior student. Poor fellow had aggravated her while she was on top of a ladder adjusting a bulb high in a TV studio. Joanna also saw the world through the prism Shakespeare’s plays and the St. James Bible. Her heart had been broken more than once in a been down so long it looks like up to me sort of way. And she caught glimpses of the future from time to time, and could keep track of dead people. I went back and added this point of view in brief reflections throughout the action.

By now Critics C and D had finished reading the book. They were satisfied. Not about to sort through it again for such gems. Critic B plays golf a lot, and Critic A was now deeply into her own writing. I wait on tenterhooks. In December, we will be together in Pine Mountain Club, and we will sit down to sort our book out.

Meanwhile, Critic A/Writer B had a small breakdown on the phone because she couldn’t find her authentic voice. I thought of her horizontally stripped stockings and her three print  outfits. I thought of her exuberant dancing in hiking boots on the golf green. Only children dared enter her orbit. I said try zany. Then discovering that Roget regarded that as an insult, I came up with a list: joyful, full of life, eccentric, empathetic, outside the box, dangerously unpredictable, aggressive, digressive, diverting, out of left field, hippy, unexpected, nuclear powered love and empathy generator which heals on contact.

From what she’s read to me, she’s getting on better now.

Getting the Hawk off the Ground: editing con.

red tailed hawkThis post is one of a series of posts about my experience writing and editing my mystery, Hour of the Hawk, which may interest and help other writers and mystery readers. The previous two are linked below.

https://115journals.com/2015/11/03/getting-the-hawk-off-the-ground-writing-a-mystery/

https://115journals.com/2015/04/06/writer-unblocked/

When you go on-line for advice on how to edit your novel, you are advised that you need a professional editor – by professional editors, of course. They say this is essential if you are going to self-publish. Been there. Done that. Paid for formatting in both Kindle and Smashwords by 52 Novels and for a cover design by Stewart A. Williams. Still haven’t made back the costs, so I’m glad I didn’t add another $500 for an editor.

It’s my fault Never Tell didn’t sell. It was a memoir about an abusive childhood , and, although it has a bouncy, resilient narrative voice, I lost heart trying to market it. Of course, I went the self-publishing route after a valiant effort to find an agent. Here I am again.

The Book Butchers also advise  that you do your own edit before you hire an editor, and let you download free advice: 25 Self-Editing Tips for Indie Writers. As we know, you have to give away your work to build a market these days. They say you can save money by getting your book into better shape before you submit it to them – if you have the nerve, given their name. Plus you save them the bane of my teaching life, correcting grammar errors.I found their ideas useful.

I downloaded Stein on Writing ($9.99) onto my iPad,and found his editing advice more helpful. By now I was taking multiple trips through my manuscript as I followed instructions. I also signed up for thecreativepenn.com. Joanna Penn advised a three step edit: a structural edit, a line edit for word choice, grammar and sentence structure and a proof reading edit handled by someone else. There were a number of other e-books I considered, but I figured the basics had been covered.

I have a friend who is a great proof reader, but she can’t do my book because a bear cub was harmed in its making. Off-stage,I hasten to add. We don’t witness the cub’s death by game warden, nor do we witness its mother’s revenge, which, while somewhat misguided, is fatal. I told her it is fiction, but she remembered that such a thing actually happened in the mountains where I was staying and that made it real enough for her. As I said last time, I taught English. Critic A learned from me. Critic B also taught English. Critic C can cover a page with red ink. I trust the real proof reader at the end of the line will find only typos. Or not.

In my next post, later today, I will go back to the topic of editing for narrative voice.

NeverTellCover-3

 

 

 

Getting the Hawk Off the Ground: writing a mystery

https://115journals.com/2015/04/06/writer-unblocked/

In the post above, I reported how I finally got started writing Hour of the Hawk, an eco-terrorist mystery, set in the remote mountain paradise of Bear Mountain Place, California. At the time I had written about  3/4s of a first draft- 70,000 wds. Finished, it came in around 105,000 words, which I think is about 280 pages.

“Finished” proved to be a tricky word.

The first revision dealt with logic and structure. P.D. James spent months planning her mysteries, and began writing only when she knew where she was going. John Irving  writes his endings first. When I began with the bear, I knew where the bear would end up, but that was all.  I thought I knew who the villains were. So did my narrator. We were both wrong. One by one, the suspects were eliminated while ever more heinous crimes were perpetrated. At a certain point, I had no idea who could possibly be to blame. Then, one by one, they crept out of the woodwork, a whole conspiracy of them, and each with a different motive for a common cause. I couldn’t keep the whole convoluted plot in my head.

I took a roll of brown paper and drew the plot line, the way I used to ask students to graph short story plots. I eliminated repetition, particularly where the “investigators” – two detectives; the narrator, an older woman; her even older friend and the rock band that is being framed – discuss the evidence they have gathered. I checked for clarity and whether I was giving readers some foreshadowing. It was hard to do that first time around because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I made sure that the characters held up. Were their actions believable, given their personality? One of them, for example, has some degree of psychic ability. Or has been told she has. That was a given. Certain events followed from that. The reader is welcome to call it coincidence.

The edit for syntax and grammar seemed to be completed next, but of course, I discovered it was an on-going process. Every time I reread a  chapter, I find a way to make sentences more concise and punchier- more punchy(?). I was lucky that I had spent 35 years editing students’ writing, although I didn’t feel that way at the time. I would just say that Microsoft Word 2011 has some very peculiar ideas about what constitutes a major clause. I nearly wore out the IGNORE button.

I gave this version to others to read. As reading progressed, two readers got irritated. They would get a third of the way through and I would say, “Stop. Don’t read anymore. It’s awful!” Two others thought I was right. One of them had told me as gently as possible that it was so.

So I went through tightening things up and taking out the archness, the ironic distance, the preciousness. I sent the new version back to my readers. By now they had got 4 versions and 3 “Stop”s. Critic A, as I will call her, gave me the new bad news.: the narrator’s voice was not authentic. Yes, I had eliminated the stand-off-ishness. The narration was more direct. But— the narrator was perceptive and far-seeing, someone who sees into other people’s souls, and that wasn’t coming across. Critic A also had a solution. It involved going to a portrait photographer and having pictures taken, which would suggest the narrator’s character. I did that, wearing clothes she wears in the book.

With one of these photos in front of me, I started again.

Stay tuned…….

 

The Voice in the Mirror

“I liked the voice,” she said. “I’ve never heard that voice before.”

She had read the manuscript of my memoir, which eventually became an ebook, Never Tell: recovered memories of a daughter of the Temple Mater and she meant the narrator’s voice.

Since it was my daughter speaking, it seemed likely that she had heard all my voices, so I kept my protest to myself. I did, however, ask myself how it was different and I came to an interesting conclusion.

It was a survivor’s voice, certainly, but not a grim survivor, nor even an exhausted one, more like a bouyant survivor bobbing to the surface.  When I thought of the events of my childhood, I might feel grim and exhausted as well self-pitying, sad and angry, but when I wrote, I spoke in a different voice. “Upbeat” doesn’t describe it, nor even “darkly humorous”. It was the voice of the child I was, striding forth, sailing through, undeterred. It wouldn’t even be right to say “determined”. There was more ease to it than that. It was more like a fixed assurance that in spite of everything, all would be well. In fact, it owed a great deal to my Aunt Mae, whose joyful optimism shaped it.

I was surprised to discover that it was not just the recitation of  past events, but finding that voice that had made writing the story such a healing experience.

I speak with many voices in the 115 journals I have written so far, some familiar and some distinctly foreign. Who was the person? How could I have written that? On the other hand, where did this admirable, independent, confident self go to? That’s the great thing about writing consistently in a journal. You see yourself whole, developing and changing, in all your complexity and subtlety. You experiment with tone and attitude. One day’s entry is cutting wit, another a scathing rant and yet another a melancholy dirge.

A part of myself I discovered while writing the memoir was one that felt deep compassion for my little self. I wrote, “Ah, young Joyce, here we are again. Why have I ever feared you or sought to silence you? Let us sit together this night and tomorrow and as long as it takes, listening. When there are no words, we will listen to the feeling. Feelings are no less real because they are not named. We will be together. Steadily, steadily we will listen and gaze upon this pain and the sound of our listening and the light of our looking will mend us.”

Who are you ignoring? In that pantheon of personas (personae?) that make up you, which silenced voice, seeking expression, could help you hear yourself?

Free and frequent writing can discover such voices and they can lead us to self-discovery. A journal is a mirror that lets us see and hear what we are.

Why Keep a Journal

My creative writing students used to spend the first twenty minutes of class warming up by writing in their journals.  One of them attacked her journal angrily every morning, addressing her entry, “Dear Constance”. I didn’t actually read what they wrote, but I noticed the daily salutation when she presented her journal for page count. The implication I took was that I was a constant pain in the neck, but still I found it touching. Constance sounded like an ideal reader, patient, loyal and non-judgmental. If I envisaged a reader for my 115 journals, it would be Constance.

I don’t actually. I don’t expect they will ever be read except by me. I can imagine my survivors wondering what in the world to do with them, but I do not see them sitting down to read.

So why do I do it? What motivates me to spend the first half hour of every day writing to myself?

Possibly it’s pathological, a case of hypergraphia, in which case I am in the excellent company of van Gogh, Dostoevsky and Lewis Carroll. I don’t seem to suffer from damage to the cerebral cortex, but then neither did they. Let’s assume that the cause is more benign on the grounds that I could quit if I wanted to. (Honest.)

Like many people, I live alone. Statistics show that many more people do today; as many as 40% of American households are made up of one person and that rises to 50% for women over 75. Like many of these people, I’m used to it and I don’t feel lonely, but I miss having someone to talk to about my daily life. Talking helps me put things in perspective,  clarify my thoughts, make decisions, and enjoy myself. Talking was how I came to understand my life when I was living with others. Now I talk to my journal.

When I was 12, I was given a little diary with a padded faux leather cover and a metal clasp that I could lock against intruding eyes -siblings, mother- in which I recorded the weather for two weeks and not much else. I begin the same way now, checking the present and predicted temperature. (Is this just another obsession or the rational result of living in Toronto?) I review the day before and look over my plans for the day to come. I record my dreams if I remember them, but I don’t pretend to be as good at that as my sister who says she does that every day. (Yes, she also keeps a daily journal. Is it genetic?) I note my response to the day’s stresses, my physical and mental health, the causes thereof and strategies for coping. I examine relationships when necessary. Then to exercise my short term memory, which has never been very good, I record what I have read or watched on television.

There are practical results to having such a record.  What was that particular mystery by Lee Child about? When did I have a bone density test? How exactly did that diagnosis proceed? What was the date of that short-lived, registry office wedding? Apparently, the long delayed divorce cannot proceed until the date of the marriage is established.  Ah, yes, journal #18, August 1986. I am the family archive keeper.

But it didn’t begin that way. It began with a hard covered “Dominion blue line” record book which I bought for 2.75, the same day that I bought “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”. It contains sporadic entries, centered mostly on the angst of seeking job promotion, but there are lovely details of my children’s reading -Tales of Mother West Wind, riding home in the MG with the top down in the rain, the orange lilies in the rock garden, the mountain ash berries, until that dire event, when life in the house under the hill came to an end. I began the second journal 8 years after the first and it is entirely in poetry, yet a daily record of what I felt following my separation. By journal #5, I am back to prose, “a record, a scientific basis for discovery and judgment”. What can I say? I don’t actually recognize the person who wrote those early journals.  That is one of the miracles of journal writing.  I see how much I’ve changed. Of course, I’m way better now or at least my prose is not as wordy.

So the books began to accrue, small, brightly colored, easily carried into coffee shops at first, then at journal #33, black, 8 by 11, sketch books of acid free paper. Last Christmas my sister gave me a light blue sketch book (#114) and a lime green one (#115) saying it was time I swore off black. Now they make an untidy, hard to access pile, demanding their own bookcase.

I did use a computer for a number of years, although I prefer the tactile experience of an actual book. At the time, I printed entries as well and I’m glad I did because when my computer died without warning, I  lost several years of entries.

So here’s what I think: you should start a journal if you don’t already keep one.  (If you do, you should keep on.) You’ll get a confidante who can keep a secret, improve your memory and gain clarity. “The unexamined life,” Socrates said, “is not worth living.”