The Lost Art of Penmanship and Letter Writing

Our digital age has nearly robbed us of one of the most fundamental cognitive-physiological impulses: writing by hand. Nothing compares to the pleasure of putting pen or pencil to paper, the feel of the ink gliding across the surface, the way in which we control the strokes thick and thin. What a beautiful phenomenon: thoughts materialize into something as concrete as words on the page!

Being able to write, however, is a privilege that most of us in the modern, industrial world take for granted. Even in the West, people were not largely literate until recent centuries. And for those who were, paper was still rather a luxury. For those who were able to afford it, there was the choice of the type of paper or material upon which one could write, such as skins, parchment, and then different types of stationery. There are certain parts of the world in which paper and papermaking are still an art. Think of the beautiful swirling patterns of Florentine paper, or the delicate, colorful ones of Japanese origami paper.

There is also the matter of handwriting. I’m rather alarmed to learn that many students are not learning cursive in schools anymore. Before our current age of texting, kids used to delight in writing notes to each other and slipping them to each other during class or in each other’s lockers. Making cards was great fun. Having pen pals, getting to choose the stationery and the colors of ink and the types of pens or markers and stickers were also things every kid looked forward to. But this wasn’t simply all childish entertainment: this was helping us develop our motor skills and visual-spatial abilities. I recall getting a set of calligraphy pens that came with the little booklet on how to write the alphabet in calligraphy, which I believe is a dying art. Spending quiet time learning how to write in calligraphy was as instructive as it was artistic. The Duchess of Sussex, formerly Meghan Markle, supported herself while an auditioning actress by doing calligraphy for invitations. Perhaps for some this might bring back horrifying memories of being graded poorly for “penmanship,” but I have to say there is something to being able to write legibly, if not beautifully.

None of this is a modern phenomenon. Humans have been writing, however crudely, by pressing shapes into clay tablets, then on papyrus, and then on roughly made paper. Islamic culture places a high value on the written word and therefore we can see many examples of beautiful calligraphy that is centuries old. Not to mention all the illuminated manuscripts from medieval times. One genre of writing is called the “epistolary novel,” which is a novel in letters. I think this appeals to our surreptitious delight in reading what somebody else has written, the furtive sense of snooping. Examples include the medieval correspondence between nun Héloïse and monkish scholar Abélard, and Samuel Richardson’s (dare I say) tedious Pamela. In the 90s, the brilliant artist Nick Bantock created a stunning series of “Griffin and Sabine” books that illustrated a correspondence between a man and woman, complete with colorful letters and cards that were works of art that the reader would draw out of an envelope mounted on the page. This continued into another series by Bantock known as “The Morning Star Trilogy” and then another book that filled in the time between the two trilogies. This is one of the best examples of a modern epistolary novel, and one that engages multiple senses.

I believe we need to write more letters and cards. To get away from the two-dimensional, black-and-white, non-curving nature of our digital writing. Write thank you notes by hand; send your friends a letter. They might thank you for it, and you will also be continuing the wonderful historical act of writing by hand and epistolary communication.

Bad is Good: Downfall in Literature

I recently finished rereading Anna Karenina, and I am currently watching the latest Clint Eastwood film, “The Mule,” which is based on a true story. And it is absolutely delightful! A charming Midwestern octogenarian horticulturalist becomes a drug runner for a Mexican cartel, and finds himself more and more embroiled in their world, unable to escape for fear of retaliation or death. Though initially a means to earn money to help pay for his granddaughter’s wedding and other expenses once he is foreclosed, “Grandpa Earl” seems to slowly relish the life he has now attained, complete with gold bracelet, Lincoln pickup truck, and easy women.

This led me to think about the theme of downfall in literature: what makes it so compelling? Why is it such an interesting and oft-repeated trope or topic?

In Anna Karenina, we can’t entirely say Anna is a fallen woman; that would be too simplistic. We initially feel sympathetic for her, a vibrant woman stuck in a loveless marriage to a stuffed-shirt bureaucrat. However, her passion and her desires lead her to lose sight of what is important, separate her from her son, and make her so jealous that she commits suicide. We see this downward trajectory throughout the course of the novel. Her narrative arc is the key driving force of the novel. Roxanne, by Daniel Defoe, is another such example, and probably one of the best. A woman of virtue, she resorts to any means she can find to support herself and her children, which includes becoming a mistress. And lest we fault women, we can also remember that the juicy, Gothic classic The Monk by Matthew Lewis is also from this time. A lustful monk ends up committing murder, and there are all kinds of other peccadilloes along the way, including pregnant nuns.

In modern times, we can look at Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, a novel so over-the-top that it is truly singular in its first-person narrative voice. Alexander Portnoy is a nice Jewish boy from a good family, but his sexual appetite becomes his undoing. And as the reader, boy, do we enjoy the ride! One of my favorite stories, Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem,” one could argue, also deals with the theme of downfall. Jackson Jackson is a homeless Native American who needs to obtain money in 24 hours in order to buy back his grandmother’s regalia. But rather than judiciously saving the money, he squanders it in the course of the day. The ironic–and funny–twist is that (spoiler alert) despite his misbehavior, he ends up getting the regalia in the end. And of course, we can’t go without mentioning another doubly named antihero, the infamous Humbert Humbert of Nabokov’s Lolita. An intelligent, cultured man, the protagonist not only seduces his landlady’s daughter, but then kidnaps her and takes her on a wild ride. He meets his due, captured by the police at the end. The rich prose is a hallmark of Nabokov, who creates such a rounded character in Humbert Humbert that we cannot help but be engaged with the novel.

What do these novels and stories have in common? I would argue that they harken back to the most fundamental of Christian themes: the fallen angel. Also, by setting up a protagonist on some sort of moral high ground–something that is implicitly of the basis of our Protestant/Anglo cultures, the author creates the expectation of morality, that the lead character should behave in some sort of ethical way. We have our societal expectations of how people should or shouldn’t act, and when a character deviates from that, there is the cognitive dissonance between the expectation and the action. This gap makes for great literature and a great story. Also, what is the trajectory that this character goes through? What are the trials and tribulations? Is s/he justified? Is s/he really a victim of society, or does s/he have agency to make rational decisions? Finally, is there any redemption for the protagonist, either through external means, or self-redemption? These are significant questions an author must answer. Also, the author must establish a certain degree of virtue in the protagonist at the beginning, create her or him as likable and establish a rapport with the reader.

The journey of this character on the downward spiral is what makes for great reading. Yes, we may know the outcome or answer already, but how we get there is what is so delightful. Rich prose, a variety of obstacles, thwarting expectations, acting out of the need for survival–these are just some of the elements we might find in a downfall novel or story.

There will always be prudish readers who dislike these anti-heroes, who lament their lack of virtue. But shouldn’t literature and art be a fantasy world in which we can act out or explore our baser emotions in an enjoyable way?

The Women of Letters Celebrates 7 Years!!

Dear readers,
I am so happy that you have been with me on this journey for the past seven years as of this month. This blog has been nothing but a delight to write, and I hope you have enjoyed reading it is much as I have enjoyed writing it. And, I hope this might inspire you to write a blog of your own! Here’s to another seven more years. Keep writing, and keep reading, whatever the genre. Thank you so much for your support!