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.

2 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Penmanship and Letter Writing

  1. Hello Sonja,

    I really enjoyed reading your short essay on the lost art of writing letters. (By the way, I facilitate the book club that you attended.) When I was younger, I most enjoyed writing letters for others–I would spend hours writing and revising them. But through the years I slowy stopped.

    One of my favorite novels is actually structured as a novel. I highly recommend it. It’s John Banville’s The Newton Letter.

    Thank you again for posting this essay.

    Best,
    Todd

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