The hardest thing about taking the SAT was writing the honor code in cursive. Well, that’s kind of an exaggeration, but after having drilled the essays and math, the cursive was the only thing that took me by surprise. I spent agonizing minutes, trying to remember how to form capital letters. When that was over with, I thought that I would never touch cursive ever again.
I was proud of my poor handwriting. I thought the content mattered more than the form. After all, there’s that old joke that doctors have illegible prescriptions. When taking notes in class, my chicken scratch was so much faster than round bubbly letters and i’s dotted with hearts. And if, on a test, the grader couldn’t quite make out the answer, but it looked okay, I’d get the points, right?
I also never saw the use of cursive. Why bother learning to write in two ways, when print is sufficient, and keyboards abundant? Plus, it was slower to write, and hard to read. I could barely understand the boxes of letters that my high-school English teacher brought to class. Once my school abandoned teaching me that form of writing, I never looked back.
My attitude changed after I met a calligraphy enthusiast. He would write quotations to put on his door, and leave beautiful words on scrap paper, lying about. The form complemented the meaning, directly or ironically. A quote about truth and beauty was all the more beautiful (although I can’t say it was all the more true), but even a page of curse words was delightful.
He piqued my curiosity about penmanship, so I investigated the subject myself. On the website of the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting was an archive of old penmanship manuals and handwriting exemplars. The words were so precise and neat, they resembled a typeface. Everything was redolent of an older time, when the written word was more valuable. Thus encouraged, I found a student’s handbook teaching Spencerian Cursive and set to work.
It turns out I had been taught the subject incorrectly all those years ago. The American D’Nealian style of teaching cursive emphasizes copying letter forms in a slow, laborious process, whereas Spencerian cursive, originating from a time when handwriting was the only way to communicate, emphasizes producing letters using fluid, wave-shaped motions. I found out that I had been writing ‘A’s and ‘O’s incorrectly the entire time, which had no doubt increased my previous frustration with cursive.
Trying to retrain my script gave me an appreciation for the work of medieval monks. There were drills to practice the individual shapes of letters, to write as fast as possible. It took two months to get my cursive in an acceptable state, and more to get it fluid. I found that for cursive scripts, the lower-case letters are all the same, and only for the upper-case letters do the styles differ.
Once I mastered Spencerian cursive, everything I wrote got that much classier. Before, it was a grocery list. Now, it was a grocery list, in cursive!
Soon, I was taking the next step in old-school charm: using a fountain pen. Writing with a fountain pen is beautiful; I can feel the scratch of the paper transmitting vibrations to my hand. The well of ink is a tap from my cerebrospinal fluid to the page. In the infinity of all possible words, I am the one that decides what is written.
Writing in cursive may have advantages beyond aesthetics. According to a Princeton study, studying text in a more difficult-to-read font can improve long-term learning and retention of information. I can feel vindicated for writing my class notes in cursive just to practice.
Now that I have tasted the benefits of reformatting my handwriting, I would like to urge my fellow students to pick up a pen, and join their letters.