Thursday, October 12, 2006

Chicken Scratch

There's a blog called "Holy Cats!" which is made up of photographs and transcriptions of what the blogger calls "historical ephemera" (diaries, journals, and letter). When a number of us started flipping through the digitized pages of the 1904 diary that inspired the project, we were enthralled with how much of this guy's world was represented online--the pictures of flying carousels the guy rode while trying to make time with the local girls, complete texts of the books with which he poisoned his turn-of-the-century mind, and the tunes he danced to were all very easy to find. To be two clicks away from these things helped make everything so much clearer in an instant.

Of course, the diary itself was potentially problematic in that respect. Not the state of the physical artifact: it was in great shape, with pages that are far too white for a book over 100 years old, and the diary keeper's handwriting was well above average, with those wonderful flourishes that old documents often have (I especially love the swooping loop on his capital W). However, our modern blogger feels the need to transcribe the text for those who had trouble reading longhand. When she first told us her reasons for the transcriptions, it took me awhile to fully process the implications. After all, I know that many people can't read my handwriting, but the concept of young adults who are otherwise literate not being able to read longhand at all...what alternate universe have I found myself in, and who's the president? Please don't say "Cheney".

Keeping all that in mind, I really should have been ready for the Official Word, but I was still floored when I ran across this Washington Post article which once again proves that the world that I grew up in is dead (and I'm Gen X, so everybody over 30 should be very scared): thanks to schools teaching computer keyboarding at younger ages, some as young as kindergarten, the emphasis on longhand and penmanship are in sharp decline, and the schools are so hung up on the standardized tests that very few of them give a toss. "No child left behind" my ass.

To encapsulate my horror, let me walk you through what I'm up against when I sit down to write anything more than a few sentences long with a computer. With a good old dead tree notebook, I start at the beginning and push through with some semblance of order, but give me something that lets me write things down in any sequence I like (the edit window of a blog interface, for instance) and you're lucky to get a finished product out of me at all. Most often in these types of entries, I start from the middle (usually the link) and let things fly off in both directions at once, which doesn't encourage the type of linear thought to pull off a proper article. To make matters worse, I'm a compulsive self-editor, so I jump back and forth in the text window doing drive-by corrections. Combine that with my recurring absent-mindedness, and you end up with something that has more holes than the results of that other kind of drive-by. The kind that I never spot until after I hit that "publish" button.

Through trial and error, I've found out that good old pen and paper work best for what I consider serious writing, but it's gotta be right. Loose leaf paper isn't good enough, not even a spiral bound notebook--it's too easy to backpedal, Jack. Moment of No good. I'm almost positive the only thing that keeps me on task will be a stitched notebook, the kind that you find at drug or dollar store. A non-erasable writing tool and a medium with no delete key imposes an immutable discipline that some of us desperately need if we ever want to get anything done. There will be plenty of time for tweaks when I have a complete text in front of me, which doesn't happen very often when I compose on the screen.

(No, the fact that "composing on the screen" is what I'm doing now doesn't kill my argument. It's 6 a.m. and my inner editor doesn't come on duty before 7. Shut up and let me finish so I can double back and add an introduction.)

And of course, I have to agree with the experts that handwriting has an personal touch the machine approach smooths over. In fact, the trend away from script seems to point to a fundamental change in the concept of "the personal touch" in the digital age. Think about it: would a witchcraft spell have the same allure with the arcane, forbidden words printed on that parchment with a 21 point Times New Roman font spit out of your Hewlett-Packard? Would Sotheby's earn top dollar for William Shakespeare's vCard, or his OpenOffice backups for the First Folio? And what about all of those sad-eyed handwriting analysts? They gotta eat, too.

As jokey as my examples are, this is the reason above all others that worries the hell out of me when I read about teachers who don't see a problem with penmanship going the way of buggy whips and heroin in pharmacies. It's a paradox, I know, that a clearer way of communicating turns out to be just one more layer placed between us. But to me, a letter from a word processor feels like business, and a letter in longhand still feels like home.

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