Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Handily Written: A Lost Art?

Another TBR item has floated up to my attention. This one is dated December 2012 from the Wall Street Journal. Actually, I did read it, but kept it because it so resonated with me. “The Lost Art of the Handwritten Note.”

a handwritten letter is indeed becoming a rare commodity image: jppi/morguefile


I remember my elementary day struggle of learning to write cursive, and to this day my cursive is problematic. My students are continually asking me, “What does this word say?” when I hand back their work. I wish I could tell them.

Cursive is getting kicked to the curb these days. I wish it wouldn’t. I wish I had lovely handwriting. My mother has beautiful handwriting and it hasn’t changed in its precise simplicity in all the years I’ve known her. She laments, though, how she approaches her late eighties that she can’t write like she used to, blaming it on various ailments like arthritis and eyesight. I encourage her to keep up on her keyboarding. Emails and texts are great for instant communication, and yet I still appreciate receiving her snail mail as there is something truly lovely about receiving a handwritten letter.

The article’s author, Philip Hensher, starts out asking a rather private question: how many Christmas letters did I send out and how many did I receive. The MEPA keeps track of those statistics, and lets me know each year we receive less, so he sends out less. We usually get into a bit of a discussion of “Well, maybe we should keep sending them out in good faith” versus “Cross ’em off.” There are no easy answers or solutions on the Christmas card questions, which is not the point of Hensher’s opening lines. He simply is nudging the reader to remember the last time receiving an actual letter that contained a handwritten missive in a personally addressed envelope. Hmm, I’ll have to ponder on that. Beyond Mom, the only actual mail I receive at the PO box are bills or ad flyers. None are handwritten..

Hensher briefly covers the practice of handwriting and its implications for career placement and personality detection, along with its ability to bridge direct and intimate communications between people. A pause. Here I reflect on those moments in books and film where a letter plays an important part of the plot. Cyrano’s letters to Roxane are practically one of the leading characters of Rostand’s play. What about William’s group letter to his lovely “mark” in Knight’s Tale? Perhaps this is why tomes of correspondence remain popular reading items. Although I think it’s only polite to read someone’s letters if deemed permissible. I did turn away from reading Willa Cather’s letters, once I found out she never wanted them published. It seemed voyeuristic.

I have inherited a hefty box of letters from my great aunt, affectionately known as Auntie. These represent her time spent in New York when she attended the Julliard Institute on scholarship back in the heydays of the twenties. She wrote once, sometimes twice, a day to her mother back in Seattle. No handy telephone calls and definitely no Twitter communique in the twenties. She later traveled all around Europe on tour and penned her insights and reflections upon the changes the Fuhrer created upon the landscape. I began the arduous process of typing out her letters with the idea of creating a memoir of New York in the days of yesteryear since she gave such amazing detail. This might become a retirement project. Her handwriting is so fine and spidery it wears on my eyes and fingers to decipher them. There is also the fact that something is lost when transforming them from the loops and scrawls to the neat precision of typing. Now and then I will peruse them. Mostly I derive pleasure they are sitting in the box on my closet shelf. They are a bit of history and a bit of treasure.


Readers: Do you have a few treasured handwritten letters? What makes them so special?


Single Post Navigation

10 thoughts on “Handily Written: A Lost Art?

  1. My granny used to send me lots of letters, some typed and some handwritten. Always below the date she’d put the weather, letting me know if it was snowy, sunny, etc. Her cursive is challenging to read (much like mine). They started with “My darling Amy” or “My Crown Jewel” (her nickname for me. She once tried to call me and got the wrong number. She asked, “Is this My Crown Jewel?” and the gal on the other line said, “No, but I wish was!”.) The letters were all about her life and mine. She was always interested in what was going on in my life. I still have them.

    Re: Christmas Cards: I still handwrite my cards, but I am dismayed by those who have theirs custom made with their names already printed on it. It doesn’t feel as personal, and it normally involves a picture of the sender on some faraway beach, which doesn’t feel very Christmas-y.

    I am glad to know that I am not the only who has to translate handwriting to students. Mine is notoriously bad and students take it as a point of pride if they can read it.

  2. It’s funny that you mention this. I have a blog post coming down the pike about a treasured handwritten postcard from my great-grandmother.

    Also, I am teaching my boy the art of cursive writing. After the predictable resistance and generalized crabbiness (understandable, as I’m teaching him to re-learn the proper way to write the alphabet), his penmanship is coming along quite nicely.

  3. What fabulous treasure to hold in your hands and re-read forever! My father and all of his 10 siblings had glorious handwriting, because they all had the same teacher. And my father left us a handwritten account of how he married our mother and shipped out a handful of days later for Europe and the D-Day invasion.

    In contrast, my son has reached 5th grade and cannot write, yet, in cursive. It’s killing me. Perhaps I’ll have to do what Mike is doing. My husband has horrific handwriting, so it won’t be coming from him. I do, however, expect my son to hand write thank you notes, in cursive or printed neatly.

  4. That is a great point about letters being used as plot devices, I think it is something that us people that remember writing them take a little for granted, I wonder how the text generation will view this quaint idea in future generations.

    I wish I got hand written mail, perhaps I should start asking for addresses so I can start sending some out and going places with amusing postcards so I can brighten up days as well.

    • We could start a new movement: Postcard Moments. Pac Bell had that Reach Out and Touch Someone campaign. So something along the lines of Take Time to Write a Line?

      • That is a catchy title, I am down with that, just need to find some ridiculously humorous postcards now!

      • They are usually at those cheesy tourista stops. My mom has an impressive stack of postcards she’s been collecting for over seventy years. It’s kind of fun to see how the style has changed over the years.

Comments, anyone?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: