I learned to write in cursive beginning in 2nd grade. I can still remember that pretty clearly. We had sheets of landscape-oriented, gray newsprint paper with guidelines running across it. I filled pages with SSSSSsssss and DDDDDddddd and other letters, getting used to the flow. It seems to me that from second through sixth grade, all of the handwriting I did was in cursive. Beginning in 7th grade, however, for reasons I can no longer clearly remember, I switched to a kind of microscopic printing instead of cursive and from that point on, I rarely wrote in cursive again. Once, years ago when I took the LSAT on a whim1, the essay portion required us to write our responses in cursive for some unexplained reason. That was a bit of a struggle, but I managed.
Then, about a year ago or so, I switched from print to cursive, and haven’t looked back since. I did it with some amount of trepidation. After all, while my older kids learned cursive in school, they rarely use it, and I wondered if they would be able to read anything I wrote in cursive. The last year of my journals are entirely in cursive, and it has always been my idea that those journals might be of interest to the kids when I am old or gone, but will they be able to read them? This came to mind once again when I read a recent article in The Atlantic, “Gen Z Never Learned to Read Cursive” by Drew Gilpin Faust, a former president of Harvard University. The article makes some interesting points about some history being inaccessible to people who never learned to read cursive. Many primary sources are written in cursive and if someone can’t read it, they may veer toward other sources. It reminded me: would my kids be able to read what I write in cursive?
It made me wonder why I’d gone back to writing in cursive. I think there were three reasons.
- I’ve been writing more and more off-screens. For some reason, I think differently when handwriting as opposed to typing, and it is a pleasant change. It is more relaxing, and there is more freedom. I can cross something out, or scribble a note in the margin, or circle a passage. I suppose I can do this typing, but it takes more effort.
- I’ve been trying to slow myself down when I write. When I print, the rhythm reminds me of a keyboard, a staccato, lift-drop, lift-drop of the pen, which is not much different from the press-release, press-release of the keyboard. Writing in cursive provides a smoothness, a flow that I can’t reproduce printing or on a keyboard.
- I like the way it looks. On the face of it, these seems kind of silly, but it is true. I like the slant and flow of the cursive letters. I see some people’s handwriting and it looks like a work of art. Mine does not, but I still like the way it looks in cursive more than in print.
In addition to the Atlantic article, I recently read an essay collection by the late historian Edmund Morris. Several of his essays were about handwriting and pens, and he made a further point that with handwriting, there is more there than just the words on the page. Sometimes, you can see the writer’s thoughts at work. Cursive writing often reveals where I writer paused for thought, or pressed on quickly.
I imagine that cursive writing changes over time, as well. Occasionally I will head over to the Massachusetts Historical Society to skim the diaries of John Adams or John Quincy Adams. Their cursive writing looks different than mine. I have always been particularly impressed by the neatness and style of the sixth president’s writing. See, for instance, the neatness of this example from 21 March 1821.
These days, most of what I write outside of work starts on paper and in cursive. My story drafts are done in Composition notebooks, and are written in cursive. But even my notes are now in cursive. In my Field Notes notebooks, where since 2015 I have always printed my notes, in the last year, I’ve started to write them in cursive. Even lists like this one below:
I have taken to carrying a stack of 10 blank 3×5 index cards in the back of my Field Notes notebook so that I can more readily make notes on the books and articles I am reading. At the end of the day, I move these notes into Obsidian. But during the day, as I write them, these notes, too, are scribbled out in cursive.
Sometimes, I find that I have trouble reading my own writing, but this is not frequent. When it happens, I’ll pause to puzzle out the indecipherable word, and then usually I will scribble in the word more clearly above in red so that the next time I come to the word, I don’t have to puzzle it out. The more I write in cursive, however, the less of a problem this is for me.
I still wonder if my kids, or their kids, will be able to read my cursive handwriting. I want them to be able to read what I have written. But over time I worry less about it. If they really want to read it, they will figure out a way. And besides, I imagine we are not too far off from AI that can read any form of cursive handwriting and that will make the job easier for anyone trying to puzzle this stuff out.
Written on September 27, 2022.
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- I really did take it on a whim, curious to see how I’d score ↩