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 ↩
I, too, remember learning cursive starting in the second grade, on the horizontal newsprint paper printed with a dotted guideline between the top and bottom solid lines. I remember practicing the strokes, and the connecting strokes, and the curves.
During elementary school, the teachers warned us that in junior high (middle school), we would be required to write all of our papers in cursive and in ink, so we had better be ready.
When I reached junior high, I was surprised, and somewhat disappointed, that cursive was rarely required. All that build up, then… nothin’!
In a survey class in junior high, however, we had a brief unit on “draftsman style” printing, like architects used when making blueprints. The instructor was very particular about the lessons, and it seemed frustrating at the time, but those three weeks in that survey class greatly influenced my handwriting. I largely dropped cursive at that time for a clear “block printing” style based on draftsman (draftsperson? Drafter?) style, that has stayed with me since.
“Since” being relative, as I rarely write anything of length by hand anymore. Periodically I think about trying to write more by hand, if for no other reason than to try to maintain some level of manual dexterity and finger strength.
David, it’s funny you mention the drafting style. I learned that in 11th grade when I took a drafting class (where I made these renderings), and I liked it a lot, but it was always too slow for me to write for anything but floor plans and stuff like that.
I too learned to write in cursive as well as “drafting style” (courtesy of a required drafting course in high school). Over the years, however, my everyday handwriting has evolved into a mixture of both printing and cursive. I was shocked when I noticed that this could happen even in the same word; the first of a doubled letter was printed but the second was in cursive. Thank goodness my children learned to read my personal script! If I want my handwriting to be legible to an outsider, I have to focus on using just one style.
Thanks for this thoughtful post. Your pertinent observations resonate with my feelings about texting/communicating in abbreviated, shorthand language. The thoughtful flow of full sentences actually allows time for contemplation/rumination as you construct thoughts on pages, digital or physical. Cursive writing, I think, provides the same benefit, to more carefully regard one’s own thoughts as those thoughts are taking shape. An internal dialog loop takes place that is enhanced by the ‘flow’ of the pen/pencil. This is a skill, and one that has to be nurtured and practiced – not only to do, but to read, as you pointed out. It’s also an antidote to the impatience that is manifest when allowing our interaction with information to be governed by technology. If naught else, it’s good for maintaining fine motor skills (true, though I’m jesting).
Interesting. I also went from 2nd grade to the end of primary school with a crown pen and a pot with ink, writing between 2 lines and only the larger letters reaching over and under. In secondary school I got my first fountain pen, an Osmia Progress 66G medium nib, which got me through high school and nautical school. After that, the balpen (Bic) became in fashion and my writing went from cursive to block.
Now since a few month I picked up a Moleskine A4 and write in it with a ballpen, but also going from block back to cursive, because that seems more natural. That was quite an exercise and the first few pages are nearly unreadable. Now getting back to my old fountain pen (nearly 60 years old) it went better. Another fountain pen I bought 30 years ago but never used, a Pelican with a EF nib, even works better. But after all these years one nearly has to learn to write again!
That brings me to the question of daily notes (with Obsidian) versus journaling on paper. What do you write in the daily notes and what in the journal, as it seems that both covers the same thing?