Most of us only ever pick up a pen these days to sign the odd cheque. Books are written on computers, emails have replaced letters, and it’s infinitely simpler to send a text message than, say, a handwritten note. Schools are moving towards screen-based teaching; children are learning to use touch screens and to type faster than to form perfect letters on paper in cursive writing.
Writing longhand may be passé, but its champions, few as they may be, continue to sing its praises with cultish enthusiasm. But a preference for pen and paper over the computer or phone is not necessarily a sign of technological illiteracy. Often it is a matter of choice, and its gains, especially for those who are in the business of writing, can be immense and unexpected. Novelists of an earlier generation—Ruskin Bond and Anita Desai, for instance—continue to use pen and paper, while a small pool of contemporary writers, like Daisy Rockwell or Philip Hensher, are passionate advocates of the practice.
Rockwell, who is currently working on an English translation of Upendranath Ashk’s Hindi novel Girti Divarein (literally Falling Walls), decided to move to pen and notebook recently and felt her powers of concentration improve phenomenally.
“I felt too intruded upon by the Internet when I was writing on my computer, even if I turned off my connection,” Rockwell said in an email interview. “The computer just no longer feels like a place where I can focus and be alone. It’s full of noise.”
There was a time, not too long ago, when writers had no choice but to work in a bubble that was relatively insulated from the chatter of the world. Further back, in the 18th and 19th centuries, handwriting was often employed as a tool—to disguise identity or for detection of crime.
In the 1770s, novelist Fanny Burney, the Danielle Steel of her times, tried to hide her identity by copying out the manuscript of her first novel, Evelina Or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World (1778), in a hand that was different from hers (Burney, who acted as her music historian father’s amanuensis, feared she would be identified by potential publishers and that would scupper her chances as a woman writer).
Sherlock Holmes, true to the spirit of the 19th century when graphology was the “in” science, claimed to know a person’s character simply by looking at their handwriting.
In 2012, Hensher wrote The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, a book that is more a celebration than an elegy for the art of writing by hand. Although his survey only goes as far back as the 18th century, leaving out the wealth of medieval and early modern Anglo-European manuscript culture, Hensher does manage to connect the disappearance of handwriting with a fundamental shift in humanity’s experience of modernity.
If typing on computer enables us to be fast, writing longhand slows down our thinking, and makes us better writers. As Rockwell says, the latter “makes one lazy and creates a tendency to not properly proofread and review exactly what one has written”. Apart from having a chance to indulge in exquisite stationery and the sensual pleasures of paper, this itself may be a good reason to give your handwriting a second life.