The Primal Act of Writing Longhand

I loved English at school, but I absolutely hated our Tuesday morning sessions. The teacher made strange ‘uuurp’ sounds after everything he said, smelt of Avon and was unpredictable in his response to ill behaviour, sometimes laughing along and other times practically throwing whole boys across the room. But it wasn’t his idiosyncrasies that I hated, rather his insistence that we should spend the hour filling pages and pages of an exercise book with row upon row of loops and swoops and squiggles and swirls in the name of improving our handwriting rather than reading how Billy Caspar was getting on with Kes or making up our own stories.

Beautiful handwriting in the digital age belongs in the graveyard of lost arts, alongside offline dating, board games and (if you’re a teenager) making eye contact.

He didn’t even let us write whole words, sometimes not even whole letters – just the underline flourish of an f or j tail or the overground whoop of p, d or b. I hated it, but I have to confess that I’m grateful now for those wasted hours. Beautiful handwriting in the digital age belongs in the graveyard of lost arts, alongside offline dating, board games and (if you’re a teenager) making eye contact, but I love mine, and other people like it too, and, for some reason, it means a lot to me. It’s unique to me, but it also, as graphologists will testify, speaks of my character, temperament and creativity.

Like most writers, I do most of my work on my laptop. I wouldn’t be able to deliver a longhand version of an article or manuscript to a publisher, so why would I make extra work for myself by adding a handwritten draft to the equation. You can’t spellcheck handwritten copy, and you can’t conveniently switch lines around, so what would be the point? However, the moment I decided to write my memoirs, the first thing I did was find a beautiful journal and pen. The lines had to be the right colour and distance from each other, the pages the right quality, stitched not spiral, a medium Bic that would glide rather than score. And then I began. The idea of typing didn’t occur to me, because that special nature of handwriting runs deeper than aesthetics and character markers; it offers a fluidity that frees the mind, a direct, unbroken link between the mind and the page, which, for me, taps into something deeper and more personal than typing. It is writing, but it is art at the same time.

And as a piece of art, there are secrets hidden within a handwritten memoir – the doodles on the page where the muse abandoned the author, the slow, apprehensive rigidity of difficult subject matter, the looping abandon of an author in the flow of genius, the scored lines of fury, the same word overwritten again and again as the writer processes just what it means to be this person, to tell these truths. It says so much about the author and the experience of writing, and we don’t often get to be this free in life. Writing truthfully is an act of rebellion. Writing longhand is revelling in the experience. In the absence of cave walls on which to tell our stories, it is the rawest way to express the written word.

It also makes it harder to self-edit. We can cross out words or whole paragraphs in our notebooks, but we know they’re there, and we know what they say. Perhaps they’re mistakes, but maybe they’re truths fighting for the light of day. Perhaps what lies under the scribbled biro is the story that you were always meant to tell.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories

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