You Are Your Handwriting

Illustration: Laurie Rollitt

I am a writer who can’t write. If you ever saw my actual handwriting, the jig would be up. I’ve written books, and sometimes I inscribe them for people, and when I do, it looks like I’ve defaced my own work. One time, I made a mistake while signing a reader’s book and had to do that thing where you write a darker, thicker letter over the mistake letter to cover your tracks. My tracks were not covered. If anything, I made it worse.

I skip letters by accident. I reverse them on occasion. I can’t read notes I’ve jotted down and have to guess at what I was thinking back when I scribbled what appears to be “twanny ferl gumpdump” in my notebook right before bedtime. My children, ages eight to 14, ALL have nicer handwriting than mine. My penmanship is an embarrassment. Have a look for yourself:

I can’t tell you why my handwriting is so bad. It could be because I was too lazy to ever learn how to do it properly. It could be because I skipped third grade in elementary school, which sounds like a brag until you see the aftereffects of me skipping past formal cursive instruction. It could be in my bloodline. It could be because modern technology has, in theory, rendered longhand writing a needless anachronism. (Studies prove this is NOT true and that handwriting is vital to cognitive development.) There are many potential causes but no viable excuses.

Technically, I could have lived with it forever. I’d gotten this far writing everything like a doctor signing a Xanax prescription, and if I wanted to, I could keep on having shit penmanship until my last breath. But I didn’t want to, because I began to see my scribbles as a representation of myself.

Your writing can be the first impression people get of you. That writing is usually digital now, but sometimes it comes in the form of greeting cards, signed memos, or some written promissory. And I didn’t like what people could read INTO me when they read that work: that I was sloppy, childish, and careless. My handwriting was a poor ambassador for my mind, which is otherwise STERLING.

Luckily, the internet is rife with people like me who lament their penmanship and are desperate to fix it. We’re all still trying to master the basics. The handwriting subreddit is 166,000 users strong. Tutorial videos like this one have MILLIONS of views, which is perhaps the only encouraging YouTube statistic I have ever seen. And, to my benefit, a simple Google search will bring you to a universe of simple, printable worksheets to relearn the most basic, vital human craft.

This was where I needed to begin. You don’t need to “perfect” your handwriting. Lord knows I never will. But, as with any art, you need to learn to express yourself through your handwriting in a way that allows other people to understand it, and, by extension, you.

Letters need space

For the first set of exercises, I grabbed a pencil and started forming letters, first by drawing over a gray letter in a small box, and then filling in a row of adjacent boxes with that same letter. Same as you do when you’re in grade school, where they give you lined paper and you have to stay within the lines.

At age 43, I SUCK at staying within the lines. In my handwriting, you can see years and years of drift. Even though I use a lined notebook for my writing, I violate boundaries all the time. My X’s look like I wrote them on a treasure map. I also practice a form of poor man’s cursive, where my letters connect but are not in formal script. This is because I’m too lazy to lift my pen off the paper for each individual letter and have been for more than three decades now.

That’s a critical mistake. “THINGS NEEDS SPACE” is the first law of handwriting. It’s a law of NATURE. It applies to all sorts of things. Take cooking. I learned from the late and great Anthony Bourdain that if you’re roasting vegetables or searing beef cubes, each piece needs to have its own plot of real estate on the pan. If they touch, it fucks it all up. Same deal with handwriting. Each letter needs breathing room to be recognized.

As I did the exercises, my letters got progressively worse with each successive attempt. My horizontal lines all drifted upward. My circles didn’t close cleanly. I got lazy FINISHING letters, which very much aligns with my general personality and work ethic. Clearly I had more training to do. To that end…

You have to think about every letter

My handwriting is second nature to me now, but I never learned to write letters properly before that second nature set in. So, part of undoing that second nature was constantly reminding myself to think out each letter as I was writing it so the words wouldn’t look slurred. When my mind wandered, so did my handwriting. After the exercises, I went back to jotting notes down in my usual thoughtless fashion, and the end result still looked like something I had composed from my deathbed. Bad.

The simple letters are the hardest

What’s the easiest letter to write? Is it C? WRONG. Every C of mine looks like I’m about to draw a cartoon nose. My O’s have vestigial tails. My S’s and 5’s are often indistinguishable. Is that a V I just wrote or a U? It’s anyone’s guess, really.

The letters that consist of a single stroke require the least amount of physical work, but if you screw up that stroke, then the whole letter looks like shit. While doing the worksheets, I found myself having to bear down so that the contours of every C looked smooth and even. I kept pressing the pencil hard into the paper, equating precision with brute force. I pressed so hard that I was no longer writing—I was engraving.

Good writing is a full-body sport

I got sore quickly doing these exercises. I was writing more neatly, which required me to use the muscles in my forearm differently and more vigorously than I did while writing in miserable everyday longhand. I had muscle memory for writing badly. In order to correct that, I had to erase that muscle memory, which meant subjecting my hand and arm to movements that they had, for decades, mindlessly avoided. I had to wake them out of their slumber.

It turned out they were very cranky. As I labored on, my arms kept trying to slack off and regress into my old penmanship. I had to keep nudging them to work, like I was running a 10K. There’s a physical element to this bit of self-improvement that you can’t ignore.

The upside was that I did these exercises out in the open, during quarantine, to set a proper example for my screen-addled children. They ignored me and kept playing Rocket League anyway.

Your handwriting is you

When I wrote upper- and lowercase letters side by side (Aa, Bb… Pp!), my uppercase letters looked better than my lowercase letters. Lowercase letters offer little room, literally, for mistakes. So I eliminated them.

My father’s longhand consists of nothing but neat all caps. I’ve been blogging in all caps for more than a decade now but had never exported that tic to my actual writing. I gave it a shot. It was a clear improvement on my improved handwriting. It was more legible. But it was also more… me. The writing reminded me of my dad, and I love my dad very much. Also, my dad is a man who has his shit together, and it shows up in his writing. I’ve unlocked one of his mysteries. I can now give off the same kind of vibe of competence that he can through handwritten notes.

I still have more practice to do, but I’m willing to do it because your handwriting is the physical manifestation of your mind at work. It’s a primal skill. Once you have those fundamentals down, you’re better at everything else. And you should never assume that you CAN’T get better at remedial living. It’s never too late. It’s also never too soon to get started.

So, I’ve formally switched over to all-caps handwriting. It’s not perfect handwriting, but it’s BETTER. Because it’s more legible, and it’s more me. At least I hope it is.

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