How The Art Of Writing Longhand Can Save Civilization

July 1, 2021

I love paper. I love pencils. I love sharpening pencils, the rasp of metal against incense cedar, the lumberyard perfume of the crisp wooden ribbon as it curls off the blade. I love the scritch-scritch sound of pencil on paper. I also love pens, stationery, note cards and notebooks. Had I not become a writer, I’d be a procurer of fine papers.

With a nod to Dunder Mifflin, writing on paper has now become almost quaint. While this may be good news for our planet’s forests, there’s a hidden cost: civilization. And pens, pencils, and paper are my suggested method for preserving humanity.

Of course I realize that there’s no turning back: our screens and keyboards are here to stay. I’d be lost without mine. But equally undeniable is a certain deadening of emotional intelligence that accompanies our lightning-fast technology. This loss of EI manifests in people—ordinary, nice people—behaving like Mean Girls, even when they really aren’t. And it’s not coincidence that rudeness as acceptable behavior has accompanied the decline of writing cursive or longhand.

Take my friend, Frida (not her real name). Her daughter was recently married, and I went to some trouble to create what I thought was a truly fabulous nuptial gift: two luxe, organic cotton spa robes, each wrapped with an assortment of vegan skin, bath and hair treats. Weeks went by, then months, without hearing from the bride. When I ran into Frida at a party, I asked over a shot of Patron—so, did your kid like her gift? Frida’s normally saucer-eyes narrowed. Her flabbergasted response: “Well, I texted your husband!”

Whoa. Let’s unpack. Part one: the mother of the bride. Part two: texted. Part three: my husband. Emily Post, Miss Manners and etiquette experts everywhere would need to avail themselves of the nearest fainting-couch over this misfire of basic decorum. Part one, corresponding about bridal gifts is the social domain of the bride, not her mother. Part two, “texted.” Part three. Bear in mind that Frida, bless her pink pussy hat-wearing heart, is strident about her feminism, so her decision to contact my husband instead of me was revealing. I let her know that I don’t read his texts (key to a happy marriage). And, of course, Frida telling him, not me, put the onus on my husband to tell me about the message. It wasn’t his job. He forgot. Because it didn’t seem important (reminder: he’s a dude).

So, maybe it wasn’t important. Does all of this make me a doctrinaire, thin-skinned cream-puff looking for trouble?  Actually, I don’t think so. Frida did what was most convenient for her. Tap, tap, done.  Is she a bad person? No, just lazy. Just like all of us are, deep down.

The whole experience made me consider why we give gifts in the first place, and what we should reasonably expect in return.  Gifting may seem unconditional, but it isn’t, really. A gift is usually given as part of an implied social contract, most definitely in the case of a formal occasion like a wedding. There is absolutely the expectation of a particular response. Yeah, it’s transactional, even ritualistic, maybe. It’s like singing a round-robin. One gracious gesture is traditionally met with another (as in, a brief, hand-written note of thanks). This is why the Three Graces of antiquity are portrayed linking arms and dancing in an unbroken circle. True civilization is literally gratia plena, gracious, full of grace.

The regular exchange of these small gestures reinforces the accepted social order, and that’s what separates us from houseplants and twitching puddles of protoplasm in the great chain of emotional intelligence. Making these gestures requires that we extend ourselves ever-so-slightly beyond our usual bubble of self-interest. The gesture requires a bit of thought, a little effort, which give it meaning. Perhaps even a smidge of sacrifice—offering your seat to someone else on the train, or not snatching the last donut in the office break room (truly a noble act).

Once we stop making these small gestures, one by one, it’s a slippery slope back to how that supreme pessimist, Thomas Hobbes, in his 1651 landmark work Leviathan,  described human life without the social structure that we now like to call community: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

So back to pens, pencils and papers. Yes, I do specify hand-written notes when it comes to keeping our precarious civilization on its ever-flimsy track. And it’s not merely because I was a penmanship champ in school. There’s persuasive evidence that the decline of writing longhand or cursive is both a symptom and a cause of The New Rudeness. It is not a coincidence that one of the key earmarks of defining “civilization” in any modern sense is the presence of written language. Our ancestors carved cuneiform into wet clay tablets with a reed stylus, scratched glyphs into ivory, and runes into stone. Prior to the 19th century, writing on parchment or paper with an instrument of some kind was the only option for personal communication until the arrival of the first typewriter.

Were people actually “nicer” in the long centuries before QWERTY? Doubtful. Neurologists agree that the expansion of the human brain peaked around 200,000 years ago. Tough competition among bands of hominids and early humans on the African grasslands caused the neural volume of the brain to grow, not to make us better killers, but to make us more empathic.  Empathy for each other is what enabled the first proto-people to bond more closely, as parents, families, clans and tightly-knit tribes, for a higher survival rate. The human brain evolved to master language, cooperative planning, altruism, parent–child attachment, social cognition, and complex, nurturing relationships. And the human brain actually has shrunk 3–4 % in recent millennia. Could our technology now be causing us to regress?

Case in point: I recently took a drive through the posh and winding streets of Beverly Hills. The driver in front of me, behind the wheel of a glossy new Range Rover, lingered at a stop sign. She was on her cell phone. Perhaps I was impatient; I beeped. Like lightning, her left hand shot out the driver’s side window, flipping me the bird with a perfectly manicured nude nail, and nearly blinding me with the reflection off the huge diamond on her ring finger. Just sayin’.

Was I to blame for triggering her “amygdala hijack,” the term coined by author Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ? The amygdala hijack is a reflexive, automatic response launched by the most primitive part of the brain. Newer, rational, more advanced areas of the brain—the frontal lobes, which are part of the cerebral cortex—are the seat of reason. Our frontal lobes curb ugly impulses, and enable us to recognize and understand the feelings of others so that we manage our behavior accordingly, even when we’re stressed and pissed off. The frontal lobes mitigate our essential selfishness as a species, so that we can experience empathy. Although news organizations make a valiant point of including “feel-good” stories—man rescues duckling from sewer!—in the nightly broadcast, just a few minutes with the breaking headlines are enough to suggest that few humans optimize their frontal lobes to their fullest.

Would my stop sign scene have happened in grandma’s time? I don’t think so. And not because grandmothers were necessarily much nicer than the lady in the Range Rover, although mine was. Part of what would have kept granny from flipping me off would have been prevailing social constraints. Decent women simply didn’t engage in vulgar language or behavior. The other part of the equation: my granny wrote in cursive.

Everything was written in cursive just a couple of generations ago, from mundane shopping lists and report cards to legal documents and swoony billet-doux. Today, I write in cursive every day, because I think it helps to keep me human.

Science is on my side here. Writing by hand, meaning cursive or longhand, not hand-printing, has been shown in high-tech magnetic resonance imaging to produce brain activity similar to that observed during meditation.

Writing with a pencil or pen effectively engages what’s called hemispheric integration, meaning that the right and left hemispheres of the brain “talk” freely. The benefits of this integration include more active listening, more attentiveness, better concentration, and better memory and retention. These conclusions are the result of studies conducted on students who were tested in these areas after note-taking on a laptop as well as in a notebook. Researchers observed that when students take notes on a laptop, they transcribe, because they can type much faster than they can write with a pen or pencil. When taking notes in cursive, students interpret and rephrase the material being presented, and this makes the notes more valuable in terms of learning and recall, resulting in better test scores. Clinicians call it “deep encoding,” and it is also associated with greater emotional and social awareness and sensitivity.

Modern-day authors including Jhumpa Lahiri, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Quentin Tarantino scrawl out their stories with pens and notebooks. Although I compose my creative work on a keyboard because there’s a deadline, I make a point of writing something in longhand every day. Often, it’s just a card or letter to a loved one. There’s no auto-correct, so I think about each phrase sequence carefully. Forming the letters is soothing for me, like a massage, or the rhythm of a solid rain on the roof. Writing smoothly requires fine motor skills, so that the pressure of the point or nib is kept steady, and the orientation (direction, angle) and spacing of the characters stays even. I strive for legibility and visual consistency of the script, in terms of size and height, so that the recipient doesn’t think the missive is a ransom-note from a serial killer.

It takes time.  I practice writing true cursive, without lifting the pen except for an ornate capital letter. Keeping all of the script joined together in one flowing strand allows me to write a little faster, and also feels more organic, like an unbroken ski run, or playing a long musical passage without interruption.

Back to what makes us human: it’s the capacity and willingness to suspend our own satisfaction in order to accommodate someone else. Of course we all need to look out for ourselves—it’s the baseline of survival. But when a friend is thoughtless, or a fellow-driver is hostile (even if I semi-started it), I return to the phrase we recited every evening at the dinner table: “Make us ever mindful of the needs and wants of others.” Remarkably, this phrase is from the 1928 Anglican Book of Common Prayer, long before mindfulness, as we say, was a thing. I’m no longer a church-goer, and I’m certainly no saint. But for me, calmly writing some cursive at some point in my day makes mindfulness a bit easier.

Also by Victoria: Coyote Song, The First National Anthem

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Victoria Thomas
Victoria Thomas is always at the crossroads, like Robert Johnson. She writes about intersections of culture and history and what these crossings mean, in a desire to understand human behavior and help the world awaken to our collective potential for joy. Read her arts writing under the heading “the Sublime”


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