Part of my love of books has to do with the look of black marks on a white page. There has always been something magical about it for me. And I like making black marks on a white page as much as I like seeing them. Even before I could write I played at writing. My early longing to make my mark is evident every time my friends and family gather for a cut-throat game of Monopoly. The back of each and every “Chance” and “Community Chest” card bears my secret inscriptions in the language of the uninitiated.
My (practical) need for stationery diminished greatly after I developed the ability to compose on the computer. Even though I could touch-type and had access to computers from junior high on, I always used to compose, and edit, on paper, through university and even into my working life. This was certainly a disadvantage since as a pretty good typist it is far more efficient for me to type than to write. But it was not a choice on my part; I simply could not write with a keyboard. Perhaps there is some neurological explanation for this mystery disorder; I can’t account for it.
A few years ago I just as mysteriously became able to write on the computer. Now my fingers race after my thoughts (though they never quite catch up), and although I still do thorough edits on paper, I do take liberal advantage of the editing on-the-fly that is possibly only with word processors. But alas, making pixels appear on a flashing screen, however efficiently, does not give the same satisfaction as writing by hand. My early childhood urge to scribble on paper has returned, manifested this time by my taking up calligraphy.
Apparently I am not alone with this yen to physically write. Jon Remmerde in this article describes the loss of his handwriting skills after years of keyboarding, and touches on the pleasure and hidden practicality of writing by hand:
For me, writing in longhand is slower, more contemplative, much more portable, and easier to lay aside at any important interruption to pursue the larger flow of my life.
Writing longhand is less cumbersome, too. I enjoy writing. I think I am beginning to remember that I enjoy writing in longhand a little more.
Betty Edwards devotes a chapter in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain to handwriting as an art form. It has been her experience that most people care about how their handwriting looks and want to improve it but don’t know how. She laments the lackadaisical approach to handwriting in American (and probably also Canadian) schools during the last half-century, and suggests applying to one’s handwriting the principles of drawing—contour, negative space, relationships, value—in order to achieve not just legibility, but beauty. I’ve read claims that practising (Western) calligraphy can improve one’s writing; Edwards quotes William Reed, an expert on Japanese calligraphy, who goes much further:
Shodo paintings [cursive calligraphy] are like pictures of the subconscious mind. They are not final statements, bur rather instant snapshots of the personality at the time of writing. That personality can be developed and strengthened through Ki practice. On the other hand, careless calligraphy is also a form of practice, reinforcing bad habits and stunting the growth of the personality.
I am honest enough to admit that my rushed, undisciplined scrawl is a fair reflection of how I conduct myself most of the time. Can the practice of writing as an art affect one’s entire way of being? I would like to find out.
After learning to write (if my chaotic script deserves that name) my longing switched to the means of writing: pens, pencils, and paper. I developed a real lust for stationery and became quite finicky about pens and pencils. (My pens have almost always been black, and I hoard 2B mechanical pencil leads.) The sketchbook aisle at the art store is one of my favourite places to be. Far from being intimidated by the blank page, I have an almost physical craving for stacks of blank pages waiting to be filled. Sketchbooks are particularly hard to resist, despite the fact that my attempts to learn to draw have borne little fruit so far. I have used sketchbooks for most of my writing, and only last year switched to a lined journal, enticed by bells and whistles no conventional sketchbook can compete with.