Monday, January 25, 2010

Mightier Than the Sword

"My two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain. My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen, of course. Ball-point pens are only good for filling out forms on a plane."
Graham Greene

Ten minutes into a three hour work meeting last week, my pen gave out. I was taking punctilious notes, delineated by headings and organized by bullet points, in my Christmas tree green spiral notebook. I like taking notes. The physical connection between my brain and the information helps lock it into memory. It's also nostalgic, a wistful reminder of my days as a diligent student.

It was a black, medium point, retractable EasyTouch Pilot pen. Reliable until this sudden demise. I could have brought my laptop with me, as most of my coworkers do. But, as I said, I appreciate the organic work of taking notes by hand. I like the smoothness- no clicking or clacking. (Once, when I was a magazine intern making a cold call, my interviewee asked me if I was popping popcorn in the background.) The permanence of ink also exudes a sort of confidence- Wite-Out really just calls attention to your errors- and even fearlessness: those who do crossword puzzles in pen categorically intimidate me.

I knew several people in my English classes at Penn who always began essay drafts in pen, only later transcribing them into Word. Writing, creative or academic or administrative, necessitates an attention to detail and union with the craft that blurs with the distance between typist and computer screen.

Pens also make elegant gifts. In fact, I have several engraved Tiffany pens locked in a file drawer at my desk, as-needed gratuities for my boss's clients. So, too, do handwritten missives, like the Irish artists Lenka Clayton and Michael Crowe's April 2009 project to send personal letters to all 467 households in their town.

Each postcard, piece of notebook paper, folder, tag, or Post-it note was composed in pen. The motive was the recognition of the personalized penned note as an artform, one that is steadily waning in our digital age. While learning cursive constituted an entire class period throughout elementary school for me, scholars like Oberlin professor Anne Trubek have heralded the end of handwriting. She writes in Miller-McCune,

"When people hear I am writing about the possible end of handwriting, many come up with examples of things we will always need handwriting for: endorsing checks (no longer needed at an ATM), grocery lists (smartphones have note-taking functions), signatures (not even needed to file taxes anymore). These will not be what we would lose. We may, however, forsake some neurological memory. I imagine some pathways in our brains will atrophy. Then again, I imagine my brain is developing new cognitive pathways each time I hit control C or double click Firefox. That I can touch-type, my fingers magically dancing on my keyboard, free of any conscious effort (much as you are looking at letters and making meaning in your head right now as you read), amazes me.... Handwriting is not going anywhere soon. But it is going."

It's like unwrapping a gift every time I find a sample of my loopy, lumbering childhood writing, be it a diary (truncated after five entries), class essay, or construction paper birthday card for my mom. When I imagine a typical school classroom, I see a laminated alphabet script banner above the blackboard, a dotted line bisecting it to form a ceiling for the lowercase letters. Luckily, respect for penmanship remains strong, not just with experiments like the Irish artists' but also in celebrations like National Handwriting Day (John Hancock's birthday, January 23) and websites like the imaginative Firmuhment, entirely handwritten and beautiful. Seriously, click on the link.

It goes without saying that typing and word processing are integral to my work day, and my personal life. I use the iPhone Listmaker app in lieu of a paper grocery list, just as Trubek predicts; I keep in touch via email; at work I use Word and Excel and PowerPoint to track the proceedings of each of the journals my team publishes. But I also write To Do post-its for myself, annotate my books by hand, mail thank you notes, and, yes, even sometimes scribble a quote or a thought or a descriptive line by hand like my classmates.

As with many aspects of the old-new media conflict I have covered, and will cover, I advocate a marriage that accommodates both. I think we would suffer intellectually and creatively without penmanship, but also without technological composition. The latter goes without saying: when my pen died and I was computerless at that work meeting, I was out of luck. Until a coworker across the table handed me a pen.

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