Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Past Deadline: Penning a Letter

A group of friends and I recently discussed a newspaper article that bemoaned the loss of penmanship, which also sparked concern over the art of letter writing and its possible demise.

It appears cursive writing (and that doesn’t mean prose that includes a lot of swear words – that’s “cursin’ writing”) may be on the decline.

When I was a kid it was a sure sign we were almost adults when a teacher let us move from printing to cursive – especially when they said we could do it in pen. That’s practically permanent! That HAD to mean we knew what we were doing, right?

Back then I had a pile of pen pals. The first was the girl next door who moved away when we were six. I was heartbroken, as I was already convinced we would be bosom pals forever. We wrote letters for many years before losing touch, only to reconnect on Facebook fairly recently.

Other pen pals included school chums who moved away, as well as a collection of girls I befriended on beaches during family vacations. I almost always came home with a new letter-writing friend, some of whom were American, which seemed so exotic.

I still have some of those letters with their curvy, round, indecisive penmanship. Should I dot the small i’s with circles? Do I cross the small t’s with a straight line or do an elaborate thingy that makes them look more like stars?

In university I worked at a provincial park in the summers, and back in those dark ages we still filled out some camping registrations by hand. I worked with a girl (my Calgary friend who enticed me into running) who had – and probably still has – enviable penmanship. Her cursive was lovely: clean and flowing and pretty without being ornate and flowery. I emulated it.

They should turn her cursive into a font.

Ah, fonts. This brings me to the modern form of sending messages.

It’s no secret that postal services are struggling now that so much mail is delivered electronically, but that does not mean the demise of letter writing.

Yes, it is still nice to get a letter in the mail, but I have just as much fondness for getting a message by e-mail – or even a text.

See, to me, letters are just the channel or medium for the communication. It doesn’t really matter how the messages arrive, it’s the words that count.

I spend a lot of time working alone, and I have found e-mails and texting to be great ways to keep me in the loop and prevent me from going stark raving mad for lack of human interaction. It’s my home office version of the water cooler.

As well, I tend to hear from people more often than I used to thanks to things like e-mail and social media, which is nice.

Humans need to communicate, and the form changes over time. We used to beat drums and send smoke signals. Now we use our thumbs to send messages.

Just as I used to save letters, I save e-mails that are meaningful. I have some lovely, touching prose from dear friends.

Perhaps we will see less cursive as time goes on. Possibly our handwriting will give way to typefaces and fonts. I can’t decide if that’s a bad thing or not, though. It means cursive will become an art form, just like letter press printing and film photography. It’s not dead – it’s just rendered more beautiful and rare.

Perhaps one day that lovely feeling of one’s hand orchestrating the flow of ink over paper will be relegated to artists, hobbyists or the stubborn, but communication will prevail – it will just use a different medium.

A friend of mine was telling me the other day he takes his tablet to meetings now and uses it like a notebook, writing on the face of it with a stylus pen. So maybe cursive won’t be entirely lost – just transformed.

Maybe my kids will have different happy memories about great communications received, even if they can’t fold them up and carry them in their pockets.

Published in The Perth Courier, Feb. 23/12

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