I CANNOT write.
Yes, you reply, that’s obvious.
No, I mean that literally: I can no longer write longhand.
I lost the ability years ago, probably around the time I lost my last comb, or my Blockbuster Video card. On those rare occasions when I am forced to abandon my keyboard or my phone and pick up a pen instead (what am I, Amish?), I print the letters individually, not cursively. Even then the results come out in a chimp-fisted font best described as Early Ransom Note.
Yes, comes the reply today, that’s why we stopped writing them. Why labour when you can just text two happy faces and a beer mug emoji?
So, imagine my surprise when an envelope containing a five-page, single-spaced, handwritten letter landed on my desk.
“What are these squiggles?” asked the young colleague who opened it (she had done so at my request, as I had automatically assumed the envelope contained anthrax spores).
“It’s called handwriting,” I explained. “Just like texting, only with a three-day delay. In Sanskrit.”
OK, that’s an exaggeration. They still teach both printing and longhand in B.C. schools, though it’s no longer required that students conform to a standard style of penmanship. That frees them from the tyranny of the MacLean Method of Handwriting, a regimented style drilled into students across much of Canada for generations.
The MacLean Method was developed right here in Victoria in 1921 by H.B MacLean, the first principal of George Jay Elementary, in response to teachers’ complaints of sloppy handwriting by students. MacLean’s method was so widely accepted (at its peak, it was used by schools in seven provinces) that when MacLean died in 1976, the Vancouver Sun marked his passing with an editorial published entirely in longhand. It was ingrained.
No more. Even if B.C. kids learn handwriting today, it’s in the way their parents learned Grade 8 French: If you’re not using it outside the classroom, how deeply will it take root?
A vigorous rear-guard action is still being fought, mind. The Saanich Fall Fair has a penmanship competition for young people. The fair’s Diane Taylor, a former teacher who once judged the category, speaks glowingly of the elegance and character imparted through cursive writing.
More important, perhaps, is what it means to the thought process. Most of what we get by email or text isn’t writing, it’s typing — unfiltered blather that pours out as fast as the fingers (or, now that we have voice-to-text, the tongue) can move.
Back in the olden days, the cumbersome nature of handwriting, the lack of a backspace key, forced people to take the time to really work out what they wanted to say before committing words to paper. Composition required care. (“I only made this letter longer because I had not the leisure to make it shorter,” French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in 1657.) Back in the olden days, you could tell how long a writer had slaved over a letter because it came out of the envelope smelling like half a pack of Export A’s.
Not now. Now, emboldened by the self-righteous certainty of the terminally ignorant, we post opinions — judgments, really — faster than we can digest the information needed to inform them. Maybe that would have happened in times of yore, too — give ol’ Blaise Wi-Fi and an iPad, he might have churned out 3 a.m. drunk-tweets about Stormy Daniels and a wall with Mexico — but we’re not leaving a great legacy today.
That’s what was impressive about the letter in the mail Friday. It was well thought out, logical, linear. It had obviously taken effort to write. It was a pleasure to receive — which is why I replied with two happy faces and a beer mug emoji.
Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloops lad who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.
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