The last thing
you wrote by hand was probably a check. But a long personal letter?
it seems as if handwriting may be going the way of the LP. Speed-obsessed
we are, wed rather text-message in cryptic shorthand to
our friends than dash off a note by hand. Soon well all
be paying our bills online, and pens will only be used to jot
down the occasional shopping list or reminder to spouse and kids.
touching pen to paper to shape words counts as handwritingbut its
a far stretch from the practice of inking arches, loops, and
curves across a sheet of paper. So infrequently do most of us
sit down and handwrite a letter or journal entry that handwriting
has become an anachronism. Only four percent of all mail was
handwritten in 1993, the Postal Service reports, and we can be
sure that this figure has gone down, not up.
But there is something romantic
about the act of handwriting. Think of movie scenes that depict
Shakespeare laboring over a manuscript with ink-stained fingers,
Virginia Woolf perched on her couch with pen and notebook, Iris
Murdoch transcribing her ideas at her cluttered desk. In an age
of ultra-light keyboards and Blackberrys, these images convey
a sense of authenticity, as though the act of moving the hand
across the paper was more closely allied with inspiration and
poet laureate, Berkeley resident Robert Hass, agrees that it
might be. While he types newspaper columns on the computer, he
writes his first drafts of poetry by hand because he likes "the
intimacy in the process." Hass finds that the physical activity
of writing "connects the head and the brain, and the heart
and the brain."
pragmatist might argue that like mending socks or shaving with
a straightedge razor,
handwriting should naturally become obsolete. If communication
is possible by more efficient means than longhandprint,
fax, computer, cell phoneall the better. Content is what
matters, form is irrelevant. But there are handwriting advocatesboth
sentimental and professionalwho say that every time we
hit a keyboard instead of moving a pen, we forfeit the opportunity
to create something of beauty, to connect our hands and our brain,
our mind and our body, even to shape our character.
of handwriting and letters goes back to her childhood. Notes
and lists fascinated her and by the time she was 13, she had
collected a file cabinet full of them. Letters of the alphabet
intrigued her. In addition to immersing herself in graphology,
Rodgers, who has a Ph.D. in religious studies, researched every
alphabet in the world, including Sanskrit.
"The alphabet," she
asserts, "is a spiritual tradition. Every letter has a history,
like a rune. And as symbols, letters represent certain qualities
or attributes. Some have been around for centuries, others are
relatively new." After 30 years of research and designing,
Rodgers, an alphabetician who lives and teaches in Nevada City,
created a new script. Her Vimala Alphabet, she says, brings out
the "unique and powerful energy" that each letter contains.
While graphologists study handwriting to draw conclusions about
an individuals personality, and document examiners use
handwriting to verify identity, alphabeticians actively engage
with the act of writing by hand itself. According to Rodgers,
character traits can actually be transformed by learning to write
For Rodgers, handwriting
is not just a reflection of personality, but an opportunity.
In her book, Your Handwriting Can Change Your Life (Simon & Schuster,
2000), she asserts that people can change self-defeating aspects
of their personality by altering specific strokes in their handwriting.
According to Rodgers, this approach works because every time
we change our writing patterns we reconfigure the neural pathways
in the brain that record our self-image. "Every attitude
is contained in your handwriting," she says, "so if
you want to pay attention to your life, you pay attention to
handwriting technology doesnt try to shape a persons
personality but works by inviting the qualities that are contained
in the individual
letters into your life. For example, the letter a represents "the
willingness to be center stage setting personality aside and
letting spirit shine through," says Rodgers. "The letters m, n,
and h represent fearlessness."
Vimala Alphabet (shown on page 3) is a template script that can
be used as a guideline
by anyone who wants to make changes in their life. Once theyve
mastered it, their "genius" shines through the letters
they form, Rodgers says. "Every time you move the pen, you
are acknowledging your spiritual side and accessing your soul," she
says. She laughs when she calls her Parker "Jotter" pen
her spiritual teacher. But this is more than a jokeshe
really is convinced that handwriting has transformative powers.
Rodgerss script is
used in 49 countries around the world and she herself has taught
the technique to thousands of people in workshops. A woman who
teaches it in ESL classes in San Francisco reported to Rodgers
that one of her students said, "Teacher, when I write like
this I feel like I am praying." Zen priest Ed Brown of Fairfax
adopted the Vimala Alphabet in 1995. When he changed the way
he made his lowercase f to the one Rodgers designedwhich
she says helps the writer with "using ones talents
in the service of others"several things shifted in
his life. He finished and published a book that he had been working
on for seven years; he bought a house; and he received a calling
to become a Zen priest.
"The mind and the body
are connected in the hand," Brown says. "When the hand
moves in new ways, consciousness changes." Brown uses the
Vimala Alphabet at the Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin in a course
called "Liberation Through Handwriting."
resident, Lorri Holt, an actress who has worked in Bay Area theater
for 25 years,
took Browns workshop a year ago and then practiced the
Vimala Alphabet on her own for 40 days, as recommended. "Just
about everything in my life has changed since then," she
says. "I broke up my relationship, got a grant to travel
to Paris, got my real estate license, and moved. I think a little
differently. I ask more for what I want."
can she be sure that these changes are a result of her handwriting
will never really know whether its connected or not," she
acknowledges, "but I strongly suspect that theres
something there." In response to those skeptics who question
whether the changes in their life have to do with writing her
script, Rodgers says, "Change your handwriting back to what
it was before and see what happens." As far as she knows,
no one has done so.
In public schools today,
penmanship no longer plays the important role it once did. Computers,
the rejection of repetitive drills as a teaching tool, and government
testing that focuses on core subjects such as reading and math,
have relegated handwriting to the background. California elementary
schools still teach printing in first grade and cursive in third.
But in practice, few teachers dwell on the intricate skills involved
in learning cursive writing and most are happy if their students
learn to print with pencil or ballpoint pen. In upper grades,
teachers accept any legible form of writing. At Berkeley High
School, most teachers insist on typed papers.
Indeed, cursive writing is
a challenging skill to master. Perhaps you remember your own
effort: gripping the pencil tightly, brow knit in concentration,
tongue sticking out. In an effort to make it easier on students,
some elementary schools have instituted a new cursive curriculum
called Handwriting Without Tears.
therapist Jan Olsen, who lives in Maryland, developed this curriculum.
says it features a stripped-down script without "curlicues
and frou-frou stuff." But critics say its taken healthy
challenges out of learning to write.
Vimala Rodgers finds the Handwriting
Without Tears script appalling. "That handwriting
puts thinking in a box," she says. "It is not open,
not free. If you did that handwriting you would not be touching
your soul." She cannot fathom how someone in their right
mind could ask a child to write like this. Why not teach a
beautiful script? Indeed, why not learn one that "allows
you to reconnect with a deep place within and express a unique
Hollings, a teacher at the East Bay Waldorf School, wonders why "easy" has
become a value in itself. "There seems to be a consensus
among some parents," she says, "that their children
should be spared any kind of hardship. They complain when their
child experiences frustration with a project. But actually, the
child needs to go through this experience. This is what gives
them the challenge." Hollings insists that learning to write
cursive has an important place in education.
with both hands does not engage the brain the same way. She teaches
printing in relation
to reading at the beginning of second grade. Later in the second
grade, when the children have developed the requisite motor skills,
Hollings teaches regular cursive. "Not an easy task," she
admits. "I actually had to practice writing beautiful script
on the blackboard when I became a teacher."
Davies, a teacher at Oxford Elementary School in Berkeley, devotes
a semester in her
second- and third-grade class to cursive writing. "I dont
know whether the kids will actually use it," Davies says,
but I teach it because it has a place in the bigger picture,
like playing a musical instrument or painting a picture."
artist Elisabeth Alexander has volunteered in Daviess classroom
for the last three years to teach cursive the old-fashioned way,
fountain pens and special notebooks that she brings from her
native Germany. For at least two hours every week, she shows
each child how to shape the letters. Once they have learned this,
they can work efficiently and with ease to connect letters in
a pleasing way.
"I dont know about
brain research but I can see that something happens with the
kids," she observes. "They love it. When they are practicing,
they calm down and everything else falls away. It is almost meditative." In
teaching penmanship, Alexander believes that she is conveying
the bigger lesson that humans have the ability to make life into
art. "I believe that we are here to create beauty whether
we write, eat, or interact with others," she says.
confirms these educators premise:
When we write by hand we access a specific part of the brain.
If you are right-handed, it leaves the left brain free to roam
in thought. Putting pen to paper in writing is also important
because it establishes and maintains fine motor skills and creates
and reinforces neural pathways in the brain.
handwriting researcher Jeanette Farmer is one of just a few "handwriting
remediation" specialists in this country. She references
the work of the late German neurologist/graphologist Dr. Rudolph
Pophal, who determined that handwriting has a physiological and
psychological link in the brain, and she has developed handwriting
exercises and therapeutic music programs for children with learning
disabilities, autism, and brain injury. Writing, she says, uniquely
engages the brain.
in a way that reading and mathematics are not, she says, writing
processing to influence top-down processinga function of
the prefrontal lobes. This neural connection alone gives handwriting
its highly specialized power to impact the entire brain." As
a sensory-motor process, Farmer argues, the "old-fashioned
penmanship" now out of favor in public schools is simply
unequaled in developing impulse control and emotional self-control.
if our culture sees handwriting as an anachronismthe domain of grandmothers
and idiosyncratic writersit wasnt always that way.
For centuries, writing by hand was a venerable craft practiced
only by individuals of a certain status. In monasteries, monks
would sit perched at simple wooden tables, copying religious
texts. Their work was practical and sublime.
stroke of the pen was a meditation and an adoration, and drawing
a single letter could
take daysthink of the illuminated characters that initiate
text passages. Up until the invention of the printing press in
the 15th century, scholars, poets, and statesmen were handwriting
lavish and embellished script with quill and ink. Old documents
are fine works of art, alive with the personality of the scribes
who penned them.
But the history of handwriting
is somewhat paradoxical: Just as technological advances democratized
writing and made it available to all of us, it has lately been
threatened by progress and by a cultural reverence for speed
In her book Handwriting
in America: A Cultural History (Yale University Press,
1996), historian Tamara Plakins Thornton traces the history
of penmanship. She shows that the contest between speed and
utility on the one hand, and form and beauty on the other,
began to affect handwriting as soon as the medium of print
established itself. Thornton shows that during colonial times,
when basic reading skills were taught to many young people
(but by no means all) as a "universal spiritual necessity," writing
was still reserved for a select few.
"It was generally believed," she
states, "that African Americans, Native Americans, humble
whites, and women did not need to know how to write." Penmanship
was considered a business skill, usually taught together with
arithmetic and accounting. Upper-class boys were instructed by
private writing masters as part of their "mercantile training." If
their sisters learned writing at all, it was paired with embroidery,
dancing, and music. Those who did learn how to write were expected
to master several different scripts. Penmanship workbooks of
the era include an entire range of "hands," some of
them markers of a specific occupation, or class, or gender.
the course of the 19th century, penmanship became more simplified.
In the Victorian
era, boys and girls learned the same basics, but thereafter pursued
separate curricula. Boys learned a fast and legible script, which
prepared them for their entry into the business world. Girls
copied maxims and poems in small and painstakingly shaded epistolary,
in preparation for "proper letter writing and calling card
etiquette," Thornton writes.
the spread of printed media pushed the necessity of handwriting
aside, it also brought
its meaning into focus. Increasingly, cursive became associated
with individual personality. Print was considered impersonal, "opaque,
even duplicitous" while handwriting was personal, "transparent,
and sincere." In the 18th century, Thornton explains, handwriting
was a form of "self-presentation." In the 19th century,
its structure and design became a form of self-expression.
generations, handwriting was associated with the process of personal
which was to be achieved by using the will to master the body
(which was, according to Thornton, defined as a specifically
masculine process). That changed in the 1880s, when Austin Norman
Palmer developed the script that we all learned in school. Palmer
promoted his lettering as "modern writing," whose plain
and rapid style was better suited to "the rush of business." By
the 1890s it had replaced the more flourished and decorative
Spencerian lettering. The change reflected a shift in attitude
about penmanship. Spencer, a Victorian writing master who designed
his script in the late 1840s, felt that handwriting should be
seen as a process of mental training and physical self-mastery.
Some 40 years later, Palmer saw it as a matter of drill and habita "form
Today, calligraphers preserve
the art of handwriting for all of us. Local artist Lauren McIntosh
has handwritten Chez Panisse menus for the Dalai Lama and Bill
Clinton when they came to dine.
is steeped in memories of her grandmother who was always writing
in pen and ink, and taught the girl cursive at a very young age.
As an adult, McIntosh, who is co-owner of the gift and collectible
shop Tail of the Yak in Berkeley, created her own distinctive
lettering by collecting bits and pieces of various scripts. "When
I went to European antique shows for the store," she explains, "I
saw many documents and I copied the letter shapes that I liked." Her
calligraphy developed gradually, as she made signs and tags for
any artwork, calligraphy is a result of grace as well as ability.
When she sits down to
work, McIntosh clears space in her mind. "I have to have
the universe with me," she says, "so that I dont
make a mistake." Mistakes can be costly. Sometimes they
can be repaired by flourishing them, but often she has to begin
from scratch. Once, when she returned to a just-finished piece
of work, she noticed tiny lines crisscrossing the page. A spider
had walked on the paper and dragged the ink around.
the United States, calligraphy is mostly a womens art. In Chinese culture, however, men
and women both practice calligraphy. Dr. Alex Feng, a practitioner
of traditional Chinese medicine, director of the Taoist Center
in Oakland, and himself a calligrapher, says that in China, "everyone
who considers him- or herself a scholar or intellectual or artist
(and that includes martial artists), practices calligraphy." It
is considered an expression of beauty as well as a reflection
of character. "Chinese calligraphy," Feng explains, "shows
whether you have bones. That is, fundamental structure
and character, and it reflects your flow of chi, life energy."
express many different character traits that are a reflection
of nature, for example
boldness, swirl, fluidity ("the continuity of sectionalized
bamboo"), knobbiness ("like an enduring oak tree").
A single stroke can contain six gradations of coloring, heavy
to light. But calligraphy is more than skill and art. Each piece
expresses individual personality, Feng explains. "To show
your calligraphy is to expect critique as a person and on your
aesthetics." A single stroke of the brush or the pen tells
Feng, who is also a Tai Chi master, how much chi a person can
hold and express.
the West, it is the graphologists who infer an individuals nature by analyzing their handwriting.
These handwriting experts proceed from the assumption that once
an individual has developed "writing maturity"when
they write so fluently that they no longer have to think about
shaping individual letters or wordstheir writing comes
to express their personality. In order to detect a writers
personality traits, contemporary graphologists look at individual
letters (the character of the loops, angles, and curves), as
well as the writing as a whole (the spatial arrangements, the
movement, rhythm, and pressure of the writing).
size of the letters, according to graphological theory, is related
to the individuals
self-estimation: Small letters suggest modesty or inferiority,
large letters indicate self-confidence or even dominance. The
slant is related to emotional states and may vary in one person
from day to day (right slant is associated with warmth, passion,
irritability; left slant with restraint, denial, even coldness).
The writing speed reveals temperament, while spacing between
letters and words is an indicator of emotional distance.
Handwriting expert Sheila
Lowe, author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Handwriting
Analysis (Alpha Press, 1999) and Handwriting of the Famous
and Infamous (Metro Books, 2001), lives in Southern California.
She has analyzed thousands of handwriting samples in more than
30 years of professional experience. "My work is not like
voodoo or looking at a crystal ball," she says. "Handwriting
is as characteristic of an individual as tone of voice, body
language, and facial expression."
a person is very expansive and outgoing, explains Lowe, their
handwriting is going to be
large. If they are shy, it is gong to be small and cramped off
to the left side of the paper. Mother Teresas script is
very large and round, indicating her caring for other people
as well as her ability to draw attention to her causes. Charles
Mansons handwriting is extremely crowded, ragged-looking,
and highly disorganized, full of warning signs.
has trained bankers in basic forgery detection; employers who
need to sift through
a pile of job applications; law enforcement officials who want
to determine the legitimacy of victim, witness, or perpetrator
statements; private detectives running background checks; and
attorneys who are drawing up character profiles, for example,
in child custody cases. Individuals come to her to find out whether
their fiancé really is compatible or whats going
on with their children.
"When someone asks me
for a third-party analysis," she says, "I always require
them to send a sample of their own handwriting, so I can get
an idea of their motivation."
and again, she has found that handwriting gives accurate information,
dont always take it into account when making their decisions.
She, too, has disregarded the clues she saw in handwriting. When
Lowe saw her future husbands writing on their first date,
she knew instantly what would be problematic in the relationship.
She married him anywayand has been divorced from him twice.
personal tragedy in Lowes
life highlighted the power of graphology and ultimately led her
to it as a profession. Her adult daughters boyfriend, a
law enforcement officer, asked Lowe to analyze his handwriting.
Even though she knew him to be a nice guy, she noticed pathological
signs"a potential for explosive behavior and a tendency
to be highly authoritarian." She also saw signs of a serious
head injury in his past, which he confirmed. Her daughter dated
this man for almost a year. When she broke off the relationship,
he shot and killed her and then turned his gun on himself.
this story put graphology in the domain of predictive occult
arts, like palm reading and
crystal ball gazing? No, says Lowe, who has talked with law enforcement
agencies, since losing her daughter, about institutionalizing
graphology in their hiring procedures. Graphology has played
a role in a few high-profile court casesthe Lindbergh kidnapping
case in the 1920s, the O.J. Simpson case (the so-called suicide
letter), and in the murder case of Jon-Benet Ramsey (the supposed
graphology has its limits. Lowe cautions that it "reflects potential at the time of
writing and it gives clues about past behavior," but it "cannot predict behavior." It
can be useful in employment decisions, for example, because it
can screen out those people who interview well but have hidden
pathological or physiological issues that turn up in handwriting.
Thats why French and German employers often request handwritten
autobiographical essays as part of a job application.
reveals an individuals
state of mind and since it is a physiological process, it can
also be an indicator of physical health. Calligrapher McIntosh
tells the story of her neighbor, whose husband became concerned
when his wifes handwriting suddenly changed drastically.
At his urging, she went to a doctor and was diagnosed with a
President Reagan informed the American public of his affliction
with Alzheimers disease
in a handwritten public statement in 1994, the writing itself
poignantly brought the reality of that disease into focus. Edmund
Morris wrote in the New Yorker, "After years of studying
him with objective coldness, I confess that I, too, cried at
that letter, with its crabbed script and its enormous margins
(so evocative of the blizzard whitening his mind)."
graphology is a relatively new science, handwriting analysts
have been around as long as
forgery has been lucrative. Peter Barnett, a forensic scientist
specializing in criminalistics with Forensic Science Associates
in Richmond, is occasionally called upon as a handwriting analyst.
He outlined a typical scenario: a father dies, one brother claims
to have a document that is a last will and testament, and the
other brother contests this document. In this case, Barnett would
compare the signature on that document with other signature and
writing samples to determine whether it is authentic. Such a
comparison is not as simple as it sounds, because there is more
to the art of forging than the shape of the letters. The line
quality is crucial. Barnett explains why. "Signatures are
usually written rapidly and automatically, some of us write them
thousands of times in our life. A copied signature will show
slowness and irregularity, abrupt starts and stops of the pen,
a fixing up of mistakes."
this remind you of the painstaking labor of imitating your mothers handwriting
on high school absentee notes? Alas, forgerylike handwritingis
not the art that it used to be. Nowadays, the forger does not
care about a possible comparison of signatures. And why should
he? How often do you actually see a sales clerk comparing your
autograph on a receipt with the one on your credit card? In todays
business transactions, pin codes have taken the place of signatures,
making fraud much easier. "Why," Barnett asks rhetorically, "do
you think credit card theft has become a $10 billion a year business?"
handwriting also has a place in the virtual world of high-tech
Francesca Barrientos researched the application of writing by
hand as a potential link between humans and machines, while a
graduate student at U.C. Berkeley. Handwriting, she says, could
allow players of online games to personalize the movements of
the games characters (called "avatars" in gaming
vernacular). In many games, the user clicks on a button to make
their avatar move but cant change the movement to express
an emotion, like dancing excitedly. Barrientos, who now works
as a research scientist for NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett
Field, explains that by using handwritten commands, the computer
can actually extract the expressive content from the handwriting
and translate it to the avatar.
works, then the way the avatar moves could be as expressive and
individual as the users are in real life. Users could, potentially,
make a gesture or movement thats sad one time and excited
Barrientos discounts handwriting analysis as a kind of parlor
trick ("You cant
really tell if someone is a great lover or a loyal worker from
their handwriting," she says), she agrees that handwriting
is unique for each individual and expresses particular emotional
"If we can measure those
features and somehow translate them into how the avatar moves," she
says, "then the moves will be more individualized, like
research is not likely to spawn a resurrection of the venerable
of handwriting. But there are writers who stick steadfastly to
pen-and-paper over keyboards and monitors, at least at certain
stages of their writing.
Gloria Lenhart, author of Planet
Widow, prefers longhand for her first drafts because "there
are fewer distractions when sitting at the kitchen table with
a pad and pencil and its much more comfortable, allowing
thoughts to flow more easily." Vimala Rodgers handwrites
all of her books because she feels she is accessing a different
part of the brain. Jackie Collins writes in longhand and has
the finished manuscripts bound in leather.
But what about the rest of
us? The nonwriters among us would do well to remember that Miss
Manners insists on the handwritten thank-you note as a basic
form of courtesy.
Mende Wong, program coordinator for Second Start Adult Literacy
Program in Oakland
reports that some people have stated writing cursive as their
literacy goal. "For some people, it is something they have
always wanted to learn," she explains. "Cursive writing
makes these students feel accomplished because its something
that people with lots of education do."
are paid to handwrite wedding invitations in beautiful script.
handwrite thank-you notes for those who have neither the time
nor the skill. Fund-raising campaigns rely on the personal touch
of handwriting. Mass-mail campaigns simulate that personal touch
with computer-generated cursive typefaces. So handwriting has
its place. But this hardly means that it is part of most peoples
we dispense with handwriting altogether, says Hollings of the
East Bay Waldorf School, we
should consider the costs. "Sure we can decide, as a society
to become more machine-like and mechanistic," she says. "This
is, in essence, the decision we are making when we choose to
eliminate cursive handwriting from our lives." Learning
handwriting is one of those childhood activities, like tree climbing,
doing household chores, and walking to school, that instills
certain skills and values in children. It activates the brain
and allows children to express themselveslike learning
to play a musical instrument or drawing pictures.
Hass anticipates a cultural loss because young poets and writers
who type directly
into a computer dont usually keep early drafts of a written
piece. "What about the history of the genesis of a piece
of writing?" he worries. "What about the early thoughts
that get lost?"
Perhaps we have come full
circle. As in earlier times, when knowing how to write was a
hard-won and powerful tool, writing by hand has a certain cachet
and appeal. The few who practice this craft are consciously choosing
to hold and express certain values. They strive for beauty. They
use it as a moment of mediation. And they preserve the art of
individual expression in the small acts of daily life for all
"Our handwriting," writes
Vimala Rodgers, "is more than a succession of words put
together to create a means of communication. It is a map of our
attitude towards life, a labyrinthine pathway to long-forgotten
hiding places inside, a diagram of our unconscious mind."
Christine Schoefer, who always
sketches out first drafts longhand, is working on making her
handwriting beautiful. She has contributed to local and national
publications, including The Nation, Salon, the Los
Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She
is a regular contributor to The Monthly
headline and subhead created by local artist and calligrapher
Lauren McIntosh, who has created special menus for Chez
Panisse when the Dalai Lama and Bill Clinton came there
to dine. When she sits down to work, McIntosh clears
space in her mind. "I have to have the universe
with me, so that I dont
make a mistake."
in motion: A former U.S. poet laureate, Robert
Hass (pictured below) wrote this first draft of "Three
Dawn Songs" by hand, even changing the title.
Hass writes all first drafts of his poetry this way,
finding that the physical act of writing "connects
the head and the brain, and the heart and the brain."
Poet Robert Hass likes the "intimacy" of
writing first drafts by hand. Photo ©2001,
Margaretta K. Mitchell.
hand: In Chinese culture the way a person
writes reveals their character, says Dr. Alex
Feng, here practicing Qi Gong. Photo courtesy Dr.
hands: The Chinese character for Tao, or "the
path," written by Dr. Alex Feng. The larger
images are the same letter in "grass script," the
equivalent of cursive. Boxed is the same character
in "standard writing," similar to printing
in the Roman alphabet.