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Writing or Hand-Writing: What Do We Lose When We Type?
Written by
The Salonniere
October 2010
Written by
The Salonniere
October 2010

The singular pleasures, and irreplaceable results, of writing by hand. A few weeks ago, my mother sent me an email to thank me for a book I'd sent to her. And in her email she wrote: "I need to write you a real letter. Hard copy, by hand." I knew just what she meant. An email is not a letter, and a letter means much more. Which got me to thinking. What is it that is so precious about hand-writing? Why does a letter from my mother, pulled like a jewel from between the slippery pages of catalogs I don't want, give me happiness that seeing her name in my inbox can't? And what are we losing as technology moves us ever-more utterly to the keyboard from the pen? Most obviously, we lose an object. Something we can keep. Something that can go in a shoebox, or a file drawer, or under a pilow; something that we can get our hands on when we need not only to read a letter but to see it, touch it, and even smell it again. A letter is tactile, and writing on a piece of paper ("hard copy, by hand") which then travels across miles of landscape and distance to touch the hands of its recipient is an experience email can never recreate. A handwritten letter bears the marks of its journey through the physical world, its scuffs and its stamps, and of its author, too. Something of the spirit of an individual, unique and indelible, remains tangible in a letter he or she wrote even hundreds or thousands of years ago. Something else is lost when we type, however: our signature. (And NOT our signature as as in: "typed on my iPhone.") When we type, we produce something intentionally uniform, generic, and universal, using a technology developed to facilitate communication between strangers. When we write, we produce something nobody else can, sometimes decipherable only by the ones who know us well. My mother's signature, with its arching, swooping capital "K's" and cleanly executed "r's" evokes her for me as powerfully, specifically and meaningfully as the sound of her voice, and gives me something to return to when we are not together. I have been reading her handwriting since I can remember, and knew its shape even before I could read; I have read letters from her in every place I've ever lived, and at every critical moment in my life. I know it inside and out. Except when, upon reading this last letter, I didn't. It was at the end. It was the way she wrote the word "love." It came out a little differently than usual, in a way that stopped me -- the way the tops of her small v were left open so that they resembled the lowercase e that followed it. And suddenly it jumped out at me. This was the way my mother's father wrote that word. Just the same, with just that signature quirk, and one I'd never seen in my mother's writing until now. Recognizing my late grandfather's "signature" embedded in my mother's script, I felt as though he had appeared on the page for a moment like a ghost. And while my mother still unintentionally evokes him that way for me with a gesture, an expression or a laugh like his, in this case his spirit rose up through her handwriting, on a piece of paper I can keep. My father understands this -- the way handwriting can evoke someone who is no longer there, someone you desperately wish you could have known -- in a way I am grateful I do not. His father died when he was just four years old; a ghost, indeed. His father's letters, however, composed while he was fighting in North Africa and Europe during the Second World War, gave my father something real, something personal, and something physical he could read over and over, something that he could hold on to. They helped him to mourn, to grieve, and to connect with a man he had no other way of knowing. For obvious reasons, my dad has always had a reverential feeling about letters. At some point in his life he determined he would not leave his own children bereft of a similar legacy, and set about to fill the gap. Even as letter-writing became increasingly rare, he began to write to me with increasing frequency, sometimes in response to an occasion or an event, sometimes just because. (Those are the best.) He wrote to each of my sons before they were born, and now writes to them regularly, too; sometimes with funny little illustrations they adore. My father lost his father at a very young age, and has always had an acute grasp of mortality, even as a child. My grandfather wrote home from the war partly because he didn't know if he would come home. My father wrote to us, and writes to my children, partly because he knows eventually the letter he is writing will be his last. And he knows that when he's gone, it will be his letters, not his emails, that we will need to remember him by, and be most grateful to him for giving us. I don't often write to my sons. I've heard you can now send emails to kids at summer camp. But I want to give them a way to hear me, see me and experience me on a piece of paper they can file away and keep. So today, after I finish typing this post for all the world to read, I will take out paper and pen and write letters to each of my boys only for their eyes, and only for their sakes. My handwriting is terrible (the legacy of computer-driven world) but they may as well get used to it. It's my signature; and it's for them to come to know it. When was the last time you composed a handwritten letter? What do you write by hand? And how is it different for you to write by hand than to type? What does a handwritten letter mean to you? Many thanks to She Writer Sandra Staas for her post, "Letter Writing? Eraser Not Required," which got me thinking on the subject, and to She Writer Sharon Lippincott, whose post "Hand or Keyboard: Does It Matter?" on her blog The Heart and Craft of Life Writing sheds some interesting light on the subject.

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  • pattie welek hall

    Love your article.  Was just having this same conversation with a friend a couple days ago.  Been writing hand written thank you notes and cards since I was a child.  That's the way I was raised.  I raised my children the same.  In fact at Christmas I encourage the kids to write a letter and put it on the tree, and I do the same.  I cherish those hand written notes, and their handwriting.  Their personalities come alive.  I have shoe boxes filled with our correspondence.... one of the first things I would reach for if there was a fire!

    Love to be friends on facebook.   Also check out my website when you get a minute.

  • I read recently they've stopped teaching cursive writing in the schools. Where will our children be when they receive a letter written in our native tongue they simply cannot read? What about the Constitution of the United States? Sad, sad, sad . . . . . The art of cursive writing; truly a lost art.

    While the World Wide Web has opened many avenues none of us thought possible a mere 25 years ago, it has also been the downfall of many issues.

    I overhead someone the other day saying the Pediatrician asked their child (or grand child) if they go outside to play (with other children). How sad is that?

    I drive down the street in the morning on my way to work and there could be 7-10 kids standing at a bus stop, none of them talking to one another, but every single one texting away on their cell phones. Seems the only part of our bodies getting exercise these days are our hands and our brains.

    My girlfriend works for the United States Post Office; won't be long before this too shall soon be just another icon of our former lives.

    In one fell swoop the last 20 years of my writings can be wiped out with one single nasty computer bug. Thankfully, when I write a piece I also print it immediately and with each revision the same holds true.

    If I don't stop now, I'd have written another article. ~ GigglinG ~

    D ~

  • Medina Tenour Whiteman

    Just this morning, I sat down on a sunny cafe terrace and wrote, with great pleasure, three postcards to family in the States (I live in Spain). One was a pot of red geraniums against a white wall, another was of bougainvillea sprawling over a blue and white doorway, the third of a man poised triumphantly in front of a snowy mountain peak. I rarely write letters but postcards offer the excuse of writing a condensed little something, a poem even, 'just because' (what a wonderful way to say you remembered a loved one, for no apparent reason!) justified by a telling snapshot. I often reread postcards stuck to my mother's kitchen cupboard doors, sent years ago from farflung places, or from down the road.

    This is a beautiful article, one that evokes so well the way in which a writer's soul seeps into the page along with their ink, but I do wonder if we aren't developing new ways in which to express our uniqueness, even in such sterile, dehumanised media as the internet.

  • Maddie Dawson

    Kamy, this is such a moving essay. I have often thought how tragic it is that I have so many treasured letters from friends in email form, never to be printed and saved. And marveled at the filing cabinets I have that are filled with letters and handwriting of loved ones who have gone now, and how much more they mean. Just to touch something that someone else has touched and sent--it's beyond meaningful. Thank you for writing this!

  • My personal journals are pen and paper--a composition notebook usually. And, the majority of the time--like 95%--I write first drafts of my poems with pen or pencil to the page. It's the most natural way for me to compose. It makes me feel more viscerally connected to my thoughts.

    The idea of letter writing appeals to me. Sometimes I toy with the idea of penning letters to my friends. But I haven't done that yet. When my brother and other friends were in the military, stationed away from home, I would write to them using pen and paper. Really, it never occurred to me to type a personal letter, and I never thought about using email back then.

  • Virginia Lilley

    Susanne...Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my poem. I am very new to this group but I am finding so much depth here. I am enjoying being a part of it all.

  • Susanne Barrett

    Virginia...WOW. Incredible poem! These are my favorite lines:
    I can't feel your tears on crinkled paper
    the space is too impersonal
    the script too formal
    as it marches across the page
    in uniform succession.

    Thank you for speaking Truth to us this Saturday morning.

  • Virginia Lilley

    Heart to Heart
    Your heart spills out onto the page
    through pen and ink...
    from overflowing rivers of love and pain
    releasing wet silt onto the written page.
    The loops, and the spaces
    claiming and preserving treasured moments in time
    reach out to touch my fingers
    holding on to the tangible page
    waking my heart gently,
    or pushing its blood to rush into my veins
    as I share in your pain
    and your joy,
    your bliss and your sorrow
    as it pulsates up my arms
    and explodes in my brain.
    No type-written word
    can reach out so fully...or
    reach in so deeply...
    I can't feel your tears on crinkled paper
    the space is too impersonal
    the script too formal
    as it marches across the page
    in uniform succession.
    Lend me your heart
    for just a moment
    one more time...
    let my fingers feel your blood
    pumping through the rivers
    forged in the canyons of our being,
    the rhythm pulsing in our ears
    as we hear each other speak…
    for it is then that we notice
    the islands and the spaces,
    the beat and the tempo,
    the hesitation...and the letting go
    that tell the real story.
    Talk to me again
    heart to heart, ink to page,
    that I might truly know you
    and come to know myself.

  • Paula Lozar

    Re cursive writing: Not to be contrarian, but it can't die too soon for me. I'm 65, went to Catholic schools, and got "D" in Handwriting for years because I couldn't reproduce the perfect shapes we were supposed to emulate. In high school I started using a simplified "linked printing" -- which is what schools seem to be teaching kids now -- and it's worked much better for me. (Fast enough to take notes, but still legible.)

    That said: My mother worked as a secretary before she married, and was an excellent typist. But her handwriting was a traditional, perfect script that was instantly recognizable as hers, even when it became shaky as she entered her last few years. My father, who died over 30 years ago, was a lefty with a distinctive backhand that I think he invented himself. Recently I was sorting through my papers after a remodeling job on my office, and I always felt a lift at my heart when I ran across examples of their handwriting.

  • Susanne Barrett

    I have written several blog posts over the past couple of years about the joys of the handwritten letter/note:

    A Handwritten Post

    The Joy of Epistles

    The Joy of Old-Fashioned Writing

    I find the slowing down of writing by hand allows me to think deeper, see clearer, and choose words more wisely. Even though the physical act of writing is painful to me because of RA, I still love it. I do most of my writing with a Waterman fountain pen and most of my journaling with a rosewood dip pen and coloured ink from various antique corked bottles.

  • Tania Pryputniewicz

    Beautiful post Kamy. I too had a ghost appear—but not in words, in accent.

    My paternal, British grandmother, who also initiated my lifelong love for a hot cup of tea, began writing letters to me when I moved away from upstate NY (I was five). All throughout my life I could hear her accent in my head as she wrote to me about her garden, who came for tea, maybe a favorite couple of lines of scripture as I bounced around from trial to trial, bolstered always by her bright, “Cheerio” sign off and reminder to stay chipper.

    The last letter I wrote to her was meant to arrive on her birthday; I chose a card with a blue fan-tailed peacock. Shortly after, I went into labor. I was afraid of having one of those freight-train births, given that this was my third child on the way. I was relieved when the nurse came in and spoke soothingly to me in—miraculously--her British accent. We spoke briefly (between contractions) about my grandmother.

    The next morning when my father came to meet his newest grandson, he held my hand and told me grandma had passed away near midnight. I remember crying, but took comfort that she waited just long enough for Nik to be born—they overlapped for six or seven hours.

    When my children are grown and fan out (as they will) away from us, I will write to them in longhand; should I be graced with grandchildren, I’m sure I will follow my grandmother’s lead and write to them as well. My own writings begin longhand in journals or on unlined white paper; I can’t imagine still composing at the keyboard. Blog entries, yes, but not the rest, so far. The curves and loops, the feel of a newly sharpened pencil on paper still soothes and satisfies.

  • The Salonniere

    You know @Kim, I actually found some studies, in researching this essay, that indicate that children who learn to write letters are much better at recognizing them, and that learning to write the letters yourself really aids the learning process! Take this to your next parent-teacher conference:
    The influence of writing practice on letter recognition in preschool children: A comparison between handwriting and typing

  • Kim Schenkelberg

    While at parent/teacher conferences I have learned that the education systems are considering no longer teaching kids cursive because "they don't need it." How can you not teach kids something which the generations before them used on a regular basis? It is sad to think that the art of script will be lost because it is no longer efficient. I realize someone can still "print" a letter by hand but if we are moving away from cursive then very obviously we are moving away from handwriting anything. How will our kids read the original Declaration of Indenpendence or other important historical documents of US history (or other countries as well?). Glad you wrote on this topic. I was beginning to feel a bit crazy in my disppointment over this new trend in thinking.

  • Elizabeth A. Fry

    I love this. I lost my father when I was three and my mother when I was twenty four. Anything with their writing on it is a treasure to me, especially because there is so very little for me to find. Because of this I, like your father, chose to give my children and grandchildren handwritten "letters" with a twist.

    Thank you so much for sharing. What beautiful writing.

  • Susanne Barrett

    I often write little notes by hand to friends, simply because I enjoy the process and they enjoy receiving something other than a bill in their mailbox. I keep many handwritten notes--they contain the author's spirit and personality more tangibly than an e-mail can. I write with a dip pen and bottled ink--the ebb and flow of ink as pen starts to run dry, the beauty of pondered word and deliberate intention woos me...and, I hope, them. I write most poetry with a fountain pen--easier on my hands bent by rheumatoid arthritis--and both permanent and ephemeral in inexplicable ways. An art in danger of disappearing is all the more precious when received nowadays.

  • Emily Kennedy

    Your essay comes today as I begin my own blog about handwritten correspondence. I have always been a letter writer, and I count as my greatest treasures letters I wrote to my favorite career-girl aunt as well as my parents when I was away from them for camps, college, & trips. No one threw them away! When my oldest daughter was in college, we delighted in discovering the increasingly rare stationery boxes in stores and sending long epistles. When my second daughter left, I wrote faithfully to her as well, but she responded impatiently with emails. Better than nothing, she would say. But she did print and keep every email I sent to her in response. As a child and even into my adult years, I always delighted in perfecting my handwriting, adopting a new way of writing an "E" or "K" when I noticed someone else's style.

    In the past several months, however, I have found it more and more difficult to write, my right thumb increasingly stiff and painful from what is probably early arthritis. So, this week I endured painful injections into the joint just to be able to sign my name holding my pen correctly. The procedure induced the Vagal Response in me, or in other words, I fainted. Was it worth it? Enough to go back for more injections if this one wears off? Most certainly yes! I have great plans to write my first real letter in months. More to follow in my own blog............

  • Beautiful post, Kamy.

    My writing group consistently comments that they feel very close to my characters when it is a scene that I drafted by hand. The scenes I drafted at the keyboard they always describe as more distant. Fascinating.

  • Ellen Ferranti

    Writing a letter or simply penning a thank you note shows your unique handwriting and is truly yours. It can be the ultimate true expression of yourself...even the type of paper you choose to write on is an expression of yourself. Aren't these reasons to write?...

  • Deb O\'Brien

    Great post. I myself am never without a pen and notebook. I hand write almost everything and I find that I am much more creative writing as oppose to typing. I am one of those old fashion girls that still believes in writing letters instead of always emailing. Thanks for sharing.

  • Laura G Owens Writing

    I completely agreed. We lose a connection with the medium we choose to communicate. Our intention is good but our delivery is not as warm. Besides the science behind the positives of connecting thoughts to hand written words, we lose the care and consideration when we do fast e-communications, or perhaps any e-communications. Admittedly I am on the I-screens too much and correspond and keep up with electronic "likes" on Facebook, but there is nothing electronic that can mirror the intimacy of a hand written note. My hand written notes are usually thank you notes or birthday ones, or perhaps sympathy cards. The days of sending a "hi" card are long over for me with electronic greetings, but then I remembered sending one to my father in law who was losing his wife, my dear MIL, and my husband told me how much it meant to him. With our handwritten notes, dare I sound too new-agey, come the positive energy and intention behind our words that e-words don't seem to have. I sense it.

  • Arwa Salah Mahmoud

    One of the most beautiful pieces I've ever read. Thank you for the thoughts and the emotions this fascinating essay brought to me. I will share it with everyone.

  • Cheryl Wright

    My heart trembled as I read your post. Your thoughts resonated with me because my friend Jan and I share your sentiments and we have built our deepening friendship with writing letters to each other. Ofter, our letters crisscross each other over the seas. Of course we email each other regularly to share certain things but it is in our handwritten letters that we share our more intimate thoughts, feelings and dreams. Our handwritten letters tell the heart stories of who we are, our life experiences and the lessons they have taught us, the intricacies of our goals and dreams and the intricacies that other people may not understand or appreciate.

    Her letters to me are priceless jewels, surpassed only by her lovely and beloved friendship and the practice of handwriting letters is deepening our bond.

  • Juliet Wilson

    You're so right about the value that handwriting has way beyond the value of typed communications. I still handwrite letters, mostly to my parents but also to other people. i make handmade notelets too from reused materials. I also handwrite my poetry and only put it onto the computer at a later stage.

  • Laura J. W. Ryan

    This is a beautiful essay! I have always loved the act of writing, even before I knew how to write, just scribbling lines felt delightful to me they were "important documents" to me, they were my stories. I would lay my head down on the table or school desk to listen to the sound of my pencil scratching on the paper. To this day, even as my hand writing becomes sloppy from lack of practice, I will hand write the notes for a new story. Writing, it's a beautiful thing, it's a personal experience, and it is something we instinctively share with others. It's part of who we are, our history, our stories first carved into stone, painted on cave walls, inscribed on papyrus, sketched on paper, printed on a press...

  • Hallie Sawyer

    I also wrote a post about handwriting vs. typing my novel,

    I do believe there is something powerful in writing to someone. It shows you care as well as it something that can be pulled out and reread over and over. Emotions flow from the pen vs. a typed word on a computers screen. Great post!