In Praise of Penmanship

People often ask me what advice I would give graduates today. By “often,” I mean once and by “people,” I mean a guy at a party who knew no one but found me, standing between him and the bean dip.

Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate” was told “plastics.” My single word in the same context would be “penmanship.” Plastics pointed to the future (and wasn’t he right about that!), but penmanship points to a certain and vital past.

I don’t suggest we reconsider the value of penmanship because Steve Jobs mentioned calligraphy in his famous Stanford commencement address in 2005, though his point was related to mine. I don’t urge the discipline simply to rehabilitate the retro. Penmanship offers a reliable path to self-discovery in an age that heightens the need for the end as it diminishes its need for the means.

Keyboards and cameras and microphones have replaced script for how we communicate with others. But our handwriting never was solely a means of communicating with others. We use it also to communicate with ourselves. Even if we cannot decipher the letters in a note we wrote, we can intuit from their shapes and slants what else was going on for us when we wrote it. From the dent in the paper, we can measure literally the depth of that moment’s intent.

We can’t help but imagine the voice of the writer, whether it’s a best-selling novel, a spray-painted scrawl under a train track, or a memo from the next cubicle over. We note the style, the cadence, the pacing and we determine things about the writer. Others are doing the same with what you write.

Before others see what’s written, it must pass our first editor. That is always us. We stop and rework a sentence because it didn’t sound right, even though the room is virtually silent. We think about a better way to say it, but without actually talking. We measure the tone, and yet there’s no volume.

We naturally braid what we say with how we say it. That’s hard to do when we wonder if anyone’s listening. As long as you’re young, some will refuse to listen. The strategy may be illogical and is certainly unjust, but it’s also pervasive and unlikely to change. If you listen to yourself during your early years, you’ll find your voice before it’s being heard.

Each of us must find our voice. But “voice” is in this context a misleading term. We claim we want to “feel heard,” but we mean we want to be noticed, detected, considered. Penmanship can play a role. If we can learn to make words look different, we’re on our way to making them “sound” different.

Keyboards suit the many times when we are one of many. But the important moments in life are when we see that we are one of one — that no one else can make our contribution, that our involvement is not interchangeable with another’s, that our offering is unique.

I spent my final year of high school manipulating my execution of the alphabet. Most start with the “y” because it so often ends a word, finishing below the baseline, where personal expression is allowed and not crowded by the concision of clarity. I tried a few variations of a “y” but abandoned them as too self-conscious.

Instead, I started with my “g” — I chose (ironically, in this context) to mimic the typewriter. I did the same with my “a”. My “i” and “t” received a curl at their base. I trained myself to cross my “t” tilting upwards. I allowed my “e” to recline; its center bar also pointed up, often beginning below the baseline.

I still write this way, 40 years later — with less flourish, but not less satisfaction.

I practiced, filling several spiral notebooks, changing what I wrote by rote. My teachers probably marveled at my studious note-taking during their classes. No one was the wiser.

You can find your voice in your scribbling fingers. Once people begin to listen, you’ll have a better idea exactly what you have to say.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs