22 September 2009

[type] The Oregonian, Promoting Perfect Penmanship

2211.I am an advocate for great penmanship.

Penmanship, as a subject, has been demoted to, at best, highly unnecessary. Some blame the internet, some blame laziness in schools; just like any trend, it has many fathers and mothers.

I prefer, as the authors of an amazing sidebar article on page O7 in the O! section of The Sunday Oregonian write, to lay the blame of illegibility and tedium on modern cursive handrwriting:

As we begin the school year, we state the obvious: American handwriting is in a woeful state. Schools' insistence on teaching looped cursive handwriting has left a generation of Americans with script they dislike or is often illegible.

The Palmer method and subsequent 20th Century methods were based on an ornate style that was difficult to learn and broke down under pressure. The loops and curlicues of Palmer and other methods obscure legibility. For good reason, one rarely finds looped cursive in print media or computer fonts. We have become a "Please Print" nation. Even worse, we've failed to find a replacement.

I could not have said it better. From the first, Palmer method was a bear for me, because I knew I could write beautifully but it was as though Palmer, with its insistence on curves, loops, and large parts of letters which served no discernable purpose like the big back bows on the R's, for instance) and severely unpretty letters (what the hell was up with that capital G? The fact that the capital Q looked like a big number "2" was adorable, but it didn't make up for the sheer ugliness of the rest of it) wanted to make me take the scenic route with every letter I drew.

And, mind you, I like the scenic route. There are some times, though, you do not want to take it. If I wanted to learn Copperplate script, then I'd learn Copperplate.

The Palmer method is no longer with us, but intellectual descendants, such as D'Nealian, still plague us. D'Nealian is a decided improvement on Palmer, but the cursive style still pleases me not.

I suppose part of the problem is that, as first- and second-graders, we're taught manuscript printing, big block capitals and smalls that – while they do teach you how to write, don't provide the skill set that translates neatly into the supposedly-superior cursive mode. Even D'Nealian provides for a "Manuscript" style (complete with little 'monkey tails' that are presumably intendend to help the learner evolve into a cursive writer).

Along with the authors of the piece in The Sunday O, Inga Dubay and Barbara Getty, I feel the way to legibility is the italic hand. Italics are more than just the slanty-script you see in print to denote ship names and book titles, but it's the hand developed by Italian scribes during the Renaissance – hence the name Italic (which I 'italicize' here in the name of irony as much as description).

The beauty of the italic hand is, if you know how to print, you already know about half of what you need to get started. Give the standard manuscript style an attractive slant, and you're on your way. Of course, like any civilized talent, you need to practice, but the beauty of the article in The Sunday O is that the practice is reduced to maybe just a few minutes a day. This is something anyone can do.

There are other italic references out there – they may be a bit hard to find. My very favorite is a book by Fred Eager, The Italic Way To Beautiful Handwriting, ISBN 0-02-07990-X, and my copy was published by MacMillan's Collier Books imprint in 1974. If you can find this book anywhere, get it, and copy off the pages from the inside to practice on. Alibris seems to be able to locate it for you. Barnes'n'Noble has some copies available too apparently. If you search "Fred Eager" on Amazon.com you may or may not find this partcular work but you'll find other italic instruction texts by Eager.

Italic hand, once learned, can be made your own and still look lovely and legible. I tell you no lie here: I began developing my own style, inspired by typewritten and italic forms, in junior high. This was back when some teachers still tried, half-heartedly, to teach penmanship; I held fast to my own style, and eventually began refining it. I've still got diaries I wrote back in the 80s and 90s, and it's become more fluid, more natural, but has been busy refining itself. It's almost as though it's aware of itself sometimes. And, more: once you master the basics of italic hand, you can enjoy writing in it as-is, or take it into full-blown calligraphy, and this is a great skill: strangely, even in this day where you think that nobody likes beautiful writing anymore, you'll find yourself admired for having writing that's not only clear to read, but beautiful to look at. I have, at work, had people bring me something to write out again for them just because my handwriting is accomplished and nice to look at.

That may sound like bragging, but it's not. And I could take up a reasonably competent calligraphy practice at any time.

But, back to earth … if you tire of your own 'hen scratching' and am tired of also making excuses for it, then check out italic hand. I think it's the answer. You'll be glad you did it.

The article – which you ought to save and print out for practice – is at The New York Times here. Save it and practice. I hope they keep this publicly available for a while.

Here's the URL for your bookmarking pleasure: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/09/04/opinion/20090908_opart.html

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