On being The Lady With The Handwriting

When I was a kid we did handwriting practice with a Berol Handwriting pen. If you’re going to use a rollerball it’s not such a bad choice. I was always led to believe that fountain pens were difficult to use; that they involved some kind of mad skill. The other thing that I heard about fountain pens was that they improve your handwriting. So when I first picked up a fountain pen when I was about 11, I was surprised to discover that I had no problems using it at all, and in fact it was rather lovely to write with. I was also saddened to discover that it made no difference whatsoever to my handwriting. Writing does look better in fountain pen than in biro, because the ink is nicer to look at, but that’s it.

I’m saying this because I still run into both of these myths today. Some people do find fountain pens difficult, of course. Particularly after years of using ballpoints, which you have to press down on, it feels weird and tricky to put a pen on paper with no pressure at all. You also have to hold ballpoints relatively upright whereas fountain pens like a broader angle. But in general, most (but not all) people could use fountain pens if they wanted to.

Fast forward to today, and I have become The Lady With The Handwriting. This is a bit weird because I sort of inhabit two entirely separate spheres here. In the pen nerd world, my handwriting is not really all that impressive. It’s not sufficiently consistent and it’s a little bit over-ornamented. It’s not shamefully bad, but there are others among us who are much, much better at penmanship than I am.

In the wider world, people stop what they’re doing, stare, gape, look at me, look back at the envelope I’ve just given them, call in a marching band, release 1,000 white doves and order a 21 pen salute (no guns, please, we’re British). I suspect that this has more to do with my handwriting looking unusual than looking particularly beautiful. It is hella swirly to a non pen person. It looks particularly odd when I’m flexy and I know it. I sort of understand that, although the attention I get for it sometimes feels a little bit uncomfortable. If all of this sounds like one big humblebrag, I can assure you that it isn’t. I have actually worked quite hard to improve my handwriting, but I’m being completely honest about how bewildered I am by the reactions to it.

I work in a university where my penmanship has taken on a life of its own. Considerably more people are familiar with my handwriting than my face. This makes for some awkward conversations. “You sent me something in the internal post once. You’re the lady with the handwriting!” says someone who doesn’t know my name. Then of course there’s the fact that I have a certain glug of prosopagnosia in my neural cocktail – that’s face blindness in plain speak. I am very bad with faces. I often don’t recognise people I’ve spent a lot of time with. Half of my life is spent cagily pretending that I know someone who clearly knows me. I probably do know them, but just looking at their face is giving me nothing. So do I know this person who knows my handwriting, or do they just love my swirly S, or what? It’s a particularly intense time for these interactions, because I am having to send out documents to a lot of different people around campus. I shove them into handwritten envelopes and it begins again.

But then what they often say is “I wish I had handwriting like that!” to which the obvious response is basically “well, why don’t you?” I don’t say that, usually. I mutter something about being a pen nerd.

But on some level, I do kind of mean it. If you have poor fine motor control, you may never have particularly lovely handwriting. If you have normal fine motor control, you can change your handwriting just by: deciding you want to change it, deciding what you want it to look like, and then making an effort to form your letters as close to the forms you’ve picked as you can. It’s not witchcraft; it’s procedural memory, which can often be underrated. It is basically repetition of the same movement over and over until it just becomes the thing you do, because you’ve given your dorsolateral striatum a thorough workout. It takes commitment to doing things the same way, and it takes time. It’s the pen nerd equivalent of learning to play the piano.

Here’s an illustration for you. When I first got my hands on Pelly the Nelikan in 2016, I decided that I wanted to be worthy of her magnificence. I set out to improve my handwriting. My script isn’t taken from a calligraphy book or anything. I looked at different forms of letters and picked out the ones I liked and then just tried to do those letters, over and over. And over the course of a couple of years this happened:

2016

2017

2018

And now, yes, this is basically how I write all the time. I prefer to write on Seyes-ruled paper because it’s really good for improving consistency (yes I realise that none of these samples are on it). I may move on to proper calligraphy paper and try that. It evolves. What will it look like next year?

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