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Computers are fine, but handwriting says more


St. Vincent de Paul’s script covers the yellowed parchment like a hand-tied net. Inked in sepia, the very color of the past, the letters keep a regular rhythm of dark and light, thick and thin. Reading the 17th-century sentences, I’m filled with sudden envy. Not of Vincent’s great holiness; that feels comfortably beyond reach. I envy his handwriting.

I envy all old handwriting; it always looks elegant to me, orderly and delicate, a perfect reconciliation of individualism with convention. The letterforms are consistently readable, the varying boldness of the ink only adding rhythm. The flourishes are individual but politely restrained, with none of the arrogance of, say, the modern physician’s indecipherable scrawl.

And however passionate the content, the clarity remains, suggesting a far greater degree of self-possession than I’ve ever managed.

Every year away from those dotted aqua lines, my writing grows messier, reducing itself to a reporter’s bastard shorthand and a blurry signature. To write legibly enough for someone else to read takes care and patience. And while I hate the American impatience of my quick, chaotic scrawl, I revel in its inscrutability, feeling proud and betrayed when even my intimates claim it unreadable.

This is a rebellion, no doubt, against my sharp-tongued grandmother, who constantly urged us to enunciate our words and practice our Palmer penmanship. Silenced by the heavy drape of children, money troubles and thwarted intelligence, she ached for self-expression. I knew she was growing old when I saw, with a shock, the tremble of her familiar Palmer script, its careful loops looking as if they were written on a moving bus.

God, they say, writes straight with crooked lines. God inscribes us in the Book of Life; God reads the prayers written on the wall or slipped into the turnstile of a cloistered convent. God’s connection with the written word is so powerful, some have called it sin to write God’s name on a piece of paper. God is the Word, and we know God through the word.

But what happens when the word gets processed? When computers first glowed like modern-day burning bushes, I was terrified to compose on screen. Laboriously, I wrote each draft on pads mysteriously called Yellow Dog, savoring their familiar privacy, and switching to the terminal only when I felt confident of my words.

Then one day, my brave friend Mike sat down with me at the keyboard, like a jazz pianist sitting down to play “Chopsticks” with a child. He tapped out irreverent suggestions, deleted them, tapped, deleted until I ventured into the new game, composing with him, realizing with delight how easily electricity forgives.

Now I go readily to the keyboard and inscribe at lightning speed, revising continually. The pen has become the awkward tool. And yet emotionally I remain uncomfortable. Somehow the computer always seems to know more than I do about whatever I’m “inputting” -- and, worse, is too passionless to even smirk at my mistakes.

I miss the scritch across vellum, the indentation that guarantees you have left your mark. I miss the flow from head through arm to concrete external reality, the sense of making rather than operating; using my own agency rather than interacting with a system.

Above all, I miss the act’s casual, personal warmth. There’s a reason public relations people prepare handwritten notes on kittycat stationery when they launch a “grassroots” campaign. There’s a reason fundraisers scrawl personal notes across form letters, ostentatiously crossing out the generic elements to “personalize” the message. We all recognize the coldness of a typewritten note.

Remember, when you were falling in love, how you wrote his (or her) name over and over again? Remember how you treasured that first note, that first sample of your beloved’s handwriting? How you pored over your parents’ love letters or your grandparents’ diaries, examining the handwriting’s slant, weight, thickness, hesitancies and bold strokes for clues to author’s feelings and fate?

Computers are wonderful, but the fact remains: We cannot as easily express our personhood when the tools are abstract, the pace is rapid, the form is standardized and the medium is insubstantial. Personality unfolds over time, in space. That’s what makes a suicide note so tragic: The writing proves the person’s selfhood even as it announces its negation.

I wonder. We beg an author to sign his book -- will we beg him to type his name into a CD-ROM disk? Will God seem the same if the metaphor changes and we decide God has programmed us into the great hard drive of the cosmos?

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 1999