The Written Word

Jody - Austin, Texas
Entered on April 23, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
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I believe in the written word—literally and spiritually.

Or rather, written words, plural, in multiples, line upon line set down thoughtfully on paper by means of pen or pencil.

Recently, I bought myself a new fountain pen—a real fountain pen with a refillable cartridge. It’s a beauty—light and balanced, with some kind of titanium alloy tip that never leaves a splotch or fails to take up where, pausing to think, you left off. I had to look around to find the once ubiquitous bottle of ink. Office Depot, Walgreen’s, and so on—nobody carried it. Finally, it occurred to me that the neighborhood family-owned pharmacy (Newberry’s) might stock bottles of ink. How stupid of me not to have thought. After all, I’d often admired the array office writing implements near the checkout counter—gift sets under glass, slightly remote. Thanks to Tarrytown Pharmacy, the young man at the register, and Sheaffer, a generous bottle of blue ink now sits within arm’s reach whenever my pen runs dry. It’s a renewable resource and apparently works in several languages (The label identifies the contents as ink, encre, tinta, inchiostro, and a Russian word I can’t pronounce).

Writing with a fountain pen is a special pleasure even, at the risk of sounding precious, an aesthetic experience. Handwriting itself is becoming a special skill or practice. Some schools, I understand, don’t even teach handwriting; they teach (and even require) printing or, scarier, keyboarding. I hope these are isolated occurrences, perpetrated by misguided wave-of-the-future types. Okay, I’m not such a Luddite as to expect handwriting to be elevated to the status of special instruction—a subject called “penmanship.” Still, in our urgency to prepare children for a competitive, high-tech economy, handwriting skill—like art, music, and physical education—deserves to be taught, and not in a cursory manner.

Believe me, as a former English teacher, I understand the insistence upon typewritten submissions. Reading through hundreds of student essays per semester is hard enough. Rewards are few, and even in print, the sheer mass strains both mind and eye.

A few years back, I worked at scoring college entrance exams, a tedious task of evaluating perhaps a couple thousand student essays in the course of a few days, all on the same topic or two, written all too often in the stuffy classroom form of the five-paragraph essay.

But the handwritten letter is another matter. Unlike those stilted essays, letters—from friend to friend or kin to kin—are personal, inviting sincerity. It’s essentially different from tapping out a hasty e-mail, one of those skeletal or abbreviated “communications.” In ten or so years of computer ownership, I can count on one hand the number of messages that seem to have been composed liberally, with care in the expression. Over 99% are deletable. On the other hand, I’ve received many handwritten letters I’ve eagerly opened and read—treasures I can’t bear to throw away.

On a shelf nearby sits a box which used to contain a dozen baseballs but now holds four years of my dad’s letters home from World War II. I loved and respected my dad, but we didn’t talk much—not seriously about things that matter. He was a West Texan, quiet, and stoical. Except that those heartfelt letters from another era—often written out of loneliness, boredom or obligation—surprisingly open and immediate, reveal the man, my father, his life, in a way I would never otherwise have known.