I can’t deny that computers have improved the writing life. My trusty MacBook is the most loyal of companions, instantly converting my thoughts into legible words, helping with research, fixing my horrendous spelling. I can’t imagine writing a book without a computer, and there’s no doubt that without one my backlist would probably be two or three titles instead of over forty.
Yet I still mourn the loss of the handwritten word. Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, a person was judged by her or his handwriting. Penmanship (the very word sounds so hopelessly dated) was given the same care as arithmetic and spelling in elementary school, with endless loops drawn over special blue-lined pages. The grown-up pride of being able to write in cursive! The magic of carefully developing a signature, practicing over and over to get just the right swash and dash for perfect self-expression! The secret thrill of writing “Mrs. Paul McCartney” just to see, you know, how it would look!
A handwritten word reveals much more than simple syllables: anger or haste, affection or care. My family has always been letter-writers, and even without reading a word, I always recognize the writer at once: my father’s spare and upright handwriting, half-printed, half-cursive, and always in a felt-tip pen; my mother’s careful slant in blue ball-point; one grandmother’s spidery loops and the other’s squat little letters in a line. My grandmothers are both long gone, but I still can feel an instant link to them when I come across a book they inscribed to me for a birthday or a recipe card tucked into a cookbook. For the same reason, I have all my husband’s love-letters and notes to me from college, tucked in a pillow-case for safekeeping.
One of the best parts for me about writing historical fiction is that my characters are based on people who actually lived. Reading their transcribed letters is an important research tool, but finding those same letters in their
original, handwritten form is almost shockingly immediate. The hurried note of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, written to his wife Sarah (the heroine of my book Duchess) soon after he had beaten the French at Ramillies in 1706, is endlessly evocative in its run-on sentences and abbreviated endearments that he knows Sarah will understand. His closing (shown above) is certainly worthy of any romance hero: "Pray believe me when I assure you that I love you more than I can express. J." If you're game to try to make out the faded writing for yourself, the original letter can be found on the Library of Congress site here.
Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, is the heroine of my July '09 historical novel, The French Mistress (That's the glorious cover up there, making its WordWenches debut.) Louise never lost the loopy,
girlish handwriting she’d been taught in a French convent school; her 1692 signature –– "L. duchesse de Portsmouth" –– looks more appropriate to a teenager than a woman in her forties. Somehow reading her wandering penmanship make her efforts to write in her adopted English –– each word painfully phonetically spelled out –– seem doubly touching.
I'm fascinated by the difference between how Louise's royal lover, King Charles II, signed a treaty or declaration with careful formality, as opposed to the dashing exuberance of his many love-letters to Louise, the words clearly flying from his pen: "I should do myself wrong if I told you that I love you better than all the world besides, for that were making a comparison where 'tis impossible to express
the true passion and kindness I have for my dearest, dearest Fubs! – CR" (‘Fubs’ was his pet name for her, short for fubsy, or chubby –– which she was, and which he adored –– and the CR was for Charles or Carolus Rex, because even in love-letters full of exclamation points, he was still the king.)
Would that letter have the same magic if it had been sent via a Blackberry or cell phone, the emotions reduced to texting shorthand? OMG! How can an email ever convey the same fervor or passion as a handwritten letter? I suppose one can imagine the distant Beloved’s fingers tapping away on the keypad, but somehow it isn’t the same. And how do you save a text message under your pillow?
Personally I find computerized correspondence woefully lacking. Yes, it’s a lot easier to read than my handwriting, but my handwritten notes are full of little cartoons and drawings, ups and downs and swashing underlines, flying hearts and lightning bolts and laughing bears. Emoticons just don’t cut it.
I know this is dinosaur-thinking. We have passwords and numbers to identify us now, not signatures. Though my children can still be beaten into producing thank-you notes for their grandparents, they don’t write much of anything by hand. College mailboxes are so neglected nowadays that when a package arrives, the mailroom has to send a text message to the student to make sure they pick it up. Penmanship has been dropped from school curricula, to be replaced by the far more useful keyboarding. Even bill-paying is done on-line, and checkbooks are the payment of last resort. There’s
such a decline in written correspondence that the Post Office is considering cutting back delivery days.
Sign your name, make your mark. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the keyboard trumps them both. And maybe, for the sake of romance, individualism, and old-fashioned self-expression, that’s not such a good thing.
What about you? Do you still write the occasional letter by hand, or keep a handwritten journal or diary? (Heck, do you still even write a grocery list by hand?) Do you miss the hand-written word, or do you find the trade of clarity for expression a fair one? Do you have a secret stash of letters sentimentally tucked away somewhere, or is an "Incoming Mail" folder just fine with you? I'll give away one of my books (your choice from any on my website) to a name drawn from those who post a comment between now and Tuesday night.