One of the great pleasures of writing in longhand is the sense of self it gives the writer, of authenticity. The words you write down in longhand look like no one else’s. They are as singular as a snowflake. This can be very encouraging for writers who don’t feel they have an authentic voice, a style all their own. You look at the page and you see—uniqueness. The letters and words could only have come from your hand. The dips, curves, swoops and connections are a portrait of the person writing them. When you are lucky enough to receive a handwritten letter from someone, you feel that you’re getting a bit of the soul of the person on the page. A handwritten letter is more than simple words. It’s a living proxy statement.
If a writer sees that there is something unique coming from his or her hand, how far is the leap to thinking something unique can come from his or her brain, and heart?
There is also a sense of building, of crafting, that comes from writing in longhand. When you look back at a page you’ve written, you’re looking at something you’ve built. There it is: a page of words and sentences you have made with your own hand. When you look at a page filled with your own handwriting, you can say, “I make words. I build paragraphs. I construct stories—by hand. My stories and essays are handmade.”
Practically speaking, writing with a pen or pencil is still the most versatile and portable form of composition. All you need is pen and paper. There are laptops, of course, but outlets aren’t always available, and a battery’s power is finite. Drop me into the forest with a pen and a small notepad, and I can write away. All Abraham Lincoln needed was the back of an envelope to compose one of the most famous speeches in history. The most extreme example of this on-the-spot ingenuity I can think of is the case of Jean Genet. Denied writing paper while he was in jail, he wrote an entire novel on toilet paper. Something to remember if you’re ever sent up the river. Writers have employed a carnival-like array of surfaces when the need calls—the inside of matchbooks, bookmarks, calling cards, drink coasters (remember where writers congregate), the ever-handy paper napkin, even the palms of their hands. That would make an interesting museum exhibit, minus the hands.
I think, too, that if you’re susceptible to the influence of tradition—and I am—writing in longhand can link you to writers of the past as computers never can. You know that Herman Melville sat with a pen in hand—probably not the same make as yours—just like you, and he wrote words on a page. Melville did not use a computer. Neither did Shakespeare, now that we’re naming names. Before the invention of the typewriter, all writers wrote with a pen or pencil. So, pick your hero. You’re sitting there with your pen poised—like Proust in his cork-lined room; like Edith Wharton sitting in her bed at The Mount; like Pablo Neruda looking at the ocean from his study on Isla Negra.
Children still learn to write letter by letter with their pens or pencils. (At least I think they do.) I hope they always will. One of the great prideful moments a child has is cracking the code of script, making the leap between printing and cursive writing. It’s one of the first great leaps of independence for them and one of the first times they can have something that is uniquely theirs. The feeling of power and accomplishment of this leap I think remains deep within all of us. The faintest doses of this pride are released when we write by hand, even when we are fully grown. Somewhere, we think, “Look: I did this, and nobody else could.”