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The long and the short of it, putting life into writing

Betty Firth
Posted 12/16/20

As long as I can remember, I have had a preference for longhand and a fascination with writing instruments: fountain pens, calligraphy pens, gel pens, feather quills, markers, crayons, chalk, …

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The long and the short of it, putting life into writing


As long as I can remember, I have had a preference for longhand and a fascination with writing instruments: fountain pens, calligraphy pens, gel pens, feather quills, markers, crayons, chalk, pencils, brush tip pens and brushes of all types, from 4” wide to liners, riggers, and daggers. The variety of possible marks to be made are beyond counting. Yet we voluntarily limit ourselves to stiff symbols on a screen or printed out to paper. With thousands of font choices, the world is dominated by Helvetica, Arial, Times, Courier, and others that look pretty much the same to the average onlooker.
Helvetica leads the pack for some bizarre reason as the most famous of all fonts. Look at it: It is without personality, no flourishes, no interesting descenders or ascenders, not even any serifs (those little projections finishing off a stroke). According to the font experts, its popularity is attributed to it being “modern, simple, and as versatile and trustworthy as it is Swiss, created by Max Miedinger in 1957.” I, however, think it’s just boring, and its sameness makes it difficult for the eye to read, without any serifs to bind the letters together and lead the eye to the next word. The homogeny bores our very eyeballs, which want to wander to something more entertaining. Born in the 50’s, like many products of bland design and questionable taste, it appears eager not to offend, remaining neutral like the Swiss. Why would you do that when you can dance with Broadway, garner attention with Impact, paint with Brush Script, make your point with Marker Felt or just have a good chuckle with Comic Sans?
I was appalled to learn a while back that cursive writing is barely taught in school these days, or not at all. How will these deprived children read the treasured love letters sent from grandpa to grandma? How can they appreciate John Hancock’s dramatic gesture on the Declaration of Independence, much less read that document in its beautiful, original script? Handwriting is not just a rusty, obsolete tool to be tossed away. It can flatter, caress, sing, or shout the words skittering or marching or creeping across the paper. It reveals so much about the writer that many companies have included handwriting analyses in their hiring procedures. I want to fill the gap, right the wrong, gather the cursive-less chicks under my wing and teach them, assuring them it’s not too late, they can still find their way to grace and gracefulness through the flowing of ink. In fourth grade, my classmates and I were required to write our essays with fountain pens, no undependable ballpoints allowed; hence, the seeds of my addiction.
Others I’ve met throughout my life love writing instruments as I do, delighting in sampling pens and collecting quaint bottles of multi-colored ink. I seek out office supply stores to see what treasures I can find. Those compatriots who also love pens (called penophiles, I have just learned) are not always writers, but they are almost always likeable. How about you? Do you know the brand of your favorite pen? Will you search for it for ten minutes rather than substitute another? You may just be a closet penophile. My current favorite is Tul from Office Depot.
Which brings me to the topic of abbreviations. I avoid them whenever possible. Yes, they save a few nanoseconds, but they are stingy; they suck the rhythm and beauty right out of words. January, February, November, and December flow like the river of time they represent, while Jan., Feb., Nov., and Dec. sound like quick punches in the boxing ring, and Sept. like a disease you might pick up in the hospital. And Xmas? Come on, now. The texting phenomenon has lured people into a jungle of abbreviations and quick responses, providing the opportunity to rapidly say absolutely nothing interesting, original, or substantial, IMHO.
Writing out your thoughts with a pen you love gives you more time to reflect on what you’re saying. There’s no delete button or easy way to erase, unless you write in pencil. You can cross out words, but they’re still there to remind you to take care with what you say and how you say it.
With speed being the goal and the prize in so many aspects of our culture, what are we losing? Our sitting President has made it abundantly clear that the ability to spill your thoughts instantly to the world is not necessarily a good thing. Slowing down the process might not help a hopeless case, but for many, it could provide a pause before spitting out regrettable words that pollute the environment with our frustration and really bad grammar. Google mail has a “Don’t send” recapture button for a very good reason, and I have mine set to the longest option of 30 seconds for retrieval. Again, a moment to reflect, consider, think “OMG, I really don’t want to say that!” and save a friendship or a job.
Letter writing helps you be more rational and even look wiser. By the time you finish the letter, look up the address, write it on the envelope, find a stamp and affix it, seal the envelope, and get it to the mailbox, you have had an ocean of time to reflect on what you have said and how you said it and to consider other options such as sitting on it for a few hours or weeks, to give the feelings time to simmer down and mature, like a good soup. What a gift it is to find a jewel of a handwritten missive tucked in the pile of advertisements and bills.
We need to be thinking in the long term these days with deep thoughts about our world: our water and air, our wild lands, our towns and cities, our climate, our food supply, the health of people all over the Earth, and our relationships with them. There are no quick, abbreviated, tweetable answers, but there is room for thoughtful consideration and thoughtful acts, no matter how small. It’s time to remember what we have in common and dwell on that. Perhaps it’s time to take out that ink pen and write some holiday cards to those we like and admire and maybe a few to those we’d like to like better. How about a lovely card to your elected officials, expressing your appreciation for their service as well as for improvements you’d like to see?
It’s Christmas, folks, and thanks to the pandemic, I know you’ve got the time. I do hope you have a lovely, warm, peaceful season of light.


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