If not legibly, then with character

Observing a highly respected teacher learning to write all over again ... was an immensely persuasive example.

I'm not entirely sure when Charles Dodgson wrote his "Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing" but I'm sure he wrote it in a very clear hand. After all, he was a mathematician, so presumably he had the same respect for readable letters that he had for unmistakable numbers. His Golden Rule for letter writers was "Write legibly."

Dodgson (better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll) went on a bit about this rule. "The average temper of the human race," he suggested, "would be perceptibly sweetened, if everybody obeyed this Rule!... Years ago, I used to receive letters from a friend – and very interesting letters too – written in one of the most atrocious hands ever invented. It generally took me about a week to read one of his letters. I used to carry it about in my pocket, and take it out at leisure times, to puzzle over the riddles which composed it – holding it in different positions, and at different distances, till at last the meaning of some hopeless scrawl would flash upon me, when I at once wrote down the English under it; and, when several had been thus guessed, the context would help with the others, till at last the whole series of hieroglyphics was deciphered."

I don't believe my dad ever read this advice. But he was at least aware that his handwriting presented a degree of puzzlement to others.

When I was away at boarding school, he and my mother wrote to me with devoted regularity once a week. She wrote her letters in a unique cursive, curly style all her own. Her words were permed. I could read her letters easily, but I'd been born to it.

My dad didn't write his letters. He typed them. He did so not out of formality or because he wanted to instill in his hopelessly unbusinesslike son a sense of the significance of The Business Letter, but because he was perfectly sure I would be unable to interpret a single word otherwise.

I did occasionally catch a glimpse of his handwriting, and it seemed to consist mostly of horizontal lines that trembled and twitched now and then as if recording some very minor seismic disturbance. In the main it just streaked along the paper from left to right (presumably) like a spider at dawn leaving a trail in dew. There were little jumps above the line, and occasional tails dangling below the line, but any other indication of actual words was not easy to determine.

The first headmaster I encountered was a remarkable, fine, intellectual man, and he similarly had an appallingly obscure way with pen and ink. But instead of resorting to an Olivetti, he – as if he were taking a solemn vow – suddenly resolved to reform his handwriting completely.

I remember this turn of events with the same childish amazement and admiration I felt at the time. He had, like all adults, always struck me as someone who knew everything and did all things superlatively. It simply hadn't entered my thought that he, too, might feel he had something to learn. We were pupils. He was teacher. He was the instiller, we the instilled.

He taught himself italic script. He invested in a special pen, with a special nib. He practiced, with all due thickness and thinness, with all due forward lean, with all due regard for upward strokes and downward ones, the formation and finesse of individual letters. Then he turned to the question of how to make these newly acquired characters touch fingers and walk together across the paper in a natural flow but without loss of clarity.

I was at an age when each week saw a new experiment with my own handwriting. I think I was trying hard to make it all into a kind of endless signature, different from everyone else's. I had the idea that this would make it very grown-up. After all, it hadn't been many years since I'd started to form letters of any sort. I was still a beginner.

But observing a highly respected teacher of incalculable age and achievements learning to write all over again as if he were a 5-year-old, presented me with a paradox. It was an immensely persuasive example. Naturally, I started to imitate.

The headmaster's new italics became the basis of my own hand. A teacher much later in my schooldays even saw fit to give me a writing prize. This took me by utter surprise and was greeted with a mix of incredulity and laughter by classmates. Even the teacher felt his decision needed explanation. He said my writing "had character." He never mentioned legibility. I suspect, in fact, he meant me to be a kind of grenade thrown into the path of those boys who wrote with painstaking neatness. By then my writing had become impassioned, hasty, wild – even, one might say, driven. At least it wasn't boring.

What has happened to it since is probably best described as calligraphic erosion. Edges are softened. Sharps have become flats. Some words have gone floppy in the middle. Ends trail. Am I becoming the son of my father? I have developed loose habits with words ending in "-ing." My lowercase V's, R's, and S's are often indistinguishable except by context. My N's and U's are clones of each other.

Yet underneath it all still lies a headmaster and his marvelous resolution. The memory, in fact, brings me up short quite often, and I severely tell myself to write legibly. As if I were writing to Mr. Dodgson. (Though perhaps it'd be safer to e-mail him.)

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