If you go online and type into the search box “Pelikan fountain pen 1950s,” dozens of images pop up displaying vintage items for sale. They range in value, some as low as fifty dollars, gold nib and all. “Go out and buy one,” I encourage the students in my classes and the teens and twenty-somethings in the audience when I give a lecture. “Tell your parents that you want an old fountain pen for Christmas or graduation.”
I hold up a pen of my own and they gaze at it with some curiosity and amusement. When I exhort them to get one for themselves, they look quizzical at first, and then interested. Nobody had ever suggested this to them before, and it makes them reflect. It’s as if a new character trait springs upon them and makes them ponder themselves in a new, more expansive way. A fancy pen of my own…
American youths are so enveloped in digital novelties that an old-fashioned implement wholly foreign to peer pressure and youth culture strikes them as a puzzle – but a compelling one. They do like the idea of a personal writing tool, though it never occurred to them before. A vintage pen signifies much more than just another tool, even to the tuned-in and logged-on Millennial.
The strangeness of handwriting is part of its advantage.
The reason is simple. Consider one of the things you do with that pen: sign your name. A signature is a special action. It identifies a human being; more than that, it uniquely stands for him. It is individual. When you sign your name, you inscribe yourself. Nobody else can do it – only you. In fact, your signature has legal and binding status.
There we have the great distinction between the pen and the keyboard. When ten people type a sentence onto the screen, they all create the exact same thing. When they write identical words by hand, the material product varies with every writer. Every hand is singular, and so is each person’s handwriting. When a twenty-year-old drops the keyboard and takes up the fountain pen, a wondrous individualization transpires. The keyboard “technologizes” them into users. There, they produce the same fonts. The pen characterizes them as distinct. They produce unique scripts.
And let’s not reduce the value of handwriting to a decorative feature. Close the laptop and hand a Millennial a Mont Blanc or Parker or Visconti, and he will value more highly the art of writing. He will take his words more seriously. They will appear as his creation. He made those words, not a computer. The pen, thereby, becomes an extension of his sensibility. When he has a pen in his hand – especially a pen that was not mass-produced – he feels a heavier burden of self-expression. The individuality of his handwriting promotes the individuality of his writing. To compose a cliché with a Pelikan in hand is harder than to compose one on a Mac.
Of course, 21st-century youths look at handwriting as a clunky process, and the schools support them. Instruction in cursive writing has steadily disappeared from the elementary school curriculum. Now, when college students hand in their tests, teachers struggle to decipher the scratchings they submit.
But the strangeness of handwriting is part of its advantage. Its inefficiency affects students in just the way English teachers want. Young people do everything else with the keyboard, and when they write a paper on it the act blends with all the other messages they send in the day’s communications. Writing by hand forces them into a plodding endeavor that won’t yield to interruptions or accustomed habits of expression. When they compose on a computer, students are constantly deflected by emails or the ding of new text messages, and these diversions break the verbal flow. Nothing like that can happen with only a page in front of them. What the students take as an impoverishment is, in fact, an improvement.
And so I press them to acquire a pen, an old one that isn’t like anybody else’s. Most students come to college with little confidence in their writing abilities,1 and freshman composition may be the most dreaded and disliked course in college. Students want to move on to business and pre-med and psychology, not prolong the drudgery of exposition. They know they aren’t good at it, too (only 61 percent of entering students are even “college ready” for freshman English, according to ACT).2 Every paper assignment makes them anxious, and they employ the customary tactics of coping. They consult websites for ideas, for instance, a web page that hands them an interpretation of an Emily Dickinson poem, and delay the work until the night before the paper is due. Then they open the laptop and pound out the sentences as fast as they can. Anything to avoid making the writing process a careful, deliberate, and expressive activity. It’s too unpleasant.
But handwriting nudges them in another direction. It asks students to approach their writing not so much as a mechanical procedure but as a creative one, or at least an individual one. They will work harder to make their prose live up to the pen in their hand. All of them want the latest iPhone. The colleges they attend boast of cutting-edge technology. But all those tools are mass-produced. Kids who get an iPhone or tablet immediately set about customizing them. At the mall they browse the kiosks that display rows of cell phone cases in wild colors. They want to tailor their gear to their personality. The Digital Age promises to amplify their being – YouTube’s original motto was “Broadcast Yourself” – but, in truth, it only delivers a horde of users with identical devices echoing one another in cyberspace.
Instead of joining the digital race, a youth with a sixty-year-old Parker Duofold simply draws it out of his pocket, unscrews the cap, opens the notebook, and begins scribbling. It’s distinguished and it’s fun. Most of all, for those of us who teach writing, not to mention the employers who complain about bad prose in the workplace, it leads the youths we want to improve to do just that, to write better sentences and paragraphs.
Photograph by Gajus/iStock, Signatures: image detail from Skye Gould in “The 17 Coolest Signatures of Famous People Through History” / Business Insider
- ACT, “The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2017,” September 7, 2017. act.org