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Literary Arts

The return of handwriting

Clara Chow on its unique role in art-making, and recent odd renaissance


Published: 21 Jan 2021

Time taken : >15mins


On a tour of University of Iowa’s main library in 2019, we were taken to a room with treasures from its special collection. There was a 4,500-year-old Sumerian clay tablet, no bigger than my fist, on which cuneiform carved by scribes recorded a receipt for goats. A first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. And even a lock of Keats’ hair.

But what made me pause the longest, as we circulated slowly around a long table on which the objects were displayed, was a nondescript ruled notebook with a red cover, slightly ragged and yellow with age. The label read:

Iris Murdoch, manuscript of A Severed Head, 1961

There was something incredibly moving about seeing in person the late British-Irish novelist’s handwriting in blue-black ink. She had numbered the first page “one” near the top right corner, underscoring the three lower-case letters. At the bottom right was written:

Iris Murdoch.
Steeple Aston.
Jan. 8. 1960.

I stared at her non-cursive hand—the way her ‘r’ was open so that it resembled ‘v’; her ‘n’ that could have been mistaken for a ‘u’. The handwriting struck me as firm and decisive; the periods after each line and in the date like tiny nods of determination.

In contrast, centred on the page, the title offers a tantalising glimpse of vacillation: The Golden Head is hastily scribbled over by a long wave with rounded peaks and troughs, replaced by A Severed Head beneath. Something a couple lines down, to the right of that, is similarly cancelled out, but I could not decipher it. Which of these came first? It’s impossible to tell. But they offer alternate lives for a book before it is born.

“You can touch it,” said the librarian, noticing how I was poring over and photographing the first page. Gingerly, I turned the pages, taking in the single-spaced manuscript.

The closest one can come to an author—even closer than at a brief writers’ festival appearance or book signing, I think—is to spend time with their handwritten drafts and research notes, the physical imprint of their act of creation. Here in raw, unedited form are quicksilver thoughts that flashed through their brains; tell-tale quirks and changes of minds. Computer edits, these days, are all but invisible unless you have access to a ‘track-changes’ copy of a manuscript. Nor is it as fascinating to examine a Microsoft Word document formatted in generic font.

Back home, I browse the online digital collection of literary manuscripts at Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. The papers of David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in 2008, have attracted numerous fans to the collection in recent years. I bring up pages 122 and 123 of his workbook for his unfinished novel The Pale King to full-screen mode. The careful consistent writing with a pronounced right slant; the additions in the margins and in valleys and bubbles carved out by sweeping lines; the smiley-face stickers pasted next to sections he must have been satisfied with – they all give the impression of meticulous research, gelling with the American author’s reputation for rigorous editing. Handwriting as conscientious work ethic.

I read with a magnifying glass a physical copy of The Art of Neil Gaiman (Harper Design, 2014), containing the English author’s notes and drawings, scrawled on everything from napkins to hotel stationery. The Sandman writer’s DIY punk aesthetic is inspiring, and it is instructive to read his early work, ephemera and scripts for graphic novels. In a 2019 interview with Tim Ferriss, he talks about writing first drafts with a fountain pen.

His words tend to devolve into squiggles at their ends. I read aloud dreams he scribbled upon waking in his journal: “…I’m at a school which is a comic convention and I am putting together a curriculum on fear. It becomes an [two illegible words], from which I duck out to listen to a writer explain the encyclopedia she’s working on… She’s prejudiced against…”

I squint very hard at the last word on the page. She’s prejudiced against… colours? Character? It takes me a while to make it out.

“Clowns! She’s prejudiced against clowns!” I yell triumphantly. I laugh at the ridiculous phrase. A penmanship mystery solved. Interactive non-fiction.

two: artist's hands and playwright's script

The role of handwriting is most obvious in literature. But it plays a part in visual, musical, dance and theatrical arts, too.

Artists such as Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat explored writing as both signifier and aesthetic vocabulary. Basquiat married text and image in his graffiti and paintings, appropriating poetry, political slogans and historical information in his art. American artist Twombly, on the other hand, made his own handwriting an integral part of his paintings—sometimes the only element—such as Untitled (New York City) (1968), which looks like a blackboard covered in scribbles and sold for US$70.5 million in 2015. Illegibility takes on enigmatic meaning. As Roland Barthes put it, in a 1979 article, Twombly “refers to writing (as he also often refers to culture, through words), and then he goes off somewhere else”.

So fascinating is the link between artists’ handwriting and their work that in 2013, the Smithsonian Institution’s Archive of American Art mounted an exhibition, The Art of Handwriting. On display were the handwritten letters and notes of more than 40 prominent artists, accompanied by scholars’ analysis on how the formal qualities of these artists’ handwriting shed light on their visual style and personality. Pen to Paper, a book edited by the archives’ manuscripts curator Mary Savig, followed in 2016, collecting the letters of the likes of Jackson Pollock and Claes Oldenburg. 

Image scan of a handwritten letter by Georgia O'Keefe
Image scan of a handwritten letter by Georgia O'Keefe

First two pages of Georgia O'Keeffe's letter to Cady Wells, 1939. Cady Wells papers, 1913-1968. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Arguably the most fascinating handwriting of the lot was that of Georgia O’Keefe, whose letter to her friend Cady Wells was written with a broad nib, the writing embellished with curlicues and flourishes, eschewing proper punctuation for squiggly lines. The mark of an iconoclast, according to the accompanying essay; a woman who cared little for convention.

More recently, at the National Gallery of Singapore, among the items on display in the exhibition Georgette Chen: At Home in the World, on until 26 Sep 2021, is the pioneering Singapore artist’s diary from 1935. The tiny date book is covered in China-born, Paris-educated Chen’s neat cursive English writing in sepia-toned ink – a glimpse of her meticulousness and cosmopolitan flair. Chen’s signature on her paintings, four English letters arranged vertically to resemble a Chinese inscription or the blockishness of carved seals, is itself a handwritten articulation of her marrying of eastern and western sensibilities.

My love for fountain pens has led to an obsession with the thick, broad lines created by music nibs—with special tines meant for making both the big heads and thin tails of tadpole-shaped Western musical notationand original music scores in composers’ own handwriting strike me as containing a wealth of information. The Library of Congress has digitised original music manuscripts, including Robert Schumann’s complete score of Symphonies no. 1, op. 38, B-flat major (1841), with ink and pencil sketches, a dedication from his wife Clara to conductor Hermann Levi, and pasted corrections. 

Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who died in 2020, famously hand-wrote all his award-winning Hollywood film scores by hand, in blue, red and black inkin an age full of software that can do the job quicker.

Among the treasures held in the National Library’s Reference Closed Collection (available for on-site consultation by request/appointment), are handwritten scores and manuscript books by Dick Lee and Iskandar Ismail. Among the more interesting finds is a handwritten score by Alex Abisheganaden of Jay Chou’s Shan Hu Hai (Coral Sea), arranged by the Cultural Medallion recipient for the guitar.

Poking around the National Library Board’s online repository of the arts (NORA), I stumble upon a song titled Abhogi Rupakam, by the Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society, where the Indian classical music notation are written phonetically on a piece of ruled paper with the words “Jardin de Fleurs” printed at the top. Staring at the handwriting in red marker, spelling out “Sa// sa da ma da ma ga ri sa da sa//” in the first line, I immediately begin to feel the beat of the music; its sound and possibilities, and its timeless simplicity.

Meanwhile, playwrights, whose artform has a direct connection with words, have had their handwriting scrutinised to determine what their personalities are like. In 2016, The New York Times asked certified graphologist and forensic document examiner Ruth Brayer to analyse the handwriting of five playwrights, including Kirsten Childs. In response, Childs said “doggone if it wasn’t a highly perceptive analysis: I’ve got confidence AND I dot my I’s like Baryshnikov does — you hear that, people? Baryshnikov and I have stuff in common!”.

I have a major geek moment when I discover the collection of Kuo Pao Kun’s handwritten manuscripts and annotated typescripts at the Central Library’s Reference Closed Collection. Present and future scholars of Singapore theatre might have a field day studying the handwritten amendments on the Lao Jiu typescript.

Yet, sometimes, in looking at a manuscript, what is missing is more illuminating. In the typescript of The Glass Menagerie, the last line is “Blow out your candles, Laura”, spoken by the narrator Tom to his sister. Those, however, are not the last words of Tennessee Williams’ play. Instead, they were “And so, goodbye”, pencilled in by the producer of the original production, Margo Jones, adding a higher degree of closure, not in the original. Sometimes, in the collaborative process of theatre-making, not all the creditor the blamegoes to the playwright.

Perhaps, the most elusive of handwriting examples in the creative arts is in the field of dance. After all, movement itself is writ large onstage by the entire body, not merely confined to the wrist. Cases in point: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s Cursive and its sequel Cursive II, inspired by Chinese calligraphy. To compound the problem, dance notationvarious systems in which movement are transcribed on paper in symbols and drawingsonly capture a fraction of the complexity of a performance, documenting broad steps but not the minutiae. These days, video has helped to preserve choreography for posterity. Still, some people have relied on handwritten notes by Pina Bausch to recreate her seminal pieces.

Most intriguing of all might be the Air Mail Dances by American artist-writer-dancer Remy Charlip. A founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Charlip began drawing dance steps on postcards in 1971, creating his own brand of dance notation. He even conceived of these dance postcards as books, titled Dances Any Body Can Do, Advanced Dances and More Advanced Dances.

In the end, perhaps, Charlip’s dances transcend even writing and space itself. Imaginary Dances, a series performed at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, recounts The New Yorker magazine, consist of only choreographic instructions read aloud. 

three: status, science, survival

Ancient Egyptian scribes were so revered that princes and high officials commissioned statues of scribes with their writing boards and palettes, just to elevate their own importance by association. The Egyptian word for writing means “words of the gods”. Penmanship masters in 19th- and early-20th-century America got rich on teaching people how to sit properly at their desks and write ornate script, selling the activity as imparting good breeding and Christian values.

It’s a far cry from today’s touchscreen and keyboard reliance, where adults can go for six months without lifting a pen (according to this 2014 UK survey). Bad handwriting no longer carries the stigma it used to in schools, although it continues to be the bane of teachers’ and exam-markers’ lives.

“Since handwriting is bound up with connotations that propel it beyond being simply a fine motor skill, the prospect of its disappearance is threatening and anxiety producing,” wrote Anne Trubek in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting (Bloomsbury), published back in 2016. 

“The current shift from one writing technology to another,” she added, “is as jarring and culturally significant as when the printing press was invented.”

The concept of handwriting as technology—if you think about it as an ‘upgrade’ from the oral literary tradition of the ancient Greeks—is taken to its new logical conclusions by sci-fi writer Ted Chiang in The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling. The story switches between the viewpoint of a father testing out technology that would visually record everything that happens in a person’s life and retrieve these records instantaneously, so that nothing is ever forgotten; and that of a boy from a tribal culture where nothing is ever recorded in print, who learns writing from a foreign missionary. How we remember changes what we remember, and consequently who we are as individuals and societies. Who’s to say any one way is progress or better? 

Chiang’s story might very well provide a balanced, nuanced and comforting answer to the anxious handwriting stalwarts Trubek mentions. 

Still, the benefits of writing by hand continue to be researched. A Norwegian University of Science and Technology study in 2019 found that writing and drawing by hand, as opposed to typing, activated parts of the brain into patterns receptive of new information. Forming letters with a pencil or pen resulted in more sensory input, and therefore more “hooks” for the brain to hang memories on. The recommendation? To continue teaching handwriting, as well as typing skills, to school kids. 

Nice handwriting thus inhabits an odd, liminal position at this point in time. It is, on the one hand being dismissed as irrelevant by some, defended by others, and elevated—because of its increasing rarity—to an art by yet others. 

four: renaissance

In recent years, handwriting has been experiencing a revival. Fountain pen and ink sales are up. Ink-lettering and journaling enthusiasts are a growing group. On Reddit, the r/handwriting discussion thread has more than 273,000 members, posting samples of their cursive writing and crowd-sourcing for tips to improve their penmanship. 

Browse Etsy or other online vintage marketplaces, and you will find a secondary market for the old letters, diaries and notebooks of anonymous and ordinary folk—pointing at a nostalgic voyeurism among buyers, or an explosion of acquisition by young scrap-bookers who can’t write old-fashioned cursive themselves. Instagram is awash with how-to videos by celebrity calligraphers. 

As one of them, Seb Lester—a former digital type designer, who now collaborates with the likes of Montblanc on handwritten scripts—puts it on his website: “There are some things computers do better than traditional tools and vice versa. I feel working with both traditional and digital tools has made me a much better and more versatile artist and designer. I have a broader range of tools and techniques to choose from. Calligraphy can be very beautiful and I don't see beauty becoming irrelevant anytime soon.”

And, given the pandemic and the need for social-distancing and isolation, those in the arts are once more turning to tried-and-tested handwriting to give a personal touch to their creations. 

The Pandemic Public Library offers free one-sheet artist books and pamphlets that users can download and print out on their own. Hand-drawn and hand-lettered offerings include Philadelphia-based illustrator and printmaker Kees Holterman’s In Out, which explores and reflects on life in and outside the home; Southampton, UK artist Liberty Ewan’s A Little Book of Kindness, featuring smiley faces and compliments; and New York artist Daniel Fishel’s self-explanatory Random Things I See on the Streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn That Kinda Make Sense?. Donations from those who download all the works in the library will go towards providing computer access to those in need.

Postal theatre has also flourished of late. Nottingham-based theatre company New Perspectives ‘staged’ Love from Cleethorpes, a six-part postcard drama delivered to audiences’ homes in 2020. 

Snail mail exchanges was also the form of Artistic Stamp, an immersive experience by director West Hyler and his wife Shelley Butler in which playwrights wrote choose-your-own-adventure plays penned by actors who auditioned with writing samples. Six mail plays then unfolded via postcards from characters sent to audience members who signed up (US$100 for 7 postcards) – how things panned out for each ‘viewer’ depended on the replies they sent on pre-stamped postcards provided to them. Each show was capped at 60 tickets.

Other unfolding post theatre pieces in the 2021 season include EgoPo Classic Theatre of Philadelphia’s Emily, which explores the life of famously reclusive poet Emily Dickinson. For the project, 200 households signed on to receive five weeks of planned letters.

Illustration of a software that decodes handwriting.

An illustration of handwriting recognition software that is used to decipher old script.


Handwriting, in a digital age, represents an opportunity to write across time. One would hardly be able to reply to an e-mail from a dead writer. But it is possible to pen a dialogue, in a fashion, in the margins of a book. It happens all the time: found marginalia in second-hand books have led many imaginative readers down rabbit paths of discovery. But few so spectacularly as in 2019, when a lecturer at Cambridge University, Dr Jason Scott-Warren, recognised the handwriting in the margins of a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio as that of John Milton. 

As handwriting transcription projects—involving volunteers who can decipher Gothic script, secretary hand, Spencerian script or the cursive of Palmer’s Method—proliferate on the internet, more of these aha! moments will happen. And with digital storage becoming cheaper, faster and more capacious, I look forward to the day when even a beautifully-written shopping list can be preserved for all to admire for years to come.

Contributed by:

Clara Chow

Clara Chow wrote her last two books—New Orleans and Caves (Hermit Press, 2020)—with a TWSBI fountain pen, using Monteverde Raven Noir ink. She won first prize in an intra-school penmanship contest in Primary 5.

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