The pleasure of writing by hand

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Last year, while walking the calm and comforting halls of Tumblr, the last bastion of reason on the internet, I came across an image of an unreleased poem hand-written by Marilyn Monroe. Upon his death, Monroe’s possessions were left to Lee Strasberg, his drama teacher, who then passed them on to his wife, Anna, who later discovered various writings, including the poem, which became a book titled Fragments: poems, intimate notes, letters. The poem begins with: “Only parts of us will never touch / will only touch parts of others.” Like the other tearful inhabitants of Tumblr, I was prepared to respond to the image with a slightly patronizing plot; but what struck me most was not just the content of Monroe’s poem, but the writing itself. Written on lined paper, in pencil, his script looked like the samples of proper cursive that I was forced to copy in Catholic school – uniform double Ls, big curly O’s. Other entries, such as a page from his journal from 1955-1956, show diametrically opposed characters, scribbled in chaotically. “I find sincerity and trying to be as straightforward or as straightforward as (possible) I like is often taken for sheer stupidity.”

In the New Yorker, Jenny Hendrix wrote about the collection, “One of the most remarkable things ‘Fragments’ does is give us Marilyn Monroe the way we always wanted: like someone, well, capable.” Owning a piece of someone through their words seems more possible when those words are meant for one person, whether in a journal or a letter. It’s not so much about having a person’s own, as it is about a private moment in time – the instant editorialization of their racing thoughts.

In high school and college, I had a very original and interesting habit of writing handwritten letters to friends; tons and tons, for whatever reason, just to then have something to look forward to in the mail. During my forties, drowned in screen time and desperate by the slightest reminder that I was in physical shape, I resumed writing by hand. This time it was less about keeping correspondence and more about finding reasons not to use my phone, where most of my thoughts and ideas will die.

The process of re-engaging in handwriting has been disorganized. I was never a disciplined notebook keeper, and until recently I wrote down my stray thoughts on Post-It notes and pieces of paper that would inevitably get lost or forgotten. I now have a small pocket dot grid notepad that is still sometimes ignored in favor of which is closest. Even when I write letters, I often do so on index cards rather than regular paper. I go back and forth between being valuable for this stuff and not caring about it at all – it’s the act of writing itself that gives me satisfaction.

On the one hand, your memory Is it that to get better, justification for each teacher. Writing forces you to slow down. It is impossible to do anything but focus on what you are writing at the moment, something that otherwise seems increasingly rare. Sometimes your fucking hand really hurts after a while and it’s good to have a physical reason to pause, take a step back, think about what you’re putting in place and make the heartbreaking decision to to start all over.

You also start to notice the small details – flourishes or misspellings or turns of phrase that you wouldn’t normally use in a text, parts of your own personality that might surprise you. This also applies to your calligraphy. I get even minimal insight into my past moods and emotional states when I look at old notes, letters or even scribbled book titles and wifi passwords. (Likewise, the mayflies of Monroe in Fragment show a frantic imagination at work, as well as an ebb and flow between trust and insecurity, certainty and doubt. )

If you are lucky, you may also witness transmitted traits. My handwriting is incredibly similar to my dad’s, preferring both of us to write in all caps with the same square tilt to the right that makes them look like unfolded paperclips. Browsing through old notebooks, preparing for youthful, unreadable calligraphy, I sometimes find a surprisingly stable and recognizable script instead. What I was trying to say then or why is often less certain; things that I wrote four or five years ago often look like artifacts written by someone else.

That’s part of the appeal though, why I kept making excuses for writing things down. Later on, it can sometimes be a puzzle to figure out what the meaning of a certain phrase, word, or date was to you, even if it was a week ago. It’s an uncertainty that seems strangely funny. “I wrote this for some reason, I wonder if I can remember what it was.” The pandemic has only made our lives more virtual, which makes some things easier to remember – the time stamps on photos and emails, the changes tracked in Google Docs, the metadata accompanying every match. It’s refreshing to interact with the writing that exists outside of these settings; scrutinize how it was written, on what type of paper or wandering surface, with what type of instrument and pressure, and when, and imperfectly fill in the blanks when it is not clear. It’s heartwarming to engage with pieces of my past that contain more than just information.

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.


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