When I was taking French classes a few months ago, we were each asked to write a composition in French and pass it to another classmate to read. It struck me then that I very seldom write more than a Post-It note’s worth these days. By the end of a paragraph, my hand is cramped and sore.
And what an ugly paragraph I created. My letters were inconsistent and strangled. To this day, after nearly twenty-five years of handwriting experience, I suck. With considerable shame, I passed my composition, which demonstrated both the penmanship and language skills of a six-year-old French boy, to another classmate.
As if to redeem me, I received an even uglier paragraph from the student to my left.
My generation is lost for handwriting. I’m a computer person. I write thousands of words a week, almost entirely by pushing buttons. My penmanship skills are rarely called upon, and I know I’m not the only one.
After a few weeks of class, I had a chance to see everyone’s penmanship at least once. It ranged from virtually indecipherable to pretty good, but none approached the elegant cursive one might see in a Christmas card from an aunt born before the war.
There is one definite pattern that I’ve noticed, not just in my French lessons, but all throughout grade school: girls are better than boys.
When I switched papers with a female student who had good handwriting, I asked if she knew why women almost always have superior handwriting to men.
She said yes, and that she noticed that guys seem to be trying to get the information down as fast as possible, and women take their time. She’s right, though I hadn’t really thought of it like that before.
I suppose there is a general male preference for function over form. A gross generalization: Guys like machines and systems. Girls like art and beauty. Women tend to be tidier, in both their personal quarters and their appearance. Handwriting seems to be a natural extension of that.
Psychologists say girls have better handwriting than boys simply because they just tend to be more calm and patient than boys the same age. This is a general tendency, but it is quite obvious. Exactly why isn’t so clear. Interestingly, it has been noted that gay boys have better handwriting than straight ones, and tomboys tend to have worse handwriting than most girls.
My fellow French student’s statement stuck with me for the rest of the class. As I wrote, I slowed down, instead of “trying to get the information down as fast as possible.” Abruptly, my writing became several grades neater.
I can type about as fast as I can articulate thoughts, but I sure can’t handwrite that fast. So I figure my hand, if unchecked, will attempt to approach the speed at which I think, making for some awful handwriting. With my hand, I can’t fulfill the keyboard’s high level of “function”, so the “form” part falls off the map as I try to keep the same pace.
When I slow down and take pride in the form side of the equation, I notice I feel better. The feeling of rushing disappears, I just watch my hand make the strokes and usually the result is not bad at all. Far from elegant, but not chicken-scratch either.
Trying to get the information down as fast as possible is an example of a bigger, more dangerous habit. We all do it to some extent, though not necessarily with our handwriting. If you’ve ever lamented waiting in line for something, tried to kill time, or struggled to endure the workday, you’ve done it.
Often we treat the moment we’re in as solely a means to an end. We readily dismiss it as having no intrinsic value except that it can get us to a moment we really do want. The trouble is, most moments are not what we want. It is fairly normal to spend eight hours a day doing something we don’t particularly want to do, so that we can earn enough to get to moments we do want. Or would you do your job for free?
It is a minority of moments that contain the “good part,” and if we only value those moments, life can be bleak. One is always trying to be somewhere else, chasing certain occasional feelings of “arrival,” such as getting off work, finishing your errands, or starting into the entree once it’s served.
It is possible though, to embrace the means, even while you prefer the end. I guess it’s called patience.
Not to confuse patience with waiting, which is simply the act of politely bearing the means while internally you yearn to get to the end. Real patience is diving into the in-between part, the work, with enthusiasm. The act of doing a good job is pleasant.
When I decided to focus on the act of forming the letters, rather than the result of having the notes recorded, the change was sudden and dramatic. I’m not in the habit of doing it all the time but apparently I can do it at will.
Aside from the improvement in the quality of my lettering, I also noticed that it became a more relaxing activity. When you’re leaning towards the end of the activity, you don’t want to be where you are, not quite anyway. There is tension in the body, and in the head, that insists on getting to a better moment. That’s when tasks become chores — when you can’t wait to be past it.
For something familiar, like printing or handwriting, producing better results really just amounts to making the decision to genuinely embrace the means as you would the end.
Unless you’re already very tidy with your writing, give it a try. Cut the speed in half, and make a point of making letters consistently. Touch each letter to the thin blue line on the sheet. If you overshoot, correct it next time. No worries. Keep the intention for quality there. Like magic, the writing neatens up. It wasn’t really skill that was missing, and certainly wasn’t experience. It was just attention.
We all have many years of writing experience, but some are much more skilled than others. The old adage “Practice makes perfect” is incorrect. Whatever you’re practicing is what you get better at. You can practice all your life, and only get better at being mediocre, if those are the motions you’re going through again and again. So that’s why some of us, at age 29, still write no more legibly than a ten year old girl. Most of the time.
But it’s not writing itself in which we lack practice, it’s patience. And patience is applicable and valuable anywhere. For free. We know how to do it, we just have to commit.
Think of the areas in your life whose quality could be instantly improved with the intent to be patient. Job performance. Exercise. Housework. Conversations. Cooking. Driving. Errands. When you respect the in-between part as much as the results part, the results tend to become correspondingly more respectable.
As I said earlier, girls are generally better than boys in this area, so if you’re a dude, I hope you’re paying attention.
Photo by Kevinzim
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