Learning to Write by Hand
January 31, 2018

“The hand is the tool of tools.”

This post is different. Last autumn I decided I want to retrain my hand. To write.

I had three reasons. First, my wife has always had beautiful handwriting, and it is simply so aesthetically pleasing. Second, I have read that ‘they’ are not teaching children cursive anymore. Somehow, I have to admit, it seemed that this is probably another one of those cases where the old-timers knew what they were doing, and now ‘they’ are going to lose it. So I’m being something of a contrarian.

Finally, years ago my wife spent some time in Japan, and she has told me a little about their traditional arts. For the Japanese, to form the habit of careful, ordered motions is a way of training the soul. Indeed, they say that you practice these arts–and one of them is calligraphy–not so much to perfect them, but rather because they perfect you. Such a practice also has roots in the West, even if these roots have been largely lost to sight.

So my wife got me a block of lined paper and some good pens for Christmas. I have been trying to spend ten minutes a day practicing, beginning with very simple hooks and other shapes, working up to letters. Now one month later I am already finding a certain peace and pleasure writing a few words in cursive, taking the time to form each letter in flowing, even while very imperfect strokes.

Just what this does for me, I cannot adequately articulate. I do know that the power of reason, like the hand, must learn to use tools, and to use them well for good ends, through much care and practice.

I am actually ‘writing’ this post–indeed my first ever–completely by hand in cursive. It certainly has taken longer than typing. And I must still type it. But right now I am very grateful to have a hand, and to be able actually to write out the thoughts in my mind.

Post-scipt: I have to admit that in typing this I revised the wording of a good number of the sentences I had penned. I wonder what it would take to re-establish the habit of composing by hand with some confidence and precision, without often going back, deleting and re-doing.

Image: the art of Japanese calligraphy is called shodo.

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  1. A few thoughts, if I may. First, please scan the “real” post and attach it to this digital post for us to see! Don’t be shy!

    Handwriting is such a human art, no? It’s no wonder that it was an essential component of the Integrated Humanities Program at Kansas. (https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/column/let-them-be-born-in-wonder-2653)

    “… you practice these arts.. not so much to perfect them, but rather because they perfect you.”

    This is the very essence of ritual, no? And with no intention of being polemical, the immense, sublime beauty of the traditional rite of the Roman Mass flows from this sense of ritual. Everyone acts as if this really is the opus Dei, the most important work possible on earth. We more readily enter into and are subsumed by the ritual of the Sacrifice.

    Another such Japanese ritual is the tea ceremony, which very much prepared the hearts of the Japanese people to receive the Faith from the the great St. Francis Xavier and the other Jesuit missionaries. I once read a fascinating article about just that topic.


    1. Joshua, Thank you for the reminder about the Integrated Humanities Program. I was just ruminating about this very thing before the tasks of the day pushed me out of my musings and forced me into the reality of the day. .

      As a teacher this discussion comes up frequently regarding teaching cursive. When it is taught it is utilitarian and pragmatic . . . so that you can take notes more quickly. It is one more tool but it is not taught as a art. To teach handwriting as an art would require more time, greater focus and attention, and it would have to be taught in upper grades with an eye toward mastery. This is the bane of modern education in that we cannot seem to slow down enough to master something, but only to cover a prescribed curriculum.

      Within the last year I was hired as organist and choir director for our local Latin Mass community after 50+ years of Novus Ordo. I had longed for the peace and the structure of the Latin Mass but it was not available to me until now. I would concur that the structure, the rhythm and pace of the traditional rite slows us down to a pace where we can, at least momentarily, slow down enough to touch eternity in preparation for the Eternal that awaits us. It, too, is an art to “be still and know that I am God.” And, in that we take this as the most important work, the worthy worship of God, we find that we offer a worthy sacrifice but also enjoy a foretaste of the Eternal Perfection.

      Blessings! .

  2. Thank you Joshua and Christine. I did not know that handwriting was an essential component of the Integrated Humanities Program–though I am not surprised. It is interesting, Joshua, that you mention the tea ritual. My wife has spoken of how she loved participating in it in Japan. I love the idea of there being an art of tea time.
    Christine, you make a great point about education and the importance of our taking the time to master something–especially an intrinsically rich art.
    And I also appreciate you both drawing attention to the deep connection between liturgy and beautiful arts–of all kinds!
    Joshua, I would happily humble myself and scan in the original if I had a scanner here at home where my original is, but I do not.
    Imagine in your head: sentences in a rather wavy cursive, reasonably readable, but not very aesthetically pleasing. 🙂

    1. Cursive is our staple in Montessori education’s first six years, which time should also include some calligraphy.
      Here’s a sample of cursive by a newcomer 4 months after his first tears amid voluntary work. He is in first grade:

      I’m glad for your point about beautiful writing forming us. That’s it! We have many reasons to offer parents, but that is truly #1.


      1. Michael, That sample is simply beautiful. You are offering something of great worth. It gladdens my heart. With all best wishes…