Monday, November 26, 2012

Is The Pen/Brush Mightier Than The Keyboard?

Weekend Edition Sunday had an interview with author Philip Hensher and his love of the pen.  He wrote out his book, The Last Art of Handwriting, in longhand and talked about the intimacy people have with their writing instruments.

As I listened to the interview I was reminded of last week's lecture/class with Chinese calligraphist Harrison Xinshi Tu  at UAA presented by the Confucius Institute.     He too talked about the importance, in China, of four items:

the brush
the paper
the ink
the chop

You can see them all in the video below.  As he draws an artistic character and signs it and applies the chop. 

He pointed out they'd been used for 6000 years and still today calligraphy is done with the same materials as then. 

After going through the four elements needed, he then showed us the evolution of Chinese characters by drawing half a dozen or so and showing them changing over the years millennia.

The first three you should be able to figure out.  Basic parts of nature.  So is the fourth.  Stop and think about it a bit.  Actually, you shouldn't think, just relax and let it come to you.

OK, did you get the sun?  And if you didn't get the moon, it's probably hopeless.  Then mountains.  Then river.  Then man.  That's hard, but he's looking to the left with an arm hanging down  The last one is tree.  As Mr. Tu explained, the bottom half is the roots and the top half, the branches.  This row was what characters looked like 5,000-6,000 years ago.  About when the world started according to some of our science challenged fellow citizens.   Next is the chart after he completed it.  You can see how the characters got modified.  The second-to-the-last row are modern, simplified characters - the kind they use in China today.  Below that are the artistic versions of the characters. 

So going across, we have the sun, the moon, mountain, river (actually the modern character is the one for water), man, tree, sheep and fish.    On the far right top are two trees - a forest.  In the box on the right are two hands, which together mean friend.  the character in the lower right is 'you' (pronounced 'yo') or friend.

After he made the chart, he took it down and showed us how to make the six main strokes in Chinese characters.  Then we got a paper with the strokes and how to make them and some paper, a brush, and ink.

And then we made the basic strokes.

Here's one of my classmates from the Confucius Institute (at UAA) Chinese class, practicing the basic strokes.

So, between the two events - the NPR interview with Philip Hensher and the Calligraphy demonstration, I've been thinking about how the keyboard has taken me away from the pen.  There is something more satisfying about holding a pen and not just writing, but consciously creating the letters, beautifully, on the page.  The pen as an extension of my finger, flowing out words.  Words that spill my thoughts onto the paper.

But some of that happens at the keyboard, but my physical connection to the shape and size and heaviness or lightness of the line is gone.  The clues about who I am that Kensher says the handwriting leaves, that personal touch, is missing.  Every letter is so ruthlessly perfect.

Of course, like with most things, the answer, if there is an answer, is to find some balance, and nowadays, for many of us, we are far too heavily tilted to the keyboard.  Maybe I should hand write out some posts, take pictures, and post them.  But images are not readable online to those who can't see well and have to use software that converts the writing to voice. 

There's a part of me that never takes anything for granted.  Perhaps it's the legacy of my parents' world in Germany collapsing and having to flee to the US.  Everything but what  they were able to take with them was gone.  In any case, there's always this part of me that assumes all I have could disappear.  If a Sandy happened to me, it wouldn't be totally unexpected.  And so part of me has never totally trusted all the miracles of the electronic age.  When the electricity goes off, it's the tools of our ancestors that will get us through.  I have no confidence that my grandchildren will ever see this blog unless I make hard copies of it.  And then the video and links will be gone, but something will be left.

And there are others that are concerned about the lost skill of writing.  The SAT's have    added a handwritten essay.  From a 2005 Seattle Times article, 

An estimated 300,000 high-school students across the nation took the new SAT yesterday for the first time. The College Board revised the exam after being faced with the threat of major institutions dropping it as a requirement. The most sweeping change is a new writing section — 35 minutes of multiple-choice questions and the 25-minute essay.
The reverberations were felt yesterday on the third floor of the W Hotel in downtown Seattle, as well. More than 50 Puget Sound-area grade-school teachers were learning how to teach their students handwriting, a skill that some may have thought the computer keyboard rendered obsolete. Some elementary schools no longer teach cursive.
"They stopped training teachers how to teach handwriting in most colleges and universities about 25 years ago," said Jan Olsen, an occupational therapist who developed a handwriting curriculum a decade ago. "But instead of putting something reasonable in place, they just dropped it," she said.

A 2010 NY Times article says, though that only 15% of students choose the handwritten essay.  One professor is quoted:

Richard S. Christen, a professor of education at the University of Portland in Oregon, said, practically, cursive can easily be replaced with printed handwriting or word processing. But he worries that students will lose an artistic skill.

“These kids are losing time where they create beauty every day,” Professor Christen said. “But it’s hard for me to make a practical argument for it. I’m not one who’s mourning it because of that; I’m mourning the beauty, the aesthetics.”
 And when you look at the calligraphy video, you'll see Mr. Tu quickly drawing an artistic character.

 All the electronic devices are fine, IF we don't lose our connection to nature and the natural tools that humans have always used and the skills to use them.  Have you hand written a letter lately?   


  1. I am of two minds on this subject. The first mind, my professional-writer persona, remembers how the quality of my writing improved greatly when I graduated from typewriter to word processor. The ease with which you can edit on the computer, without erasers, hand-notes, Wite-Out, cutting and pasting, or retyping, makes it feasible to fine-tune your writing without it taking forever. If I had to write longhand I would probably not write very much, certainly not for pleasure.

    The second mind despairs for the knowledge and ability that will be lost when we abandon cursive. Among other things, how will the kids be able to read their grandparents' letters or decipher the notes in the family Bible? Perhaps future historians will be required to take courses in handwriting so they can do research into old documents.

    1. Yes, Kathy -- the knowledge that will be lost -- like who knows Morse Code anymore or Latin? We are turning into machine-adaptable creatures rather than the other way around.

      I also despair when I see kids no longer holding their pens like we were taught. Seems teachers let them hold it any old which-way and it looks uncomfortable and retarded to me.

      But working so much with a mouse and keyboard as I do, my own handwriting has turned to s**t. It was never great, but now I can barely read it myself.

  2. Very interesting post, Steve. To show how letters arrived in their present form.

    But as I watch the waitresses so quickly write down Chinese characters for our orders, I wonder if there is a shorthand script for each character ... and how Chinese doctors' prescription requests look.

    One more thought (related to my remarks to Kathy above): it is such an shock to see the wonderfully portrayed movie-version Elizabeth Bennett (P and P, Austen) take pen to paper and hamfistedly hold the pen -- all wrong. Austen would blanch to see such a mess. And nobody on the set, or the director, caught it. It is so common to see anything goes when writing. No wonder kids don't like to write -- it probably hurts.

  3. There is a 'cursive' Chinese that people use to write. I'm not sure how they read it, I guess like we do - it's touch and go.

    I guess I'm more flexible in how people want to hold their pens.

    Just like our individual clutter wars, cultures do have to give up some things to adopt to new conditions. The critical issue today is - as you hint - whether the people or the machines (and the capitalist system that requires a constant supply of new products to keep growing) are driving the decisions of what to keep and what to toss.

    When we shop, we do not make holistic decisions - like how does this product contribute not only to my well being, but also the world's well being, including the pollution required to make it and dispose of what it replaces and the energy to make it work.

  4. Thanks for your post Steve!.

    Following the discussion above, I think it is the usage with determines what remains mainstream. This will be the case for the prevalent electronic writing.

    All other forms, like Chinese calligraphy and the longhand writing in any language, I think, they withstand the call of time thanks to the people that love them. They are mainly artists at heart, and their reasons are deep rooted in their souls. They will keep alive the tradition long enough to allow exposure and apprehension by following generations - the future guardians.

    I would like to point out that we, the readers, should find peace in our hearts about subjects like this. The holder of the tradition will pass it onto the next generation not because of the fear of being lost, but because they love the person they are gifting. Just take a minute and examine similar experiences that happened to you. Can you see that your best tutors has been passing the knowledge to you with more love for you than worry of lost?. I think that is the only genuine reason why one human being would like to plant knowledge and wisdom in others. It might well get lost if there is not love; why to bother?

    We are more than six billion people on the planet. It only take one disciple per Master to keep a tradition. And I am sure the Great Masters had always loved their disciples :)

    So, let's be happy about the traditions we are able to reach. The less we worry about this, the more we can concentrate in nourishing the next generation.

    Good health to you all!


  5. Guillermo, thanks for a beautiful and thoughtful comment. I hadn't considered the love of the tutor not only for the art, but for the disciple. So true.


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