The Demise of Cursive

The elderly woman grasped the ballpoint pen tightly between thumb and fingers. Her hand trembled slightly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “My handwriting is terrible.”

I was at a nursing home as part of my early voting duties with the Putnam County Election Commission. I assured the voter that the neatness of her signature didn’t matter at all. “You can just write your initials if you want,” I told her. But she slowly and painstakingly signed her full name on the Application for Ballot. When she handed me the paper, I saw that her penmanship, though shaky, was a thing of beauty.

There are those among us, mostly of my generation or older, who lament the demise of cursive handwriting. They remember fondly the posters that hung horizontally above the blackboards in grammar school classrooms. One section featured the alphabet in ball-and-stick print. The other featured it in cursive.

Kids these days, even the ones who learn cursive voluntarily or as part of the mandated curriculum, tend not to use it except when required. They’re far more likely to type on a computer keyboard or text on a cell phone. I heard somewhere that text messaging will eventually cause human thumbs to evolve into much longer and stronger ones than we have now, though I don’t know if that’s true.

I confess I’m more like the generations behind me than the generations ahead of me. I rarely use cursive unless I’m signing my name. And it’s not a thing of beauty.

I write often. I write a lot. I write in a hurry. Lately I’ve taken to doing something called “freewriting,” an exercise where I choose a topic and then write for fifteen minutes without stopping and without self-editing. The only rule is that my pen must be moving the whole time. If I go off on a tangent, that’s okay. If I run out of things to write about (so far, that’s never happened), I’m free to make a grocery list or write down the words to my favorite song or whatever. The point is to keep writing until the timer dings.

It’s magical.

But I’m not sure I could make it work if I were writing in cursive. Something about stringing letters together without lifting the pen off the paper slows me down big time. So does having to wait until the word is finished to cross the t’s and dot the i’s.

Not long ago, I was talking to a young man who wrote down for me, in flawless cursive, a list of some podcasts he recommends. I commented on how lovely his handwriting was. He told me he’d been home-schooled and that cursive was part of the curriculum. His mother taught him the correct way to hold a pen by having him nestle a ping-pong ball in his hand while he wrote. Of course I immediately went home, found a ping-pong ball and sat down to free write this column in cursive.

I’d been at it for only a couple of minutes when I decided I would a million times rather hit a ping-pong ball back and forth across a net than write with one in my hand. So I put the ball and the pen into the desk drawer, opened my computer and–without lifting my fingers from the keyboard for fifteen minutes–got a real good start on this column about cursive handwriting.

Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.

Speaking of early voting, which is how this all started, you have two more chances. The Putnam County Election office is open tomorrow and Tuesday from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Your signature is required on your Application for Ballot and on the poll list. But if your cursive isn’t perfect, we’ll get over it.

(February 23, 2020)