Everything starts with the pen

Handwriting has fallen from favour in our schools and offices, but a new hi-tech pen is trying to change the script. Michael Bywater isn't convinced that it makes its mark

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:08

There they were, facsimiles of Nelson Mandela's letters and his memoirs in his own, elegant, slightly angular hand, published last week.

"Holographs: documents written in the author's own hand," says the dictionary. But the dictionary doesn't mention that as well as guaranteeing authenticity (what guarantees that now? A PIN number?) holographs, such as Mandela's elegant, slightly spiky hand, can be powerfully moving.

And what about little Tony Blair? He did it too: wrote his very own memoirs with his very own pen. A fountain pen! With actual ink! Go into a shop now, ask for ink – they look at you as though you'd suggested exposing yourself. Which perhaps you had: as a dinosaur.

Good enough for Stephen King, though, who described his Waterman fountain pen as "the world's finest word processor". But will they be able to decipher his handwriting 500 years from now? 100? Fifty? Or will students need special classes in palaeography, like they do now if they want to decipher uncials or 17th-century secretary hand?

Handwriting – proper, cursive, well-formed, joined-up, grown-up handwriting – is, they say, over. No call for it now. Tutors want essays filed in Word format. Handwriting is barely taught in schools; cursive script is more or less dead. Forty per cent of British boys and 20 per cent of girls cannot meet handwriting standards at 11 years old. The headmaster of Hillcrest School in Stockport – its motto, Ad lucem or "towards the light" – has banned pupils from using fountain pens in exams in case the scanners (to save postage) can't see the decimal points. (A brief experiment gave my fountain 100 per cent success on decimal points, while my Biro scored 65 per cent. Hmm....)

Does it matter, in a world where everything will, in due course, be not written but input? "It seems wrong when something beautiful, useful, and historically important vanishes," wrote Kitty Burns Florey, author of Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting. Those of us who want to preserve our hands – my own high-speed, arachnoid script, Stephen King's American scrawl, Little Tony's jittery Dalek letterforms – need only go to www.fontself.com and scan in their writing to have it turned into a font. For proper writing. On a computer. With a keyboard.

But still, does it matter? Well, it might.

First, the technology. Handwriting may be dead, as they say, but the gulf between the analogue output produced by vibrating a larynx or moving a hand, and the digital input required by technology has proven pretty unbridgeable. For a while, if you learned the special sort of very careful, patronising handwriting that the Palm Pilot (remember that?) liked, it could just about manage to transcribe your words. Still, unless you use a mostly printed curly American hand, or the sort of fifth-grade block capitals that middle managers use for whiteboard brainstorming, you've had it. Even Evernote's mighty processing power can't quite read my profoundly modified – you might say "depraved" – chancery cursive hand.

The early dreams of the pioneers of IT have proved madly optimistic. We presently inhabit a previous future from the past, and yet there is still no sign of the Writer of the Future, muttering into a microphone or scrawling on his writing-block, and seeing his words appear in pristine, glowing Futura 12pt, instantly and automatically linked to his own, and others', tenuously related notes. To get the stuff in, we still must type; to get the stuff out, we still must think.

Analogue us on one side; digital them on the other. Our response has been to surrender.

On trains you can see grown men and women (but mostly men) chimping, thumbs flying as they hunch over their little devices, texting, emailing, but often simply taking notes. Jotting stuff down – something that for 2,000 years we did with some kind of stick and some kind of flat thing for the stick to make a mark on.

You can buy any number of note-taking apps for the iPhone, yet with its tiny, glass, no-feedback, chimpable "keyboard" – and never mind the bloody spell checker – it's as silly an idea as a brassière for a teapot. There are alternatives. There are, of course, little pocket voice recorders. I have one myself. Useful for the car, on my own, when ideas strike and to write them down is to die. Useful in the middle of the night, particularly for those inspirations so marvellous that there's no need to write them down because no way will I ever forget them. (I'd give you an example but I can't remember any). But 85 per cent of what I say is rubbish, so I can't use the machine where anyone can overhear me, and playing it back is agony. All that drivel to wade through and no way to tell what the good bits are. Nor can you sketch or skip about from idea to idea. The voice is linear where the pen is not.

There are computer tools – check out Tinderbox and Scrivener – which help, but the truth is that the seamless narrative that appears in print is secretly a thing of shreds and patches. The notes for this piece are in front of me: a couple of pages from a Clairfontaine A4 notepad; scribbled spidergrams and phrases on a US legal pad I bought in a New Hampshire Walmart; some notes in a tiny but beautifully bound notebook from Florence; more in a vast, leather-bound folio. These things aren't reserved for Special Important Literary-Style Creative "Thoughts". Experience has taught me those never happen. The books are used for whatever comes to mind. And, of course, my pen.

Never mind silicon. Let's think about Ebonite.

When my father died, almost two years ago, I wondered what to get as a daily memento of him. As a physician, his pen was the instrument of his efficacy in the world; so, too, is mine. Everything starts with the pen; specifically, the fountain pen. No other writing tool moulds itself to the character of your hand. Nothing else becomes so profoundly personal. Nothing else offers the invisible touch of a gold nib on paper, or the infinite variety – thanks to the recent renaissance in fountain-pen enthusiasm – of ink. The pen, too, is untethered. It needs no software, no electricity, no reformatting. Its cache never needs cleaning, and it produces hard copy automatic-ally – free, as it were.

A pen it would be. But my father's memory demanded something special, something unique. So I got myself measured up for a bespoke Conway Stewart "100" model in red-ripple Ebonite with a plain, elegant, fine nib in 18-carat gold and a twist-fill mechanism. After my endless changes of mind, the pen arrived – "Made in England" stamped on the barrel – and has seldom since been out of either my hand or my pocket.

The thing gives me pleasure every time I pick it up. Its simplicity – a bit to hold ink, another bit to apply it to the paper – is wonderful. Everyone admires it, yet many simply don't quite understand. "Pen?" they say. "But you could get a Sharpie/Pilot G2/Bic/YourBrandHere for a fraction of the price. And in any case isn't it all done on computers now?"

To them, the arguments about aesthetics and utility are in vain, and the notion of texture – different inks, different papers, interlineations and deletions and all the visual semiotics of writing – seems foreign. They want something that looks, as on-screen, word-processed text looks, finished even when it's only just begun.

It's a mistake.

First, it's a mistake of courtesy. Handwriting may have diminished as a public discourse – been diminishing since the invention of printing and then of the typewriter – but as a private marker it remains. Handwriting is no more absurd than knowing how to dress and groom oneself. It's a sign that one is civilised, and like all such signs, at least to some extent superfluous.

Our belief that handwriting should be consistent would astonish our ancestors, who believed that the mastery of "secretary hand" and "chancery cursive", of three or four different handwriting styles, showed distinction and versatility.

But, second, and much more importantly, it's a mistake in thinking-about-thinking. The artist Joan Miró spoke of his drawing as "taking a line for a walk". Handwriting might be thought of as taking an idea for a walk. It can't be done on the computer, not in the same way. The computer is both linear and modal; text flows from left to right (in English, anyway), from top to bottom, and if you want to draw lines or boxes or connect things together, you need a different toolbox. The computer can do many things that pen and paper can't do; but those first, unformed doodlings are not its strength.

My own experience, too, is that the words come differently from a pen than from a keyboard. There's a different rhythm. Handwriting is more fluid. Rewriting is more considered, because you'd generally finish the piece, have a break and get some perspective, then rewrite it. On the computer we all edit as we go: we tinker with the minutiae and lose the panoramic view.

But then something always comes along to question it all. This time, it's the Echo "smartpen" from Livescribe, £165-worth of scrawny little runs-out-in-a-week ballpoint refill with a mighty and possibly game-changing bit of technology stuck on for free.

There's a clue in the name: Echo. What this pen does is listen, and keep track of what it hears. It also tracks, 72 times a second, exactly what you're writing. Suppose you're at a lecture, or one of those endless meetings that business people like. Chaps speaking. Drone drone drone drone drone (interesting comment) drone drone. Normally if you recorded it, you'd have to listen back to all the droning to catch the interesting bit verbatim. Not with Echo. You just write "interesting bit" or even an asterisk, or a picture of a bear with an umbrella if you feel like it, and then, later, you tap the words (or asterisk) with the pen and it plays back that precise bit.

Sheer genius for students. Marvellous for lawyers. Brilliant for business meetings, 98 per cent drone and willy-waggling jargon, but now you can find the 2 per cent that is of use. And there's more: the Echo connects to your computer and uploads your notes. The ones you've only written are black. The ones that point to sound recordings are green. Click on them and you get the recording. Sounds pedestrian? It's not.

The Livescribe software also indexes your handwriting and does it pretty well. No real need for insanities like John Locke's indexing system for his commonplace books (take the headings, then take the first letter and first vowel of the word and then... well, then go mad). No need for tagging and filing. Livescribe also sells a handwriting conversion add-on, but I couldn't try that because it doesn't work on good computers, only on PCs.

My initial response was: this is a paradigm shift. The ink slowly began to dry on my Conway Stewart. I realised the Echo could solve the problem of random association of notes; you can annotate them as you record them, and as you play back. The annotation need have no connection with the thing being annotated; a long recitation of classical battles can simply be annotated "big list".

But still there are reservations. The first are purely practical. The Echo still tethers you. The pen and the (inexpensive) special notebooks it needs are genius together, but pedestrian apart. As a solution to Motorway Eureka – when you're blasting along the M11 and an idea suddenly pops into your head – the Echo should be splendid. But it isn't quite up to the task. For full control, you need the special notebook paper with printed controls: tap here to record, tap here to pause, and so on.

My other reservations, though, aren't Livescribe's pigeon at all. While it's an unimpeachable solution for those who work with stuff they hear, it's not yet so good for those of use who inhabit the other cycle of read/think/write.

It's excellent for transcribing passages from books, or (as long as you're not in a library) taking notes on them. But for thinking it seems to require a brain-split I haven't quite managed: to be able to write headings or brief pointers while speaking the thing-in-full. I once played myself on television – or, rather, played a character called Dirk Gently who was based on me. I had to conduct one conversation in speech and another, unrelated one, in writing, passing scraps of paper back and forth. The director decided to shoot it in real time.

It was a hellish version of the Gerald Ford walking-while-chewing-gum problem, and I came to believe that writing isn't just a slightly inferior type of speech, but (as neurological studies seem to suggest) a different neural pathway altogether. Writing isn't dictating. And the two are hard to do simultaneously. To lose handwriting is to lose flexibility, portability, and, above all, a path of thinking. We don't take notes; we make notes, and the very act of writing seems to process them, contextualise them, and fix them in our minds.

I take delight in my notebooks. They are almost evidence of my existence. I like poring through them. I like coming across odd adjacencies. I like the changes in ink, or the bits where I go into pencil; I like the bit where the ink ran in a high Aegean sea, or the blob of mayonnaise from when I got upgraded to Club. I like the fact that not since the invention of the typewriter has handwriting been a common public medium: my notes and drafts are mine and instantly distinguishable from the Optima 14pt on my MacBook screen. I like this notebook being the one Nick gave me, and that one being from the first run of Mole-skines before they became a silly cult; I like the texture of the things, and with its special paper and affectless ballpoint, texture is lacking from the Echo. But at least – and it's a big "least" – it's not just another version of the screen, the pixels, the world-behind-glass.

It's early days; these are piddling objections. Students should get hold of one by whatever means they can. Anyone who has to listen then condense or act upon what they've heard should get one. Much better to take brief summary notes and get the full Monty later. Better, I think, than trying to take "copious" notes, because you have to listen again, but only to the good bits.

For people in my position, I'm not so sure. But I am sure of this: I am not giving the Echo back. I've written a note to myself – "Ask Livescribe PR to send bill for pen." With my Conway Stewart, in dark-green ink, in my notebook with the mournful bear on the cover.

It probably just means carrying around two pens and two notebooks for the time being. We're still tethered. But this is just the beginning.

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