Some early missionaries who attempted to codify unwritten languages into symbolic representations that could be read found themselves martyred, not for Christ, but for the black art of sorcery. Ethnic groups whose entire culture was oral, transmitted by the spoken word, were understandably suspicious of those who could make and interpret the strange symbols we know as writing systems (see one of my all time favourite websites: Omniglot).
Even when writing systems became more widespread they were often the preserve of the arcane, quasi-religious classes of scribes and priests for many centuries.
Even though we are hundreds of years downstream from the printing press and the arts of reading and writing being rolled out to the common man, even though we are living in an information age where the written word is more ubiquitous than ever, I believe these dark symbols on a black page still cast a potent spell.
I’ll confess, this is the appeal of reading and writing that has always gripped me – I am potently aware of it. I cannot remember a time when I was not breathlessley fascinated by the process of lines across a page. Perhaps my earliest experience of reading and writing forced me to be only too conscious of the art.
I can still remember the thrill of reading my first sentence; it was not unlike the day I took to riding a bike without stabilisers – a sense of flying along, slightly out of control but terrifyingly free. Writing my first sentence was more painful, though.
Where others took it comfortably in their stride, the way I formed letters was such a grave concern to my teachers that I was kept back a year at school and made to see an educational psychologist. They were puzzled by my inability to conform to some basic rules like starting letters at the top. I never really made the transition from printed letters to joined up, grown up, handwriting. By the time I was 11 my handwriting was a mess, literally, like the proverbial spider who had the misfortune to crawl through an inkwell, my words tortured their way onto the page.
At 14 I took things in hand. I had fallen in love. Somehow this changed everything, I even felt the urge to perfect my handwriting for the sake of the new passion in my life. I sat down in a single evening and invented my own script and, overnight, gave up my gangling, joined-up hand and returned to a slightly ornate printed alphabet in which I then wrote my journals for the next 5 years. My handwriting has lost a few of the curls but changed very little since then.
Whether my struggle with handwriting is what sensitised me to the great mystery of alphabets and the magic of the written word or not, I would choose a pen over Gandalf’s staff any day.
I’ll say, “This word business is pure witchcraft” – as will my growing collection of typewriters. Like an Each Uisge, I don’t know if I am riding it or it is riding me, or where our headlong canter will end up but there is a great mystery here. For me words are more than the sum of their parts and I cannot escape the sense that, even jotting with a pencil, I am chiseling on the rock of ages. Yes, this is all the magic I need in life, to be able to conjure meaning with ink and paper.
I might also say that the allure of being paid to write is seductive precisely because it adds the Alchemist to the Magician. Along with the milestones of reading my first sentence and mastering my own handwriting is the day I saw my first paycheck from the written word – gold from a pencil lead.
There is sorcery going on here. Please think about it for a moment, if you will; there is no limit to the uses to which pen and paper and – by extension – text and screen, can be put. It is is a cliche to say that the pen is mightier than the sword, I think it is more descriptive to say that the pen is humanities dirtiest secret and reading is the very blackest of arts.
- In Digital Age, Does Handwriting Still Matter? (blogs.wsj.com)
- Mourning the Death of Handwriting (time.com)