Sunday, March 08, 2009

Joan LAU ... On when was the last time you wrote something by hand

In memory of the handwritten word
By Joan LAU

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU WROTE SOMETHING? I’m not talking about the definitive Malaysian novel or anything as dramatic as that. I’m thinking about something more literal: writing something by hand instead of on the computer or an SMS. So yes, when was the last time you wrote something? One of my friends told me the only thing she writes by hand these days is the shopping list. Come to think of it, some of us don’t even do that.

Just the other day, my colleague told me that his mother-in-law asked him to get her some aerogrammes. Do you even remember those? If you are 25 or under, chances are you have no idea what I am talking about. Well, aerogrammes were what people used to buy from the post office when they wanted to write a letter to someone who lived overseas. It sounds so antiquated now, right? Aerogrammes.

Still, I remember those blue sheets of paper: they were self-sealing and prepaid. The most brilliant invention, I thought. You didn’t have to mess with an envelope or stamps. Nope, just write on the aerogramme, seal it and pop it into the postbox. Easy. And when just one sheet of paper would not do ... there was onionskin paper! Those writing pads of beautiful lightweight paper were a luxury to me as they were expensive. They were really, really light—the paper was translucent and kind of crinkled—so you could fill up to two or three pages and not rack up a fortune in stamps when you went to mail your letter.

I don’t even know if they make these any more. After all, do people even write letters to each other these days? They write emails and forward jokes or they leave comments on blogs, but letters? Come to think of it, I haven’t seen an aerogramme in at least 25 years. In fact, the only time one goes to the post office these days is when it’s time to pay the bills. And if you do online banking, not even then.

Yes, with the advent of emails and the mobile phone, the art of writing is dying ... if not already dead. There was a time when you could recognise someone by their handwriting. These days, the only bits of handwriting I come across on a day-to-day basis are hastily scribbled notes passed to me during a meeting.

There was a time when we were taught good penmanship in school. It was not good enough to learn how to read or write ... you had to write beautifully. We had to practise our cursive writing and there was a prescribed way to form and join letters of the alphabet into words. I dare say most of us had the same style of handwriting then but as we grew older, individualistic tendencies crept in. The teachers were not so strict in secondary school and you started developing your own unique handwriting style.

When I look at my own handwriting now, I see I have become lazy. Computers are the enemy of good handwriting, don’t you think? Still, my handwriting is pretty legible—even when I write fast. When I was in university, my friends very often borrowed my notes because they found my handwriting easy to read! I often thought the entire time I was growing up that I would have beautiful, elegant handwriting when I became an adult. That didn’t quite happen to me. And now that we hardly write by hand, I think even that will deteriorate further.

I miss receiving letters though. And writing them. I know email is faster but there is something about holding those pieces of paper in your hand and reading words formed and joined together in the unique way of the writer.

Oddly, the handwriting I miss the most was also the worst handwriting I have ever come across. Rosemary’s handwriting was the subject of many jokes in our circle of friends. The sentences were worse than scrawls ... you could hardly tell when one letter of the alphabet started and another one ended. Somehow, I was the only one who could decipher her letters from the many places she lived with her diplomat husband: Nigeria, Sweden, Myanmar, Mexico.

Whenever a letter from Rosemary arrived, we had to meet up and I had to read it to the gang. By the time they lived in Venezuela, there was email and those lovely, scrawly letters ended. It was through those sprawling letters that we got to know about those foreign lands and, more importantly, how she was doing.

These days, there is the immediacy of SMSes and emails so there simply is no need for letters any more. But this much more personal method of connecting with people you care for is not quite dead. My best friend still gives me cards to celebrate various occasions: Easter, my birthday, Christmas. And in them, she always writes a little message. I love those little personal touches even though we live in the same city!

Not too long ago, I asked my nephew to write a list of Roald Dahl books he had not yet read. The idea was for me to get them for him. He wrote in my notebook and I forgot about it till the other day. You know what? His handwriting is just like his Dad’s.

Reproduced from the New Sunday Times of March 8, 2009


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