Matt Gemmell

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Handwriting

Writing 3 min read

Dear reader,

When was the last time you wrote something? Not on your computer or mobile device; I mean by hand. Brief notes or shopping lists don’t count, either - I’m talking about something of non-trivial length.

It was probably quite a while ago. I’m in the same position, and I think that’s a sad thing. Handwriting used to be my daily companion, and now it’s becoming a rare art. I’m even writing about handwriting using electronic text. Come to think of it, I can at least fix that particular hypocrisy.

I invite you to click here.

There - isn’t that better? Suddenly this article has become a letter, from me to you. How have you been? I hope this missive finds you well. My best to your family and friends.

I’ve suffered, in a small way, to bring these words to you. No easy rat-a-tat of typing on a shallow keyboard; this composition was painstaking. It was an act that took place in the physical world, using materials as old as memory. An imposition of human will upon the environment.

There’s character in it. You can intuit things about me - or at least you think you can - by the very shapes of the letters, the flow of the writing, and the occasional spatter of punctuation. Perhaps a judgmental question mark gives you pause? Or maybe your heart is warmed by the joy of a well-placed exclamation mark!

Those things are tragically fading from our lives. Our world is one of emails and web pages, without handwriting except as a design element or gimmick (and I freely admit that this piece could fall into the latter category).

I’ve glanced over some of my oldest emails recently, from about twenty years ago. I smiled a few times, but they’re still just little digital essays - they don’t feel like correspondence.

Whenever we read about a noted historical figure, inevitably they left behind a body of letters; a graceful collection of intimate and illuminating one-sided conversations in written form. It’s impossible to read such works without being flooded with empathy. We can feel the scratch of the pen and the bloom of the ink, because we can see their imprint. It’s tactile and it’s absolutely human, and as a result it’s beautiful.

That’s why I’m writing this letter to you now, my dear friend. Not as a resolution for me, nor as an exhortation for you - but simply as a reminder of a truth we too readily allow ourselves to forget.

We’ve lost something. Our instantly-delivered, electronically rendered thoughts are clean and readable, but if we’re honest, they also inhabit a sort of uncanny valley. There’s a degree of removal between the work and the author. Perfect letterforms, lined up algorithmically, standing like an eerie, emotionless army of sinister mannequins.

Where’s the angry flourish, with its thinning stroke and jagged spike? Where’s the thick, dark ink of the diligently-printed emphasis? Where’s the corrected ‘e’ that used to be an ‘a’, and the opportunity to guess why?

We’ve gained universal readability and accessibility, certainly, but they mask another bereavement: we’ve lost some of the human element. A digital spray of words is so often sent from one to many, brief and impersonal; conceived, hammered out and flung into the ether within minutes.

A letter, however, is resolutely from me to you. It’s intensely, achingly personal by its very form, and by the evocative tools and materials used to create it. A letter holds the wisdom of a different time, whispering patiently amidst the din of our new century.

The most noble aim is to speak honestly and authentically, and there is no greater achievement than making an emotional impact on another human being.

Perhaps that’s something we ought to remember.

Yours,

Matt Gemmell

Edinburgh, Scotland
22nd July, 2014


Behind-the-scenes notes:

This piece was written to make a point. It was composed, edited and proofread digitally, and laid out using this site’s design to establish line-breaking points.

I then wrote it out longhand, on white A4 printer paper using my beloved Staedtler pigment liner 0.3mm pens, matching the line lengths as best I could. The resulting pages were scanned, given minor adjustments to remove any paper texture and make the background pure white, then cut up into paragraphs and reassembled in HTML. Separate images are supplied for regular and Retina screens. The swapping is done with JavaScript.

This was an onerous process, and irritating in places - but it did bring about an increased intimacy with my own words. It was extremely satisfying to see the final piece take shape in front of my eyes, stroke by stroke.


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