Jake Weidmann is an artist and certified Master Penman. In this TEDx Talk, titled ‘Why Write? Penmanship for the 21st Century’ Jake discusses the future of writing and its place in the digital age. Below is the full transcript of the TEDxMileHigh Talk.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Why write – Penmanship for the 21st Century by Jake Weidmann at TEDxMileHigh
But a pen is a simple thing, isn’t it? It doesn’t have a battery or a motherboard. It doesn’t require a service plan or a satellite orbiting the Earth in order to function. It’s never smarter than you are, which I like. And if you were to drop it in water, or any distance higher than your own knee on a hard surface, it would not be destroyed. In fact, purchasing an insurance plan for it would be, well, silly, and slightly ridiculous.
Yet, this simple pen has shaped the very world in which we live. It has recorded the discoveries of scientists and inventors. It has charted the course for nearly every explorer who has braved the open ocean or explored the vast terrain. Wars have begun and ended at its wave and the doctrine of nearly every one of the world’s religions was inscribed at its tip. It has recorded the genius of composers and artists alike, and more lovers have succumbed at its tip than any of Cupid’s arrows.
You see, more than a pen, this is a vital part of our humanity. It is the facilitator to genius, the strongest weapon in war time, the baton passed from one generation to the next, the needle on the Richter scale of our hearts, and the connection between God and man. Yet, for the first time in history, the value of this amazing tool hangs in the balance. With 41 out of 50 states no longer requiring handwriting to be a fundamental part of their curriculum, like everything else in our culture, we declare its value by what we teach or do not teach our children.
Yet I stand before you today not only as an advocate for the pen, but as your advocate as well, for while the hand empowers the pen, the pen empowers the man. So empower yourselves today and write this down.
Use this and you will develop not one but three forms of literacy. The first form of literacy is that of historical literacy. You see, we have a vast chronology of handwriting because man has been writing by hand for literally thousands of years. In every culture, every time period, every nation has had its own form of handwriting, and they are each as unique as one individual’s is to another’s.
Now I could regale you with a vast background on each one of these forms, but let me bring things a little closer to home and bring you more quickly up to speed. This is America’s first style of penmanship and the forefather of cursive. It is called Spencerian script, created by Platt Rogers Spencer in the middle of the 19th century when he was only 13 years old. Not only did this boy create one of the most dynamic forms of penmanship known to man, he also had a beautiful philosophy and even theology behind his handwriting. You see, he believed that God, being the originator of all beauty, had instilled his beauty in nature, so if Spencer could take his cues from nature, then he would have the beauty of God in his own handwriting. Not bad for a 13 year old.
So, this is one of the pieces that I did, not only as a nod to Spencerian script but to show the place from which it was inspired. You see, he was inspired by the flowing lines he saw in the streams by his house, the gentle lean of the wheat blowing in the wind, and the rolling clouds over mountain peaks. Spencer’s form was not only genius in its appearance, but it was a thing of brilliance in function as well.
You see, today, the way that we typically write is we plant our palm on the side of our hand, and we use a whole variety of horrible pen grips, and we write using mainly finger movement. So this puts stress on all of the smallest joints, muscles, tendons, and in the end, it results in what we know as writer’s cramp. Well, back in the day, Platt Rogers Spencer devised that his handwriting should be written with the knuckles up towards the ceiling using muscular movement, which is movement at the wrist, and whole arm movement for those larger graceful curves, so you could write all day long and never get writer’s cramp.
There were others that followed in Spencer’s pen-strokes. This is Louis Madarasz, regarded as the greatest ornamental penman who ever lived. He built on Spencer’s fundamental form to bring us some of the most dynamic scripts known to man, one of which is said to have inspired the Coca-Cola logo, one of the longest standing, most dynamic logos of all times.
Or this man, F.B. Courtney, the pen wizard, so-called because of the magic created at the tip of his pen. It was said that Courtney, whenever he taught, would go into a room and fill a chalkboard with museum-worthy flourishing and script, and then, at the end, he would take a piece of chalk in each hand, stand at the chalkboard and sign his name simultaneously in opposite directions as if conducting an orchestra.
Now I know what you’re saying, “Jake, this is all well and good, but I’m afraid my penmanship has sailed and sunk.”
“I write in chicken scratch.”
“I’m sorry, I was just not born with the natural facilities that these masters were.”
Well, let me encourage you a bit, and possibly make you feel worse about yourself. This is J.C. Ryan, the handless penman. He was a man born without hands who made his living in penmanship. Any more excuses? You see, these are the heroes of our past, these are the builders of our handwriting heritage.
Newton said that we only reach great heights “by standing on the shoulders of giants”. I tell you that my hand only moves so gracefully because I have rehearsed the strokes of masters. Use this and you will develop intellectual literacy.
Now in college, I actually got my degree in psychology, largely because I did not think I was going to make it as an artist. Of course, I practiced my artwork and my handwriting incessantly, so much so that I gained a reputation among my professors who were handing around my essay tests saying that they looked like the Declaration of Independence.
Well, in one psychology course, which was Cognitive Psychology, we actually studied how handwriting helped develop the brain. I took copious and beautiful notes. And what we discovered when we studied this was that during the different tactile movements of doing handwriting, the brain is actually engaged in more areas, and the information is engrained into the brain. The same was not found to be true with typing, however, which does not involve the same type of differential tactile movement.
Now, handwriting was also found to be incredibly helpful in small children who were learning to read, because by forming the individual letters, they had a deeper understanding of the anatomy of each one and were therefore able to recognize it when it came time to read it on the page.
Moreover, cursive was found to be even more beneficial to the brain. Researchers and scientists have actually done brain scans on children learning cursive and found that the different parts of the brain which are engaged are similar to those adults typically use when writing and doing higher reasoning. And the screen went blank when the kids were doing typing because it didn’t involve the same type of tactile movement.