Curly Loops & Ink Blots

I saw a television news report the other day – probably on one of CBS’ shows – about the dwindling art of cursive writing. The ubiquity of keyboarding, especially with email replacing most snail mail, has led many schools to quit teaching cursive writing. No more hours of perfecting the little loop at the top of the lower-case “o” so it can be connected to the next letter.

I hated cursive writing. Except in a very few instances, I was never able to get the letters to flow into each other. From the time I began to try to learn the art when I was eight or nine to the time I started college  — when I abandoned cursive for my own peculiar mix of printing and cursive and for typewritten work – I detested handwriting.

Perhaps my thoughts moved too fast for my hands to keep up. That’s one of the theories, I think, that my parents and teachers bandied about. That might have been it; I was not the most patient of writers, and I did find it difficult to focus on forming carefully the letters in, say, “Columbus” when my brain was already on “Ohio.” Whatever the reasons, my handwriting was a meandering mess until I abandoned it after those ten or so years.

That mess was made worse by my writing implement. For some reason, it was essential for every fifth and sixth grade student at Lincoln Elementary School to have a cartridge pen. A close relative of the earlier fountain pen, a cartridge pen draws its ink from an internal cartridge instead of being filled from an inkwell or ink jar. That meant that every student in the fifth and sixth grades at Lincoln (and, I would assume, at the other elementary schools in St. Cloud) had a box of ink cartridges in his or her desk. When a pen went dry, the writer would remove the empty cartridge and replace it with a new one filled with ink.

Even if one were fastidious and careful, some ink was bound to spill. If one were a little hasty and sometimes careless, more ink would spill. I was always in the “more ink” category. Add to that the fact that if one hesitated while writing with a cartridge pen and left the pen in contact with the paper, the ink continued to flow, soaking the paper. Then consider that, given my difficulty with cursive, I hesitated frequently. As a result, I routinely handed in assignments decorated with ink blots, and I routinely went home from school with ink-stained hands and sometimes ink-stained clothes. The combination of cursive writing and the cartridge pen was the source of great frustration for me and, I assume, for my parents and my teachers.

(I do not recall if the cartridge pens were required by the school, or if they were a somehow traditional, if inky, rite of passage for fifth graders. I rather think they were required, as they were more expensive than ballpoint pens as well as being much more prone to messiness. I am sure there were families with students at Lincoln and the other schools that would have preferred to save the additional money if given the chance, just as I am sure that there were teachers at Lincoln and the other schools who would have been pleased to avoid the mess.)

Even had I mastered the art of legible cursive writing, it would have eventually gone by the wayside for a couple of reasons: First, over my years as a journalism student and a reporter, I began by necessity to compose at the keyboard, and once that happened – even in the days before computers and email – all of my letters were typed as well. Second, once I started working as a reporter, the need to take notes rapidly in interviews and especially in public meetings – one can slow down an interview to catch up with notes, but one cannot slow the progress of a public hearing – damaged what little legibility my writing might have had for other people.

I could read my notes, but I’m certain no one else could. Well, I could read my notes while the meeting or the interview was fresh in my mind. I imagine that if I were to dig into the boxes of city council notes I left behind at the Monticello Times in 1983, I might be able to decipher some of what I scrawled on my legal pads but certainly not much. The need for haste destroyed what little legibility might ever have existed in my odd combination of printing and cursive.

The television news piece closed with an interview with an older man who offers children lessons in cursive writing because of its aesthetic qualities. And I saw this week that cartridge pens are still sold online and perhaps elsewhere (and that the terms “cartridge pen” and “fountain pen” seem to have become synonymous). That both of those things are available for those who enjoy them is a good thing. My frustrations with both cursive and the cartridge pen are more than forty years gone, and I miss neither one of them. That’s a good thing, too.

The tune that came to mind as I was planning this post was Vicki Carr’s 1969 break-up hit, “With Pen In Hand,” which went to No. 35 in the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 6 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Other versions of the tune in or near the Hot 100 came from Billy Vera, Johnny Darrell, Bobby Goldsboro and Dorothy Moore. Jerry Vale hit the AC chart with it, while Darrell’s version reached the country Top 40 and Moore’s got into the R&B Top 40. I checked out a few of those, but none of them did much for me. And then I found Aretha Franklin’s cover of the tune from her 1974 album, Let Me In Your Life. Here it is.

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One Response to “Curly Loops & Ink Blots”

  1. Yah Shure says:

    I caught that same story the other day. Sheaffer cartridge pens were all the rage in my grade school for about two years. Those stained hands, ink blots and leaky pens certainly made for odd badges of honor.

    Might I add two more items to the cartridge pitfall list? 1) Where to wipe off the tip of the pen whenever the ink clotted? 2)Iron grip + cartridge pen = guaranteed rips and tears (still a problem when signing thermal paper receipts with an extra-fine-point pen.) I never have been able to shake that grip of death: Felt tips, permanent markers, special CD-R pens, highlighters… all instant mush.

    My ballpoint pen of choice during college was the 1970 Parker Brothers retro Big Red. I still have it somewhere, along with later green and black siblings. The Big Red was a big honker; no one was about to pocket the thing if you loaned it out.

    As for cursive: abandoned in junior high, save for signatures.

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