Nfld. & Labrador

Is cursive cursed? Filmmaker explores the dying art of handwriting

When was the last time you wrote a document, assignment or contract by hand?

'How can we let go of handwriting?' wonders Anne Troake

Filmmaker Anne Troake is working on a documentary about handwriting and its impact on culture. (Christopher Darlington)

Somewhere in her house, tucked away in a box, Anne Troake keeps a stack of handwritten letters.

They're old, sent years ago from childhood friends after they'd all gone off to different universities and different adventures. She still pulls them out from time to time. 

"I look at the handwriting, and it's like seeing their face and hearing their voice," she said.

A generation ago, all primary school students learned to write in cursive, but that's not the standard anymore. Some schools are phasing it out, as writing by hand lessens in importance in an era when most documents and assignments are typed — or even texted. 

When Troake learned of the trend, she was struck.

"How can we let go of handwriting? Everybody has always written by hand," she said.

"Which of course, I've learned in my research, is not the case."

Troake and her childhood friends kept in touch through handwritten letters after they grew up. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A specialized skill

Troake's musing has morphed into something bigger, and she's now working on a documentary about handwriting.

The venerable filmmaker began a residency at Memorial University in St. John's in January, and has since spent her time combing through the school library for more about the history, science and art of writing by hand.

For starters, she says, handwriting is not an ancient skill. Troake found it's only been widely practised for about 150 years — in some areas, maybe even less, she said, pointing to parts of Newfoundland and Labrador where illiteracy rates have historically been high.

"My great-grandparents' generation, they didn't read and write," she told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

"Handwriting was a specialized skill. It was mostly for accounting, and for commerce, and trade. But it grew beyond that."

Cursive writing and the brain

Troake's research has led her to unexpected places.

She thinks about neuroplasticity — the way the brain grows and changes to respond to our needs — and she wonders if human brains will develop differently if people stop handwriting.

Troake says when she heard some schools are phasing out cursive, she started to think about all the ways writing by hand affects us. (CBC)

She's been reading about a correlation between the ability to read long sentences and the ability to empathize with others.

While her residency ends after the spring semester, Troake suspects it will take her a year or two to complete the documentary, given how much information she's already uncovered.

"I just keep finding more," she said. "The more I dig in, the more there is to learn."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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