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Guestwords: The Palmer Method

Thu, 12/09/2021 - 14:18

My seat is by a huge window with an unobstructed view of the Empire State Building. A steady stream of people passes by. I guess which are tourists, which natives, which new immigrants.

Light as it is, the MacBook Air has become heavy in my backpack — too heavy to cart to the coffee shop. On my right and left are people on computers, many with earphones. They fuss with chargers. Seated here with pen and pad, I feel superior; everyone knows that the greatest literature of all time was written by hand.

Nice to be able to place alternate words atop each other, to come back and select the best one later. Fun drawing brackets around sentences, arrows to indicate where paragraphs can be transposed. Once home, I can barely read my writing. Cramped fingers rushing to keep up with racing thoughts have led to elisions here, indecipherable scribbles there.

Penmanship was my best subject at the Harriet A. Baldwin School in Boston in 1942. An alphabet of perfect letters (capital A, small a; capital B, small b) crawled above the blackboard in every classroom. And wasn’t it called the Palmer Method?

Google brings this: The Palmer Method of cursive writing was devised at the end of the 19th century by Austin Palmer and held sway in public education in the U.S. for over half a century. It is not about the fingers. It is about the whole arm. It is about rhythm. Its key characteristic is muscle movement.

Isn’t muscle memory at work when we remember how to ride a bike decades after the last time we attempted it? And rhythm. Isn’t rhythm about cadence, the narrative voice that separates one piece of writing from another? The very essence of style. Seems I’m on to something here.

Next day at the coffee shop I warm up with long-forgotten, newly remembered push-pulls and ovals. The push-pulls are straight, close-together lines tilting right; the ovals are interlocking spirals. To create them, you place your elbow on the table, grip the pen, slide your ring finger and pinky along with it, and glide them onto the page. This is known as “a forearm sweep.”

The shapes look as weird and magical as they always did. As if I have created and am now interpreting my own ink blot test. This day they recall a field of wheat and bales of hay. Whence this rural imagery in the middle of Manhattan?

A few people walk by my table, idly glance at my page, then at me. Doodling? Demented? I move on to letters. I do the whole alphabet before I start writing for the day. My handwriting is perfect, the letters just like the ones on Palmer’s chart. Each word is legible, but the thoughts that had rushed through quicker than I could catch them are now slow in coming. So slow and banal that I give up after an hour and head home.

Still intrigued by the method, I return to Google and learn that a public education debate has been raging between cursive and printing enthusiasts for several decades now. And then . . . a pop-up ad. A picture of Hillary Clinton, her face distorted in a grimace below which is copy decrying her use of a private email server. Followed by an equally unflattering picture of A.O.C. and a diatribe against her.

An algorithm has brought me here, the opinion page of The Federalist. There is nothing about penmanship on the page but the message is clear — an interest in the Palmer Method equals conservatism in its current incarnation.

I get it. For all its graceful hoops and loops, Austin Palmer’s method was designed in the spirit of the social reformers of his day. Muscle movement was about muscular self-reliance. Rhythm was learning to think the same thoughts and write the same things in the same time as those seated around you.

It all rushes back. Rows of wooden desks bolted to their seats, each bolted to the floor. The round hole that held the inkwell. The fountain pen with its pointed steel tip. The teacher asking one of the “big boys” in the back of the room to unfurl the maps rolled up beneath the letters. The maps of America with its “amber waves of grain” and “fruited plains.” (Perhaps my earlier association with push-pulls and ovals?) There were no people on the maps; I had escaped to the city for just that reason.

The following day I return to the coffee shop without pen or pad. The MacBook no longer feels quite so heavy. I take it from its case, plug it in, and begin to write.

Ann Burack-Weiss has had a house in Montauk for over 40 years. She is the author of “The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life.”

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