In this minisode of So you want to be a writer: How to improve your writing. And meet Anne Trubek, author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting. And where does the term “John Hancock” come from?
Got a question for Val and Al? Ask at podcast [at] writerscentre [dot] com [dot] au
Honestly, I don’t think I could have better company on my morning walks through Launceston, Tasmania (other than my pup Rosie, of course). Thank you for always producing great content for me to listen to while I traipse down the Tamar River. I must also mention that without this podcast and the ‘How to Build a Successful Copywriting Business’ course I did through AWC, I wouldn’t have had the guts to go full-blown freelance writer. Thank you wonderful ladies!
Hi Val and Al,
I absolutely love the podcast. It keeps me sane on my daily commute and keeps me inspired and makes me feel part of the writing community.
My question – I have no trouble with discipline, if I’m writing, I write everyday, if I’m editing I edit everyday. I’ve read lots of books on craft, taken courses and have read and am connected to authors. I only attend a few in person events because I’m a shy quiet type but I’m looking to improve on this. I’ve been writing seriously for five years and more before that, and just don’t seem to be improving enough to make my work of a publishable standard. I write contemporary women’s fiction and have completed four manuscripts and have started a fifth. Besides just keeping writing (which I will) what else can I do to improve and keep my momentum. Perhaps a mentor?
I have had my work assessed and told it requires improvement and I have also submitted and been rejected. I also enter a lot of RWA contests and the (helpful) feedback always is that it needs improvement. I have improved a lot since I started writing but just can’t seem to pull it all together.
We answer your question in this episode!
Writer in Residence
Anne Trubek is the founder and director of Belt Publishing. She is the author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting and A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses.
Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired, MIT Technology Review, Smithsonian, Slate, Salon, Belt and numerous other publications.
A tenured professor at Oberlin College from 1997-2015, she currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio.
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Thanks so much for joining us today, Anne.
Thank you for having me.
I have your book in my hand, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting. Now, this is a very specific subject, but one that I’m really fascinated by, because I’ve always been interested in handwriting, interestingly enough.
First of all, where are we talking to you from? Where are you based?
I live in Cleveland, Ohio.
Cleveland, Ohio. Now, what in the world inspired you to write a book about handwriting?
Well, two factors came together. One was in a previous life I was a professor and I studied the history of writing technologies and how cultures change when, say, the printing press was invented or the typewriter. I’ve always been very interested in handwriting and its cultural importance throughout history in the West.
And then I had a child who was seven or eight and learning how to handwrite in school. I was so surprised and interested in what he was being taught and upset at some of the struggles that he was having. And so I thought, “Huh, I should marry these two interests of mine together and write about this.”
And so when did the idea form and how in the world did you then start deciding what would go into this book? I mean handwriting is such a broad subject. How did you kind of determine what would end up being the thread in the book and how you would structure the book, subsequently how you would go about like what you would research?
That’s a great question. The first thing I did was I wrote a short article about the topic that was just sort of saying, “Hey, why are we spending so much time on handwriting in elementary school when the rest of us are just typing and that’s what kids will be doing when they grow up?
And I got such strong responses back from that article. And I found that the responses fell into certain categories. There were certain things that people were interested in and there were certain things that I wanted to better explain.
I sort of used that interest that I saw from people in this topic to structure what I would write in the book… sort of answering their questions in my head, as it were.
Then ultimately I found chronology was my friend and that just to work historically was going to be the easiest way to lay it out, for the most part.
Then where does one turn to… where were your main sources of research? Did you go all over the place? Did you find some kind of amazing handwriting museum or did you have to get your information from lots and lots of disparate places?
Yeah, lots of places. As I said before I had been a scholar, researcher of larger topics. So, I already knew a lot about where people had written about these topics before. So, it’s a lot of history. There’s a field called Book History, which looks at the history of the book. I sort of went through that academic research to find out what I could about handwriting, in particular.
Then I also talk about different contemporary aspects of handwriting and I did, you know, go talk with people and go visit some places for those chapters.
A lot of it would be I would have a research question and I would find one source and that would lead me to another source. I think ultimately it was a pretty conventional research project that way.
There is a lot of research that has gone into this book. Can you give us just a rough idea of the timeline? Like, you conceived the book at a certain point, sometime later you wrote the magazine article, sometime later you decided, “Yes, I’m going to write it.” You researched it for ‘x’ number of months or years and then the amount of time to write it.
Can you give us just some idea of how long all of this took? Long or short?
Yeah. Well, it wasn’t quick. I think the first piece… well, I’ll tell you this, I was inspired to write the book for my son at seven and he’s now 17. Well, inspired to write about the topic.
I wrote the first article probably about nine years ago or so. Then about a year later I wrote a longer article about it, again, because I was getting so much feedback from readers.
So, I wrote a long magazine article. And that just exploded. So many more people were interested in that and that was maybe a year later.
And then maybe two or three years later I decided to propose to do a book on the topic. And then I needed to find an agent and then I needed to have the agent sell the manuscript. So that was another block of time.
Then once I had a book contract, this is probably an atypical story… I wrote the first draft in about a year. My editor was a very busy man and it took him a year to get back to me.
So then I wrote revisions and then it was another long time before he got back to me.
The process was very slow after I had actually drafted the manuscript. But, that’s not really a story about writing, that’s a story about publishing.
A lot of people would be interested to know, because you just said, “Well, I had to find an agent…” In America that is much more necessary than in Australia.
Do tell us how you went about finding an agent.
Well, there’s lots of different ways to do it. What I did was I had met an agent many years earlier about a different project. We didn’t end up working together, but we had a great conversation. I had a sense when I was working on this project that it was the kind of thing that he liked.
I sent him what’s called a query email. Basically, it’s an email that is pitching the idea. And if an agent thinks that the idea for the book is interesting and that he or she can get an editor interested, then they’ll sign you up as a client.
So basically it was an email. It was an email to someone I had met years earlier who does this kind of thing.
When you were researching the book did you discover some surprising facts that you just went, “Really?” Can you share some of those with us about handwriting and the evolution of handwriting?
Sure. I think the thing that I really found the most fascinating, and I knew the least about before I started researching, were ancient forms of handwriting. One of the first chapters is on cuneiform, which is the writing system that we’ve used in Sumer or ancient Mesopotamia. It was the first writing system ever. It was really a series of marks and slashes done on clay tablets. The epic of Gilgamesh is written in cuneiform.
I just found it absolutely fascinating to learn about it, to realise that people had these tablets that were tiny, that they taught kids in school how to write on these tablets, very much the way we still teach children how to write today.
And that actually a tablet, if you wrote on a tablet your handwriting was not a way to indicate who you were or didn’t show your personality. In fact, every single cuneiform tablet that’s been discovered has had an identical look to it. You cannot determine one writer from another because they worked so hard to have it all look standard and like machine-made as it were as possible, although obviously it wasn’t made by machines. They didn’t have machines.
But in fact what distinguished people, the way that they authenticated their identity, was from stone seals that they carried around and they would press the seals into the wet clay as a sort of signature. I just absolutely found that fascinating.
Other things that I found out about ancient forms of writing that didn’t make it into the book, such as Mayan and Mesopotamia writing systems… how did we not know… it’s like how did we not know more about this?
So, that was really fun.
What was your purpose in writing this book?
Well, I wanted to tell a history on handwriting. And I wanted to say, “Look, you might be anxious or worried or concerned about how little handwriting people are doing today, but it’s OK, because in previous times people had the exact same sorts of worries about a way of writing when a new form of writing shows up and everything turns out fine.”
And so I really wanted to say, “Don’t worry so much.” When the printing press was invented the monks thought that printed books would be the end of knowledge and everyone would get less intelligent and it would be terrible. And we look back now and say, “That’s ridiculous.”
People will look back and say that we’re being a little bit ridiculous in some of our concerns over handwriting today.
You obviously discovered or researched many different forms of handwriting, script. In that process did you kind of think, “You know what? Actually, that one was really efficient. I wonder why we didn’t stick to that?” Was there one that stuck out that just made a lot of sense? Do you know what I mean?
That’s a good question. You know the truth of the matter is that the alphabet is by far the most efficient writing system that’s been invented. It’s just 26 marks that indicate sounds. And, you know, if you compare the alphabet to Hebrew or Cyrillic or Chinese or Japanese you realise that “Wow, that’s pretty brilliant.”
I think that in some ways I’m lucky because I’m somebody who has always practised what is already an incredibly efficient writing system.
Are you now working on another book?
I’m not right now. To be honest I’m very happy to be free of that very looming, large kind of project. I’m working on shorter pieces and I’m letting my mind wander. I’m looking forward to when I happen upon a topic that I can’t wait to spend five years on.
Right now I’m not ready for that yet.
When you were in the depths of this and you were writing your first draft, in that year and also when you were doing your revisions, can you give me an idea of your typical day? Because I just imagine just being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of research, because there’s a lot of good stuff in this book and there’s a lot of research that you must have done.
How did you approach it? Because you can’t retain all of that in your head and then kind of start writing. How, physically, on a practical level, did you approach each day? Did you divide it up into eras and then attack it that way? Did you aim for a word count every day? Or did you just write and see where it went?
Great questions. I was never able to be only working on the book. I had other things, other jobs and responsibilities. And I’ve never been one of those people, as much as I would like to, who sits down and writes 500 words a day. You know, you read endless advice, “You must do this…” “You must write every day…” “The only way to…” you know? Whatever. That doesn’t work.
I think we all have our own ways and everyone works differently. I think it’s a danger to read too much of this advice and think there’s something wrong with you if you can’t follow it.
What works for me is to set deadlines in the future. Say, you know, today is — it’s the end of February, by the end of the March, say, I’d give myself… “I need to have ‘x’ done.” And that works for me. So some days I might not do anything on it and some days I might work for 16 hours straight.
And I would work chapter by chapter.
So by the end of February, I would need to get the chapter on Egypt done.
So, it’s very much by chapter.
You also have to realise… one of the other problems with writing advice I read is people say, “We have to write this much each day,” or whatever, and I’m like, “Well, when are you doing the research?” Right?
So it may be that I would have done all of the research for a chapter six months earlier and taken notes and then six months later say, “OK, now you have to go through all of that research and write it up by ‘x’ date.”
And so the research and the writing… I didn’t do all of the research and then start writing. I would do some research on one chapter then I might write another chapter, because I find it too overwhelming to write something as soon as I’m finished researching. I need it to sort of settle a little bit first before I can go back to it.
You have a chapter called Digital Handwriting. Can you tell us what you mean by ‘digital handwriting’?
Well, one of the fascinating things is that the internet makes handwriting much more accessible. So most of handwritten manuscripts that we have are in libraries and then they’re in archives and they’re under lock and key. Paper is a very fragile writing surface, so is papyrus or vellum. Those clay tablets they’re great, they last — you can throw them out the window and they’re not going to break.
But most handwritten manuscripts in the last two or three hundred years are very brittle and they’ve only been accessible to a researcher who might have to write an advance and get access and they have to have a reason to have access. So, it’s been very limited to be able to have access to this knowledge.
But what librarians and archivists are doing now is that they are taking those very precious manuscripts and they’re scanning them, then they put them back under lock and key, meanwhile they have the ability to scan them and put them online so that we can all see them.
And they also can input the data, they can transcribe what’s written on the manuscript and add it into the data, which means that when you’re searching for a topic suddenly for the first time ever information that might be on that handwritten manuscript from 1750 can be found by anyone searching.
In fact, this isn’t a handwriting example, but a great example of this is just yesterday somebody found a novel by Walt Whitman that had been lost. And he found it because he was doing some research online and somebody had digitised a newspaper and through various strings of events he realised that the newspaper had printed a novel by Walt Whitman that no one had seen before.
In this same way the internet is going to allow us to discover a lot of new things, because these precious manuscripts that have been hidden away can now be accessible to anyone, plus we can look at them and often they are very pretty.
Yeah, by absolutely everyone. That’s fantastic.
Finally, just a little bit of trivia, because we’ve often heard the phrase ‘put your John Hancock here.’ And, it’s actually an American term, but in Australia most of don’t know who John Hancock is, or why in the world we even say it.
Oh, but you say it?!
You say it in Australia and you don’t know why you’re saying it?
Well, some people might know, but it’s definitely a phrase that’s definitely heard here. We know that it means write your signature here, of course.
But I never would have guessed Australians say, “Put your John Hancock here.” That’s fascinating.
Not all Australians, but definitely you hear it.
Perhaps if you can enlighten our listeners of who in the world is John Hancock and why do we say this?
John Hancock was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. And he signed his name larger and more clearly than any of the other signers of the Declaration of Independence. So, if you look at the Declaration, you can find endless images of it online, you’ll see a bunch of tiny little words, which was the Declaration, then you’ll find a bunch of little tiny illegible names at the bottom, and then you’ll see very clearly in big letters John Hancock. And so because of that his signature has become a symbol of signatures in general. And so that’s why you use the term ‘John Hancock.’
Well, he certainly wanted to make his mark.
All right, on that note thank you so much for talking to us today, Anne. We really appreciate it.
Oh thank you, it’s been great fun.