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Handwritten is a place and space for pen and paper. We showcase things in handwriting, but also on handwriting. And so, you'll see dated letters and distant postcards alongside recent studies and typed stories. 

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Filtering by Tag: Conversation

Handwriting Continues to Prove Its Nimble Nature • A Conversation with Curator of Manuscripts at Mary Savig

Brett Rawson

"Technologies of communication, from telegrams to texting, have long threatened the written word. And yet, handwriting continues to prove its nimble nature. The craft of handwriting has flourished online, especially on social media. Artists, thinkers, and makers alike are experimenting with penmanship in innovative ways. Along these lines, the Archives continues to digitize and make our vast handwritten records available online for new generations to discover."

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What stories will your handwriting tell?

Brett Rawson

Is handwriting really a lost art? Mary Savig, Curator of Manuscripts at The Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, says no. And we agree, which is why we have bonded, and for two months, banded together to help celebrate the launch of their latest anthology, Pen to Paper. Edited by Savig, this art object brings together worlds of insight on handwriting: the personal with the professional, and the past as translated by the present. Published by the one and only Princeton Architectural Press, Pen to Paper showcases letters written between American artists, their intimates, and colleagues. In this online exhibition, you will find interviews and reflections from contributors expanding on their essays in the book alongside a selection of letters from the Archives. 

"And yet, handwriting continues to prove its fluidity. The craft of handwriting had flourished online, especially on social media. Artists, thinkers, and makers alike are experimenting with penmanship in innovative ways. Demonstrations of calligraphy can be found on YouTube and hand-scribed cards flourish on Etsy. In the past few years, curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist has rebooted autograph collecting by posting handwritten notes--usually jotted down on Post-It Notes--by contemporary artists on Instagram, where anyone is welcome to add comments. With this in mind, let's not mourn handwriting as a lost at, or even as a dying art. As snail mail fades from contemporary culture as a primary mode of communication. the vast array of handwritten letters in the Archives of American Art remains relevant and ready for new generations to discover. Let's celebrate how imaginative correspondence now exists in material and digital forms, posing new ways of thinking about art, history, and culture. In the spirit of this book, pick up your pen and write a letter today. What stories will your handwriting tell?"

- Mary Savig, Introduction, Pen to Paper (page 23)

I Live Everyday With the Fear of My Observer's Shame • Ty Douglas

Brett Rawson

This interview capped off the month-long exhibition, Maybe U R Like Me, which connects people across borders of identification by establishing the possibility of a sameness, and similarity, that was otherwise unexpected. Here, we ask Ty about anonymity, privacy in public, and intimate encounters. If we could all think, "Maybe u r like me" this year, we'd be much better off.

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Lost Songs: A Conversation with My Father

Brett Rawson

image3 (3).JPG


My dad and I co-wrote a song together for the first time in March of 2015. Seeing the song come to life from the penciled pages of his handwritten notebook made me curious about the process, specifically in the earlier days of his songwriting. When I brought up the idea of being featured on Handwritten, he knew exactly what he wanted to share.  Below is the conversation with my dad, Dale Butler, folk singer-songwriter and local celebrity of Leamington, Ontario.  

CARLY: Where did you find these pieces of handwritten work? 
DALE: I was cleaning up the basement and found them in a folder.  One of them is a finished song that is handwritten, but most of them are a bunch of started and unfinished songs, a dog’s breakfast really. These were written on shopping bags that date back to 1977.  

I was working up north at a camp at the time, so I probably got it from the liquor store. I thought it was nice paper that I could cut up into pages.  I didn’t have paper with me so I used what I could find. You have to get creative sometimes.  I’ve written on envelopes, napkins, things I find in the glove box, business cards, gum wrappers or packages, and I’ve even written songs on cigarette boxes (even though I don’t smoke).

This piece of paper here is from when I was in Florida in 1980.  It’s a paper shopping bag that I found at my parents place there.  It’s dated Friday April 11th, 1980.  I was down at the water and I got writing about a fisherman.  It’s a poem, not a song. I never ended up putting it to music but I kept it all these years. I wrote a thing here, “spoken words should be written words.” 

This is a neat line, “no matter where you put them, in view or out of sight, they’ll turn to each other and start another fight.” I have no idea what that was about.  It must have been about my parents arguing, or my brothers, or my brother and dad because they used to argue about everything.  Some of this stuff is pretty amazing.  “Till love saves the day, love is stronger than any man, love can take you by the hand, love can conquer any land.” 
When you get looking at these scraps of paper, it’s funny what you write, because a lot of times things that are said are never documented.  If you don’t write it down there’s a good chance it will be lost.

CARLY: I notice that you always use pencil.  Why is that? 
DALE: I write with pencil because I have trouble spelling and because you’re always rewriting. With a pencil it’s easy to erase and fix it.  When you write with ink, you have to scratch it out and put the other word beside it.  
CARLY: Don’t you ever worry that you’ll erase something good? 
DALE: No.  If it were good it wouldn’t have gotten erased.  I have lots of things that are partly written. I found a few lines in this pile that I think are going to become a song that I want to finish. They’re kind of like lost songs that are going to come back to life some day.  Some of it might just be one good line I wrote a long time ago that I think I could work with.  
CARLY: When did you first start writing & what inspired you to write?

DALE: My next-door neighbor Dan and I started writing songs in 1972.  We would always listen to music by Gordon Lightfoot, Seals and Crofts and James Taylor and we decided to try and write our own.  I remember one particular song that Dan had started on a piece of paper that he left sitting on a stereo. I saw it, read it and told him how good it was. After finding out he was about to throw it away, I offered to take it home to work on it and it later became the song Sea Captain. Once I started songwriting, I couldn’t stop. The quest then became the next song and wondering if my songwriting was going to get better. 

CARLY: Back then, if someone found these papers, how would you have felt? Do you have any songwriting advice?
DALE: Sometimes you’re embarrassed by what you write because it’s so personal and the fear is that others will maybe have the wrong interpretation of what you have written.  It could be totally different than what you think you wrote.  
I think when you first start you have lots to say, but you worry.  As you get older, you are a little bit smarter with the use of words because you’ve done it quite a bit, and you can say just as much with less.  It’s about picking the right words and the ability to convey what you wanted, with less. 
Basically you need to start writing something.  It can be anything.  When you read it over again sometimes the words move you and other times they don’t.  If it doesn’t you just set it aside and move on to something else.  You can always come back to it 20 or 30 years later. I’m looking at this stuff that’s quite old and I’m realizing in this moment that it might have another life.  I’ve written 99 songs in my lifetime, maybe these handwritten lyrics on scraps of paper from the 70’s and 80’s that I’ve saved after all these years, will help me reach my 100th song this year. 

A Legacy of Travel • A Conversation with Christian Corollo, Past Present Project

Brett Rawson


After crossing paths with Christian on Instagram, I could tell that Christian and I had a lot in common. Not only was he recreating photos that his grandfather had taken 30 years earlier, but there were also ties to the grandmother's handwritten journals that made his journey so fascinating. Photographer and travel blogger, Christian created the Past Present Project and I had the chance to ask him a few questions about what kind of an impact these family heirlooms have had on his life. 

CARLY: How did you come across this heirloom?

CHRISTIAN: It all started in August of 2012 during a visit with my 99-year-old grandmother in Florida. After telling her about my relatively new love of travel, she showed me the travel journals from all of the trips she and my grandfather had taken between 1973 and 2003. I was fascinated by her detailed accounts of their journeys, including names of people they met and exact locations of places they stayed, and eventually had the courage to ask if I could keep such a treasured possession. Knowing that her journals would not be of interest to anyone after she passed away, she was delighted to hand them over to someone who would treasure them beyond her. I left Florida with over 20 of her thirty journals.

CARLY: What does it mean to you to have this piece of handwritten work?

CHRISTIAN: I could sense how important these journals are to my grandmother filled with memories of moments shared with my grandfather, experiences that come flooding back when she reads the words contained inside, and a legacy of travel. She has expressed this legacy of travel to me on many occasions and how proud my grandfather would be that I’m carrying it on in our family. She has also told me that their trips together are when they were the happiest. This is why I’ve felt the conviction to not only continue the legacy of travel they began, but share the words and moments of the most treasured times of their life.

CARLY: What has it inspired in you?

CHRISTIAN: Little did I know in 2012 that with the combination of her journals and my grandfather’s travel photographs, I would embark on my own journey of retracing their steps and stand in the same places they did so long ago. If not for her travel journals, I never would have discovered the exact locations of so many of my grandfather’s photographs or known the names and met for myself the people in his images.

Valhalla Pier in South Lake Tahoe, California | June 1981 & May 2015

Valhalla Pier in South Lake Tahoe, California | June 1981 & May 2015

Excerpt from my grandmother’s travel journal on June 9th, 1981: “Walked down to the lake – a vast expanse of quietly lapping water, brilliant sun, and a small sand beach before the ‘Jeffrey’ pine woods.”

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California | April 1979 & May 2011

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California | April 1979 & May 2011

Excerpt from my grandmother’s travel journal on April 27th, 1979: “There was an earthquake at that time in the middle of San Francisco! We didn’t feel it – were much too busy finding our way through town to the Presidio, a big military reservation. The scenic route lead right through it, to Fort Point, directly under the Golden Gate Bridge. Going on along the shore-drive, high above the blinding shimmering-white sea against the sun, along funny colorful small houses.

To see more of the Past Present Project, visit Christian's lovely website: www.pastpresentproject.com.

The Story Ribboned Forward, Inventing Itself • Karan Mahajan

Brett Rawson

For author Karan Mahajan, handwriting is a necessity, a fact almost. He writes every first draft by hand, and while he encourages everyone to as well, he doesn't care if you do. But we do, so read this interview and hear his fearless take on how handwriting cancels self-criticism, as well as helps you avoid getting needlessly attached to language and doubling backward into revision before a story is complete.

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I See Students Who Crave the Opportunity to Work with Their Hands • A Conversation With Gail Anderson

Brett Rawson

Portrait of Gail Anderson, by Paul Davis

Portrait of Gail Anderson, by Paul Davis


With decades of teaching, typography, and creative collaboration under her belt, New York-based designer and writer Gail Anderson has a CV worth calling home about — at least, it earned her the holy grail of graphic design achievements, the AIGA medal, in 2008. The design-ecstatic aesthete made her first layout years before her tenure as art director at Rolling Stone, literally cutting and pasting a magazine mockup of the Jackson Five in her childhood bedroom.

She’s been busy ever since, developing identity campaigns for Broadway shows, co-writing typography books with Steven Heller, teaching type fundamentals in the MFA program at SVA, and co-partnering with Joe Newton at their eponymous Anderson Newton Design firm for projects ranging from book jackets to outdoor installations. Despite the ease and efficiency of digital design technology, Anderson swears by taking time to untether from the laptop, insisting that craft is crucial to typography, and slowing down with a pencil and piece of paper is crucial to honing that craft. In November we reviewed her latest book, Outside the Box, which honors this DIY by-hand approach, following the hand-lettering trend from its individual, artful beginnings to its contemporary commercial ubiquity.

I had the chance to talk to her about the book’s composition, as well as handwriting and hand-lettering in general — how it plays into her life as a designer, and design as a whole. 

Childhood Sketchpad

Childhood Sketchpad

Design inspiration from childhood, 1974

Design inspiration from childhood, 1974

SARAH MADGES: What role does the pen and notebook play in your life?

GAIL ANDERSON: I’ve grown increasingly particular about the pens and notebooks I use, since I really enjoy the physical act of writing. I’m a fan of black Pilot Varsity fountain pens and Pilot Precise V7s. And I was extremely loyal to those Japanese Oh Boy notebooks with the thick, ruled paper, even after Chronicle acquired them and put the Oh Boy logo on the front. I have two left that I’m saving for God knows what since they’re now out of production. I moved on to Muji, and then Moleskine, and am now working my way through some Field Notes steno pads. I even keep a paper date book, so clearly the art of writing still means a lot — possibly way too much — to me. 

MADGES: You divided your book into four sections — DIY, art, craft, and artisanal. How did you come up with these four categories? Was it always clear you were going to organize the book this way? 

ANDERSON: I knew I wanted to have some kind of system to categorize the material. I’ve learned a lot from working with Steve Heller for so many years, so I did what we always do with our books — I spread the work out with someone I trust and we let it sort of organize itself. It’s too confining to categorize stuff in the research stage, but you can’t wait till the design stage either. It was really fun to come up with section titles, and once my design partner, Joe Newton, and I got through that process, I felt like we had the contents of a real book in front of us.

Type Spread from  Outside the Box.

Type Spread from Outside the Box.

MADGES: Do you see a significant difference between what’s considered handwriting and hand-lettering? How would you define the difference — is it intent? Actual artistic design and effort?

ANDERSON: I wrote out Debbie Millman’s foreword by hand and consider that to be handwriting rather than hand-lettering. When I look at it now, though, it seems so deliberate (and some folks have assumed it was a font). Maybe it does have something to do with intent — I’m not quite sure where the line in the sand is.

Broadway theater poster designed at SpotCo

MADGES: Why do you think people respond to hand-drawn lettering? Do you think there will always be a demand for it? Do you imagine it will lose popularity any time soon?

ANDERSON: People connect to branding and advertising that feels intimate and artisanal. It’s somehow less “corporate," even though hand-drawn type is used by just about everyone now. I think Andrew Gibbs from the Dieline said it best in the book’s intro: “In all my years of seeing packaging trends come and go, there is one style that has stood the ultimate test of time: hand-drawn.” I admit that a few years ago, I thought, “Well, how long will this last before we swing all the way back to Helvetica?” But in some form or another, hand-drawn type is here to stay. 

Type Directors Club letterpress post card

Type Directors Club letterpress post card

MADGES: Do you see a similar resurgence in classic or vintage fonts in reaction to the digital age?

ANDERSON: I see students who crave the opportunity to work with their hands — kids who’ve pretty much grown up in front of a computer. While embracing technology is key to their success as designers, they don’t want to feel tied to their laptops. We did a hand-lettering class last week and the students actually started applauding at the end — that’s how hungry they are. And I think they are beginning to seek out classic and vintage fonts, which is such a relief after so many years of all those awful free fonts. 

MADGES: Is there a distinct moment or brand that signaled the beginning of the hand-drawn movement’s resurgence? Or was this a gradual, inevitable change in response to an increase in digital and technological saturation?

ANDERSON: I wasn’t plugged in enough to recognize a particular moment, but it certainly seemed like everyone started drawing — and posting — around the same time. I think it’s all about Pinterest and the other sites and blogs where designers started strutting their stuff publicly. It sometimes felt like everyone jumped on the bandwagon without adding a new twist, but the best of the best have carved out their own niches. And yes, I do believe that it was a reaction to technological saturation and the desire to create something seemingly personal and unique.

Jackson Five scrapbook, 1972

Jackson Five scrapbook, 1972

MADGES: What first compelled you to typographic design? When did you first start collecting typefaces and fonts?

ANDERSON: I started designing magazine layouts as a child, first for The Jackson Five, and then for The Partridge Family. Even then, my pages were filled with my 12-year old version of typography, which was based on Spec and 16 magazines and their Letraset rub-down type. I started saving photostats of typefaces in college, but things really clicked when I worked at Rolling Stone with Fred Woodward. His good taste and sharp eye were instrumental to the growth of my own skills.

MADGES: Marketing research has found that the first piece of mail someone is likely to open has a handwritten address. Do you think this is because of handwriting’s scarcity that it’s perceived as more valuable? Is it more authentic? Personal?

ANDERSON: I’m not in a hurry to open anything that’s got a bulk rate stamp or a mailing label (I hate them on greeting cards). But I’ll give something that has a handwritten address on it a chance, though admittedly I’ve been fooled once or twice by handwriting fonts. I appreciate the idea of someone taking a few minutes to put pen to paper.

Hand-drawn lettering from a cross-stitch book that continues to inspire Anderson

Hand-drawn lettering from a cross-stitch book that continues to inspire Anderson

Outside the Box: Hand-Drawn Packaging from Around the World

Outside the Box: Hand-Drawn Packaging from Around the World

MADGES: You note in your book that hand-drawn lettering isn’t necessarily popular just because of the attendant sense of nostalgia, but rather because of its established historic design technique. What makes this technique more or less difficult to execute? What are the pros and cons?

ANDERSON: Drawing naive type is one thing—and often not as easy as it looks—but doing what Martin Schmetzer, for example, does just blows me away. There’s a tremendous degree of patience and utter stillness required, but there’s also a touch of genius that is at a whole other level. When I was editing through book images, there were times when I’d just stop in my tracks to stare at pencil sketches that were so incredible that they might as well have been finished pieces. And Martin thought his sketches were “rough”—seriously.  

MADGES: I’m similarly amazed that a brand as huge as Chipotle uses handlettering. Do you think it is feasible for any even larger companies to follow that approach? How do you think consumers would respond if McDonalds rebranded with letterpress?

ANDERSON: The idea of a McDonald's “artisan” chicken sandwich rings about as true as the idea of a company like that rebranding with letterpress. But Chipotle’s pretty huge and their incredibly inviting branding brought in a lot of customers, including me. Hatch Show Print does McDonald’s! Ha.

New “Make it Here” SVA poster

New “Make it Here” SVA poster

MADGES: What does it mean for design and typography that the next generation might not be able to read cursive because it is no longer taught in schools?

ANDERSON: I guess we’ll see a lot more child-like lettering that isn’t an affectation! I see my nieces’ and nephews’ handwriting and it’s just terrifying. But I am a product of Catholic schools in the 1970s, where penmanship was paramount. On the other hand, I also see young designers who can make letterforms into magic on their computers, so perhaps it all evens out. As long as there are cursive typefaces to buy, they’ll just have to learn to read script even if they can’t write it.

MADGES: Looking at your site, I’m impressed that you are an incredibly versatile and prolific designer. You’ve worked as Art Director at Rolling Stone, an educator at SVA, are on the board of TDC, you designed probably my favorite US Postal stamp — the Emancipation Proclamation. How do you take on these projects — what strings them together? And what’s next?

ANDERSON: I actually just started a new job recently that should keep me challenged for a good long time. I’m now the Director of Design and Digital Media at Visual Arts Press (SVA). My career is tied to a love of working with words, whether it’s designing them or writing them. The Emancipation Proclamation stamp may be my all-time favorite project. I got to design using a piece of history — the first words from the document itself, and was able to set the actual type at Hatch and watch Jim Sherraden print the poster that was then reduced to stamp size. It doesn’t get better than that.

The Best Work is Work You Don’t Understand Fully • A Conversation with Special Forces Medic & Poet Graham Barnhart, a Special Forces Medic, Poet

Brett Rawson


Graham Barnhart is from Titusville, Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the oil industry. He is an 18D, Special Forces medical sergeant, and has been deployed twice: once in Iraq for nine months, and the other for seven months in Afghanistan. I didn’t know all this when I met him at Hotel El Greco in Thessaloniki. All I knew was that Graham Barnhart was a poet and my roommate for the summer. We were the only two men taking part in Writing Workshops in Greece on the island of Thassos. It being my first time living away from home and having a roommate other than my parents, there were a lot of question marks in my eyes.

The day we were to meet, I went for a long walk along the port to the White Tower and other landmarks drenched in Greek history. In between monuments, I wondered if Graham and I were searching for the same thing; if we would be capable of having a good time with a beer in one hand and a pen in the other; and if we could mix the sentimental with the comical, the work and the play. A few hours later when I returned to our hotel and skipped up the flights of stairs, I was stopped by an unfamiliar, familiar face. I wasn’t sure what Graham looked like—his Facebook profile picture was a black and white image of a random old bearded fisherman—but something told me this was him. 

“You’re Graham,” I said, almost accusatory. 

“That’s me,” he replied. 

I would learn this to be his normal, quiet, calm exterior. I would also learn that he wildly records his surroundings, almost instantly rendering them into lines of expression. One of our first nights, we sat in the restaurant beneath our rooms, watching locals throw napkins over the others dancing to the live music. When Graham asked why they did this, I told him it was a sign of respect, to the musicians and to the dancers. During the first student reading, Graham read a poem about his time in the military and in Greece that centered around the image of the napkins.. He had this uncanny ability to live in the moment, to inhale all that was around him and let it all sink onto a page, and a poem, as he exhaled.

Throughout our time together, I learned something else about Graham — he handwrites wherever he goes. This makes sense, as he is always on the move in the military, but I wondered how he balances the two worlds — the military and literary. We caught up recently and talked about this: his time overseas, balancing the military world and the literary world, and his thoughts on the handwritten word. 

DEMETRI RAFTOPOULOS: In Thassos, you carried around your notebook everywhere, especially on our excursions to other towns. What kinds of things were you writing? 

GRAHAM BARNHART: I write down a mixture of notes and poems, usually more notes and lines than full ideas for a piece. I try to pursue an idea as far as I can in that first jotting, to get everything out as it occurs to me. I try not to list off ideas for what the poem will be about. That feels like a shying away from the sometimes (often) daunting moment of inspiration. That moment when you can feel but not yet articulate all the potential of the idea that has struck you. It’s too easy to try to categorize or outline that idea than put it aside. That avoids all the hard work and limits the creative potential to what you already understand or can conceive of.  

The best work is work you don’t understand fully until you’ve written it. It’s better for me to have the image or handful of lines so that I can come back to them, hopefully experiencing again whatever it was that made me want to write them in the first place.  A good idea or plan for a poem can sometimes turn into a trap.  

RAFTOPOULOS: Yeah, I don’t think I ever fully follow through with an “idea” the way I thought I would when it first hits me. Always lands on the page differently than it does in my head. What’s your process like?

BARNHART:  I tend to start by hand though I don’t usually think of my handwritten work as a first draft until it hits a computer. On paper I might complete a poem but keep marking it up, fussing with it really, until I get motivated enough to actually type it up. That’s when I know I have a draft rising up out of all the daily notes and scribbles that I really want to pursue. 

Handwritten work feels more in-progress to me, like I haven’t quite found the right configuration of ideas and images to call it a poem. Once those components are present I do most of the finer tuning on a screen. That’s when I start thinking about outlining or diagraming the piece and when I add notes for further revision. The handwritten phase is not always a requirement, but it serves as a permanent record and a well of all the ideas and lines that might otherwise be forgotten. I love to flip through my current and older notebooks as a way to warm up to writing.  I don’t always ending up working on the piece I sat down to revise but something usually happens. That’s all I can ask for sometimes. 

RAFTOPOULOS: Absolutely. Do you always use the same notebook, or do you have different ones for different purposes?

BARNHART: I’ve always kept some sort of a notebook, though kept might mean that it sat in my room or desk for weeks without being used. I have a bad habit of writing down ideas in whatever paper is handy rather than using my designated writing notebooks. So I end up with notes and drafts scattered through everything else.  

Having a pen and paper handy is a big deal in the military. There is always information being put out, whether it’s the time of the next formation, how many rounds of ammunition you’re drawing for the range, or a casualty description for a medevac request. It’s considered unprofessional to show up for a briefing or class without something to write with and on. That comes in handy when trying to take poetry notes. No one really questions what I’m doing. Not that writing poetry would be a problem, but explaining my writing to a soldier would be about as long and complicated a conversation as explaining what I do in the military to a civilian. It’s just easier most days for everyone to think I’m noting the effect range of a 60mm mortar. 

RAFTOPOULOS: And one notebook specifically that you described to me as a “writeintherain” notebook.

BARNHART: Yes. Recently — the last 15 years maybe — little flipbooks kept in zip lock bags have been replaced with waterproof notebooks made by a company called “Rite in the Rain.” They have thick, waxy pages and only work with regular, old ballpoint pens, rather than the fine tip pilot pens I really like. In fact the notebooks even come with an “all weather pen” which is just a short, steel ballpoint.   

RAFTOPOULOS: How about your handwriting — does it change from notebook to notebook? I imagine writing in the rain could “weather” your penmanship. 

BARNHART: I don’t make the handwriting look different on purpose, but because of the materials used it just does. It actually feels harder to write on the all weather paper, kind of like the notebook is resisting anything not specifically military. Though of course it’s also a pain to write military stuff. That material tends to be short notes and lists rather than lines and stanzas.       

I mentioned not being very good at keeping my writing consolidated. So on top of half filled moleskins lying around I also have a bunch of waterproof notebooks filled with operation orders, mortar targeting grids and the occasional poetry stanza. I don’t try to keep these things separate in the notebooks though. I like the juxtaposition.   

RAFTOPOULOS: You have experience teaching and I know you want to teach in the future. Do you think you’ll assign writing prompts in class, just so your students are forced to write by hand as you sometimes are? 

BARNHART: I think in class writing prompts are fantastic, especially when they’re handwritten.  That format forces a sense of urgency but also of care. You have to physically create each letter, but you may only have 5 minutes, or 10.  For me this frees me from my normal analytical and self-editing process. I just get something out there that follows whatever external guidelines the prompt demands. Some people don’t like prompts feeling they stifle their own creative process. I rather think that prompts free your creative process from you, if you are diligent and faithful to the restrictions. So in short, yes, I will absolutely assign handwritten prompts.

RAFTOPOULOS: How did you decide on pursuing an MFA? 

BARNHART: I decided on the MFA in undergrad and actually started the application process before I decided to enlist. It seemed like the best way to pursue a writing career and avoid student loans for as long as possible. I knew I wanted to write and didn't much care what sort of real life job I ended up with so an MFA seemed like the right way to go.

RAFTOPOULOS: What was it like writing or attempting to write in places like Iraq and Afghanistan? 

BARNHART: I wrote very little digitally during deployments. In fact I didn’t write much at all. I took sporadic handwritten notes when an image caught my attention, sometimes even a full poem but I didn’t spend much time actually working. I regret that now of course, I wish I had at least kept better daily logs. 

On both trips I did have my own room with a desk, a bed and some books. I wouldn’t take my laptop out on patrols or missions of course but it was around. I always had a notebook in my pocket though. Actually it was in a pouch on my body armor. I kept pen and paper, some caffeine pills and a little iPod shuffle that was plugged into my ballistic hearing protection. The pouch was intended to hold shotgun shells so it had little elastic loops sewn all over the inside.   

RAFTOPOULOS: How were you able to balance both of these worlds — military and literary? 

BARNHART: Most days if I ended up with some notes or lines, I felt like that was a success. It was a sufficient sign that I hadn’t given up or lost writing which was a big concern for me post undergrad. I went from learning to write in an environment structured to support that to one structured to support a very different goal. I was also learning and studying in the military, but of course none of it was directly poetry related. It helped to think of it, especially the miserable stuff, as material. 

RAFTOPOULOS: Were you ever worried that you would stop writing completely? 

BARNHART: There was a point during the medical training when I actually thought I would. That course was intensive. We did physical training from 6:30-8:00, and then we were in class from 9:00-5:00. Afterwards, we spent three to four hours studying. There were written and practical tests every week. Learning that much medicine that fast pushed everything else out of my head. I completely forgot all of the Arabic I had spent the last six month learning. I didn’t feel like I had the capacity for any other kind of thinking.  

RAFTOPOULOS: I can imagine. I’m happy you haven’t stopped writing. How much of your poetry is inspired by your time overseas? 

BARNHART: Much of my writing is loosely inspired by my deployments, mainly Afghanistan because it was more combat-oriented and also more recent. Many of my poems are set there, though I prefer to rely on an ambiguity that implies the setting alludes to it. I think of the war and my military time in general as a useful context for exploring ideas in poetry but I don’t think many of them as “about” the war, or at least, the ones I find more interesting to write are not.

Then again, my time in the military is relatively short compared to most of the guys I worked with. Some of them have been to Afghanistan more than ten times, though some of those trips were as contractors. I’m hesitant to talk about what the war is like because I only know about my brief experience, leaving out the long history of this conflict, not to mention that largely silent or unheard voices of the people who actually live there. I never want to say this is what Afghanistan is like. I can only say this is what I saw in Afghanistan while I was there as an American soldier. 

Graham Barnhart is an 18D, Special Forces medical sergeant, and is an MFA in Creative Writing candidate at The Ohio State University. His writing has appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal, the Sycamore Review where he was a finalist for their 2014 Wabash prize, Subtropics, The Gettysburg Review, and Sewanee Review. He is also a finalist for the Indiana Review's poetry prize and the Iowa Review's Jeff Scharlett Memorial award for veterans. And is hoping to be back in Greece next summer so Demetri can continue drinking tsipouro with him and translating Greek for him. 

The Best Investment of Time and Money • A Conversation with Calligrapher Kathy Orf

Brett Rawson


Kathy Orf is a calligrapher living and creating in St. Louis, MO. She has been practicing a “morning writing” ritual in which she sits down and draws in calligraphy without any prior planning for just a few minutes each day, a 365 project that allows her to continually approach her work in fresh ways. I had the chance to talk to her about what exactly calligraphy is, how it relates to handwriting, and how she became so invested in the art.


SARAH MADGES: How and when did you first become interested in calligraphy? How did you come to make a career out of it?

KATHY ORF: I had a “decorative arts” class in high school that included calligraphy and — I’m really dating myself here — macramé! Then in college, I majored in graphic design and had a whole semester of calligraphy, which was really rare. After graduation, I worked in graphic design until my second son (Alex) was born and then decided I should stay home and do calligraphy part time. I had started trying to sell my work at arts and crafts shows just 3 months after my first son was born and thought I would continue that. I’m not sure I would call it a “career,” maybe more of a passion or a creative outlet…It is really hard to support yourself doing calligraphy and luckily I never had to. That said, I’ve been doing calligraphy for 30 years.

MADGES: When people hear the word calligraphy, they tend to think “beautifully ornate handwriting” or “wedding invitations.” How do you characterize calligraphy — is it an art form, a process of symbol arrangement, pimped-out handwriting? What are calligraphy’s essential elements? What makes it different from handwriting?

ORF: I think calligraphy can be different things depending on how it is used. It can definitely be an art form…something which has been a struggle to achieve in other’s eyes. But it can be very utilitarian when it is used to address envelopes or fill in names on pre-printed certificates. I do not consider calligraphy to be hand-writing in any sense of the word. It takes years of practice and good instruction and some talent to reach a certain skill level. Calligraphy is not fast in learning it or its execution. The letters may look like they’ve been written quickly, but many times it is more deliberate than you might think. And the funny thing is, one important part of hand-lettering is consistency, but whenever I look at printed lettering, I look to see if the letters are identical to determine whether it is hand-done or a typeface. So, even though you strive for consistency, you also want it to look organic, like it came from someone’s hand and not a machine.

MADGES: Does your handwriting resemble your calligraphy? Have you always had good handwriting?

ORF: My handwriting is the worst…just ask my husband. But I think it is because I am always in a hurry when I am writing something and using a ballpoint pen. Put a calligraphy nib in my hand and it’s a different story. It’s almost like my hand knows what to do at that point.

MADGES: Do you have one main mode of calligraphy, or are you always inventing and adapting the letters and symbols to their specific purpose and environment?

ORF: I know many different hands…italic, uncial, blackletter, foundational, romans, copperplate…and variations of them all. But I tend to get in ruts and use the same personalized style all of the time. I guess you could call this style my “calligraphic handwriting” because that is what I use to write with most of the time.  My tool of choice to create this lettering is a pointed pen…Brause EF66. It is very flexible and can be used to write very tiny or even letters up to an inch tall. Every morning, I pick up my Brause, a piece of paper that I had already painted and just write a saying using this “handwriting,” although it does not resemble my actual handwriting at all. But, when I sit down to do a finished piece, I might think more about what I want it to look like, and what style I should use, and even use a chiseled nib, like a Mitchell.

MADGES: What are your most common assignments — and what kind of clients do you attract? How long do you spend working on individual pieces?

ORF: Most of my work of late is just doing sayings for friends. I don’t advertise, except through word of mouth. I have some certificate work for Washington University in the spring and fall, and will do a wedding or two a year, but usually just for friends, as I’ve never really enjoyed the rote nature of the work. I also create pieces to sell at fairs using my photographs of things that look like letters that I combine with my calligraphy. I can usually do a simple lettering job in a couple of hours. If I am creating a background and lettering a larger piece, it takes maybe 6 to 8 hours — it really depends on so many variables.

MADGES: What do you think about the diminishment of handwriting and cursive lessons in U.S. schools? Have you noticed any change in the demand for and reception of calligraphy as handwriting diminishes in use and popularity?

ORF: I think it is terrible that they are trying to stop teaching handwriting in schools. I think it is one of those things that they will later decide was detrimental to cognitive development. I’m not sure diminished use of handwriting has affected the popularity of calligraphy as much as the increase in fonts that look like it!

MADGES: What are some of your favorite examples of calligraphy in general — historical, global, etc.?

ORF: I just went to see the Book of Kells this summer at Trinity College in Dublin and it was amazing. I also love the work that Donald Jackson did on the St. John’s Bible that he just completed a couple of years ago for St. John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota. But I am mostly drawn to and excited by contemporary calligraphy.

MADGES: Why do people respond to it? Do you think there will always be a demand or desire for calligraphy?

ORF: I think people respond to calligraphic work because it so often interprets words in a way that touches them. Sometimes it’s because it is something they “wouldn’t have the patience for” — I hear this very often. And sometimes just because it is beautiful! I think there will always be a desire to do calligraphy as art, maybe not as much of a demand for invitations and such, although the whole retro movement may help, like it has for letterpress printing! But to survive, I think it will have to grow more into the realm of art and it has been doing that for a while now.

MADGES: Any advice for calligraphy enthusiasts out there?

ORF: Join your local calligraphy guild. Learn from good teachers and don’t just take a class and never do it again…practice or do homework if it is assigned. The best thing I ever did was to take a year-long class taught by a calligrapher named Reggie Ezell. He travels to four different cities for one weekend of every month of the year teaching almost everything you need to know. The great thing is that there was homework each month, and I DID THE HOMEWORK…and that made all of the difference! Unfortunately, Reggie is retiring after next year. But that was the best investment of time and money I ever spent.

It Starts to Look Like a Timeline, Not a Journal • A Conversation with Angela Flournoy

Brett Rawson


Angela Flournoy and her debut novel, The Turner House, are igniting the literary scene with their unassuming eloquence and nuanced commentary on the deleterious effects of the 2008 housing bubble and the black American diaspora, whose interrelated history subsumes the 13 members of the Turner family as they navigate a crumbling Detroit.

Garnering significant attention and accolades for a debut novelist, Flournoy is a finalist for the National Book Awards in Fiction, and was named a “5 under 35” writer, designations that left Flournoy nearly tweetless, only able to write “whaaaat” in response. Despite this rapid success, when we saw her during an intimate conversation hosted by CLMP at the New School, there was an easygoing magnetism to her speech, posture, and perspective. Although Flournoy is the first to admit her excitement for the book’s positive reception, watching her speak, it seemed clear that we are in the presence of a person who has remained rooted at the center of the spinning wheel. 

So when we found out that Flournoy wrote the entire first draft of The Turner House by hand, we went wild with theories — perhaps the handwritten word explains why she is so grounded, or has enabled her to access memories of her father’s Detroit childhood, etc. Thankfully, Sarah Madges from Handwritten spoke with Angela about writing The Turner House by hand, thereby recusing us of the need to go on any longer. We wish Angela the very best this week, and hope everyone who reads this here will read her book, and then handwrite their own.  

SARAH MADGES: So I wanted to talk to you about your process, how handwriting figures into it, and how you came to incorporate it into your process:

ANGELA FLOURNOY: Handwriting has always been a part of my process. I got my first journal when I was eight years old — I don’t have them with me or I’d check, they are at my mother’s house. I’ve always worked out ideas or feelings through handwriting.

For most of my academic life I was writing papers on the computer and generally typing things, and it didn’t seem like the most natural way to work on something that was not like a term paper. When I was first writing short stories in undergrad most were written on a computer first, but when I got to Iowa, one thing that was an issue for me was procrastination. I didn’t have the smartest of phones, I was always a couple generations behind — now that’s an issue — but I figured if I left the house I’d focus more. So I would sit in the coffee shop and sit on my laptop hanging around on the Internet instead of writing, even after downloading Self Control, because you could still override it.

So I returned to handwriting to focus — there were not as many distractions. Especially when you’re working on something historical, you want to look everything up on Google, which is useful in revision, but it gets in the way of writing when you stop and end up in a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Writing longhand made me focus, and slow down. 

MADGES: Has your writing always been historical in the way The Turner House is, or written about, for example, a city you never lived in, but know about? 

FLOURNOY: History is always a part of the way that I envision stories. This novel, especially, but I had written 70 pages of another novel based in a city I never lived in and it was a similar process.

MADGES: How would you get yourself to push through the writing instead of succumbing to the kneejerk reaction to look things up — would you leave notes like “look up later” and just keep going?

FLOURNOY: Well I would put an asterisk next to what I wasn’t sure was right. The thing about literary fiction is that it’s not one of those things — I’m not writing a civil war period piece that heavily relies on research and that people are so into it and will feel betrayed if they feel it’s inaccurately portrayed, like, “That’s not what happened at Gettysburg!” That’s not the burden of the kind of fiction I write. You just need to have a foundation with reality. I would just write in the margin: Look this up!

MADGES: You said you started writing in a journal when you were around eight years old. Did someone encourage you to do that, or did you sort of come to that naturally?

FLOURNOY: Well, it was a Christmas present from an aunt of mine and so then it was just, there. And I’ve always been a person who, as soon as I learned how to read, read a lot, so it was like of course I would do this thing. No one was telling me I have to do it, and there wasn’t much else to do. Now, we live in a time of distraction, so it might be different. People talk about wanting to pick it up as a practice. 

MADGES: Did you always prefer to write by hand? Have you found greater success this way, or did you notice yourself writing/editing differently with a word processor? 

FLOURNOY: I feel like I’m a lot less apt to take risks when I’m typing out a story because it’s so easy to delete things; whereas, when you’re writing by hand you have to get to a certain critical mass before you “x” something out. It’s too easy to reread every sentence, go backwards rather than forward.

The editing process should be the editing process. You handicap yourself when you keep cutting down your own ideas. One on its own might not be great, but they might all make sense in concert with themselves. When there’s that blinking cursor encouraging you to cut them down, you might lose what the idea was really supposed to be. 

MADGES: Right! And once you delete them there’s no evidence of those ideas, at least in a notebook you can usually still read the words you crossed out. So how does handwriting figure into your writing process? What role did it play in writing the Turner House?

FLOURNOY: One benefit of writing longhand, I’m more gentle with myself on first drafts. It hurts to scratch out all the pages you wrote in the day.

I usually write the first draft longhand with notes in the margins and sometimes rudimentary edits as they fit on the page. For this novel, I wrote maybe a couple chapters at a time, then I would go and type them into this master novel document. That’s already two editing processes: on the page in the margins, and then of course I’m not going to transcribe something that is terrible, so again when I type. And because I’m not rereading everything in the document, that document lives separately, it ends up getting sort of built up and I’m able to look at what’s there, what’s working and what’s not, and change it later. It allows me to have a base, and provides some time between writing something and wanting to jump into revising it and moving, structurally, whole chapters around. Once I finished a notebook I would assess: where are we actually in the larger narrative? Some of the notebooks are half writing prose, half notes. It took about seven college ruled Moleskine notebooks. 

MADGES: How long would it take you? Did you find yourself having to stop because you couldn’t physically write anymore, or…?

FLOURNOY: No, I’m not a fast writer. On some days, it might have been more staring and thinking and I maybe only wrote five actual pages in my notebook. On other days, I could very easily look up and there’d be 15 pages in front of me. And even though handwriting is larger, those 15 pages would end up being 20 pages because I would think of things to add or subtract when transcribing. I don’t really remember my hand cramping. I wish I was one of those people who could really get a lot out of writing for three hours every day. For me, I have “writing seasons” and I have “thinking about writing seasons,” and when I am in the writing season, I just hunker down. I wake up early. If I don’t have a block of four hours, I feel like the time is already gone. I am not a fast writer. I was working at a D.C. public library, and I would have a shift from 5-9pm. So I would get to the coffee shop at noon and I would try to finish, or start a chapter. 

MADGES: Do you keep a journal, or carry a notebook and pen around with you? 

FLOURNOY: I have a journal but I don’t write in it much. When I was writing short stories, I would sometimes journal, but when I was writing this novel, I think the last thing I wanted to do was pick up another book and write in that book, too. I have slowed down journaling for myself. Now, I use it more for marking moments, or milestones.  

MADGES: How do you feel about the fact that cursive is no longer required teaching in U.S. elementary schools? 

FLOURNOY: I am terrible at cursive — I have terrible handwriting — but I can read cursive. But say, how can you even read archival documents if you can’t read cursive? You have to trust someone else’s transcription of it. It’s as if you’ve lost a language if you can’t read it for yourself and that is dangerous because people can say that any document says anything. It’s bad enough I only know one language fluently — I can at least read and write in Spanish — but it’s bad enough that most people in the U.S. don’t even have reading proficiency in a second language. But to not even have that proficiency in the language you were raised with? We’re not even going to be a monolingual culture anymore — we’re going to be whatever half of monolingual is.

MADGES: Well, you had a very successful debut! How do you feel about being shortlisted for the National Book Award? Were you surprised?

FLOURNOY: Yes, I was surprised. A sort of big moment for me was being on the long list, because who thinks that’s going to happen? I was in my apartment and I had sorted out my clothes and was going to take them to the laundromat and my phone started vibrating. This is stuff your younger writer self doesn’t dare fantasize about. I never really fantasized about publishing my book in general. It’s been great — it’s opened up all these different opportunities. I’m going to be teaching at The New School in the spring, which is exciting. 

MADGES: Did you write about that in your journal?

FLOURNOY: [laughs] Yes, the last thing I wrote was in, like, August, and then: “I got on the shortlist!” It starts to look like a timeline, not a journal. Baby steps. I’ll get there.

From her site: ANGELA FLOURNOY is the author of The Turner House, which is a finalist for the National Book Award and the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and a New York Times Sunday Book Review Editors' Choice. She is a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" Honoree for 2015. Her fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, and she has written for The New York Times, The New Republic and The Los Angeles Times.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Flournoy received her undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California. She has taught at the University of Iowa and The Writer's Foundry at St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn. She is joining the faculty at Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA program in Spring 2016. 

It's So Un-Special, It's Special • A Conversation with the Bill Keaggy on Artfulness, Sloppiness, and Interestingness

Brett Rawson

St. Louis-based Bill Keaggy is king of “generating content.” A wildly prolific artist and collector, he was an erstwhile magazine designer and photo editor at the St. Louis Dispatch before launching his self-proclaimed purposeless website of “visual indiscretions,” the eponymous www.keaggy.com.

His goal is to make things interesting by helping people appreciate what’s right in front of them—which he more than accomplished with projects such as Milk Eggs Vodka, a tome of anonymous and abandoned grocery lists he first uploaded to his site as a simple photo collection entitled “Grocery Lists,” before piquing a publisher’s interest and organizing them into snarky categories such as “Eating Wrong,” or “Bad Spellrs.”

By compiling such miscellaneous marginalia, Keaggy imbues the ephemeral both with an otherwise lost fixity, and a sort of imaginative narrative history. As he put it, “I considered my work to be ‘art’ in the lowercase form of the term. It’s so un-special, it’s special.” These special un-special projects have been featured in places like the New York Times, The L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, The Guardian, HOW Magazine, and even Jimmy Kimmel Live. Should you want a more concise and chronologically organized autobiography, his documentary impulse has produced a timeline of his entire life, including everything from his first sip of PBR in 1972 to his NY Times Magazine interview in 2004, here: http://keaggy.com/about-me/.

SARAH MADGES: Have you always been a collector, of marginalia or otherwise?

BILL KEAGGY: I think so. Not in a hoarder kind of way, but yes, I think I’ve always had an interest in collections of things. When I was 10 or so I had a pretty big key chain collection, although now I’m not sure why, but I soon realized that it was far more interesting to collect things that were never meant to be collected. Things that other people had lost interest in or saw as useless. 

MADGES: This project must have required incredible patience and dedication. At any point did you consider quitting? What convinced you to keep going, and to eventually get the collection published in a book?

KEAGGY: The grocery list collection started small and stayed small for a very long time. But I never approached it in a “Must. Add. Lists. Every. Day!” kind of way. I’m not naturally a patient person, but in this case I just let it grow naturally, adding a list every few weeks or so. Then around 2000 I put it online, and back then being a novelty online actually was novel, so it got linked around a lot and people started to ask how they could contribute. Since then, the collection has been fueled 99% by friends and strangers sending me lists. It sort of has a life of its own now and I update the site a few times a year at most. So, no, I never considered quitting because it was difficult. The collection has grown big in the same way people grow old — suddenly you’re not young anymore and you look back and wonder how the hell that happened.

I’d thought about how I might turn it into a book but never acted on it. The truth is that I had the luxury of the publisher contacting me to see if I wanted to make a book. Of course I did. It was a good way to breathe new life into the project, to think about the collection in a different way and give it depth, and help other people think about the lists in different ways.

MADGES: In an increasingly tech- and text-based world, handwriting has lost some of its former relevance and ubiquity — cursive is no longer even required in U.S. school curricula, and thousands of people have never written or received a letter in their entire life. How important is the handwritten aspect of these grocery lists to you? Do you still write by hand?

KEAGGY: The handwritten lists usually are the best — they have more character, personality, quirks, artfulness, sloppiness, and interestingness to them. Not just because of the handwriting but also because of the writing material — you can’t run weird, repurposed scraps of paper or cardboard or magazine through a printer but you can tear a piece off of something and write on it. And I’m a designer so I have this innate interest in letterforms and layout and organization, and everyone brings their own approach to these things in handwritten lists.

That said, I obviously get more and more typed lists now, but fewer lists overall because so many people do keep their lists on their phones. I do, because like everyone else I always have my phone with me. I only occasionally write a grocery list out by hand but the truth is I don’t feel too nostalgic over this change. I still do a lot of writing, sketching, and designing on paper, so it’s still part of my daily life.

MADGES: Many people, editorial reviewers and regular folks (ie, Amazon.com customers) alike, have commented on Milk Egg Vodka's humor, which comes in part from the original content of the various grocery lists collected, but mostly from your insightful and playfully snarky commentary. There's also the obvious fact that the Library of Congress designated it as a "Humor" book. When you started collecting these lists, were you mostly compelled by the comic opportunities they provided? Or was it more about the voyeuristic element of finding discarded personal notes, the various examples of penmanship and spelling, their value as art objects, something you couldn't quite name? A more concise question: was humor the intended goal, or a natural and happy accident?

KEAGGY: Yes, the funny lists were what made the collection really interesting to me, and I think to most people. Aside from the fact that they’re an anonymous, unguarded peek into other people’s lives, and, truthfully, are mostly normal and boring, it was when you’d find that needle in the haystack — that weird, WTF list with odd combinations of items or really poor spelling or funny notes. It was those moments that made the project worthwhile and I realized early on that I should highlight them for people, so I made Top 10 lists, which became the backbone of the book. Finding funny lists wasn’t the original goal — I just thought it was interesting to pick up something someone else had thrown away — but the humor aspect was a funny bonus that only became apparent after sticking at it for a while. I don’t know which of the lists was the very first one I found, but I do know it wasn’t funny. It was typical.

The funny ones are few and far between, but do make it all worthwhile are are probably the main reason people find the collection weird and interesting.

MADGES: Separate, but related question: how do you characterize your work? What are you hoping people will notice or take away from it?

KEAGGY: I don’t think I have a good answer to this question. I very purposely don’t tell people how to feel or what they should get out of looking at my various projects. I might explain how *I* feel about them, or why I did something, but I just put things out there and hope that they take *anything* away from it. I want their reactions to be legitimate and pure, whether it’s “Wow, I never thought about waste that way” or “This guy is an idiot." Telling people how to feel about these projects and art in general is like saying, “Get it? It’s funny because…” at the end of a joke. In the past I’ve characterized my work as being about “the life behind the things we leave behind,” and I think that’s enough for people to go on.

MADGES: After MEV, you published a similarly-minded book in 2008 called 50 Sad Chairs, which critiqued and poked fun at consumer culture while artfully cataloguing a bunch of forlorn furniture. What have you been up to since then? What projects are driving you right now, and how have your previous works prepared you for or led you to them?

KEAGGY: After “50 SAD CHAIRS” I did a lot of other “collecting with photography” projects. I’d stumble on a theme and make dozens or hundreds or thousands of photos that catalogued a particular idea. Trees growing out of old abandoned buildings. Basketball hoops in alleys. Rust stains. Curse words. Lots of decay porn, which has become a genre unto itself. Recently in my photo collections I’ve been leaning more toward seeing everyday things in other everyday things. In February I challenged myself to find the shapes of all 50 U.S. states in the world around me and in June I collected the letters of the alphabet from dead worms on the sidewalk. People really liked the states project and were really grossed out by the worms. But what I do more and more of now is actually *make* things from other things—working with found and repurposed objects instead of simply collecting them. After so many years of working digitally I really felt the need to go analog. But the idea of appreciating—or at least considering—and/or re-using “junk” and little, broken, forgotten, ugly, ignored things is what ties most of my projects together.

We Might be the Last Generation of Letter Writers • A Conversation with Sociologist Michelle Janning

Brett Rawson

Sociologist and Professor, Michelle Janning

Sociologist and Professor, Michelle Janning

I never really know why I do it, but there I will be on various afternoons throughout the year, sitting on the wooden floor in front of my closet, peeling tape off a slightly battered box. On the top flap of this box is two words in uppercase letters and permanent pen: DEEP STORAGE. 

I've come across a lot of people who have the same — a box or ten of memories sitting on closet shelves — and people who do the same: thumb through this deep storage from time to time. The effects are not always the same, as the very reason for the impulse to sift through the past can vary, but there can often be a combination of emotions —nostalgia mixed with regret, or warmth mixed with emptiness. Albeit peripherally, I think it might have something to do with what Adam Phillips explores in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, where there can be a strong sense of constant reflection: wondering what was, what could have been, and what could be. But I also think quickly to Joan Didion's "On Keeping a Notebook," which speaks to the importance of recording life and keeping a close proximity to the past. 

One item that many seem to hold onto are letters of past love. But why do we keep a hold of these romantic reminders, especially of ones long gone? We found an inkling of an answer in an article recently, "Why Love Letters Matter, Even After You Break Up." It features words by sociologist Michelle Janning, who happens to be a professor at the college I attended, Whitman College. A lot of her research has looked at concepts of "betweenness," and romantic correspondence surely qualifies as that. But she has also looked at another intersection: the differences between digital vs. handwritten romantic correspondence. When asked why we hold onto these records of our romantic past, Janning replies: "They represent who we were, which is part of who we are. They become our relationship counselors, reminding us of what to avoid in future relationships and what to rekindle."

We recently spoke with Janning about her research and work, but also about her own experience and relationship to her deep storages and handwriting. 

BRETT RAWSON: What led you to studying the divide between handwritten vs. digital correspondence in romantic relationships?

MICHELLE JANNING: I was cleaning out a closet and found the box of letters I'd stored from high school and college. After reading through them I talked with my husband, and we (college grads in the mid-90s just after email started and just before the internet) figured we might be the last generation of letter writers. Then lunch with friends of different generations (one who had a folder in her phone labeled "texts from cute boys") made me wonder further.  Full story in the publication attached. 

RAWSON: What did you find from your study that you didn't expect? Did anything surprise you, did new patterns emerge, did you find any contradictions between what people say and what they do? If you were to extend this research, what would be next?

JANNING: The most surprising thing I found was that, while women are more likely to save letters and mementos from relationships than men (and to save more of them), men tend to look at or "visit" their saved love letters more frequently than women. And men tend to store them in more accessible places (as opposed to closets, under the bed, or in storage).

Some of this may be because women tend to be tasked with household organization more, and spend more time than men on creating a storage location that is decorated or made special in some way. Right now I'm trying to figure out if it'd be worth studying the data to look at generational difference. The hard task here is that technologies change so fast that I'm not sure I can capture both age differences and technological change simultaneously (because change in one can falsely suggest change in the other).

My big project now is writing a book that uncovers how the objects and spaces in our homes tell us something about family relationships. Love letter storage will be part of the chapter on dating, sex, and paths to family formation. 

RAWSON: Between-ness seems central to your focus. Aside from technology, what else comes in between us and handwriting?

JANNING: Good question. For me, between-ness is about internal conversation when I find myself unable to agree with polarized claims. Relating this to handwriting means that I am neither a huge fan nor critic of handwriting. I can see the importance of keeping it in order to foster all the good things that can stem from it (like the aesthetic, the handcrafted, the thoughtfulness, the non-reliance on non-human technologies).

But I also shy away from romanticizing anything that hearkens back to a fictitious past when our present (privileged) perception is that it was somehow better then than now. This is true when I think of gender roles, intergenerational relations, religion, or even medicine.

RAWSON: What is your own experience with handwriting?

JANNING: My dad had a brain tumor after college but before I was born that rendered him physically disabled such that he lost hearing in one ear, had partial paralysis in his face, and had to switch hands for writing. He had grown up ambidextrous. I have vivid memories of watching him sign his name with the most bizarre pen strokes, which took an inordinately long time, but which never seemed to make me feel impatient.

This matters because I am an impatient person. I also have looked at his musical compositions from college (he was a music major), which were all handwritten. Since the pre-tumor writing was different from what I saw him do, I always thought about his life as having two segments. Only now do I think that maybe the visual representation of his handwriting may have had something to do with that perception. Add to this the fact that my mother has handwriting that is like a flawless art piece, and no wonder I'm intrigued. 

I learned calligraphy as a 10-year-old, and taught my son to do it when he was younger. I love examining how the aesthetic world can tell us something about human relations. I have always spent time shopping for interesting pens, inks, and papers, especially when we'd stay with cousins in Germany as a child. In high school and college, I would pride myself on the clever use of colored ink to help with anything from chemical compounds to calculus formulas, and from maps to poems. I recently was asked to write a book review for an academic journal, and I decided to hand-write both the notes and initial draft. I did this because I bought a new fountain pen in Germany this summer. The final draft (which was then crafted on the computer) went more quickly than anything I've ever written, and it was accepted without a single revision (complete with both a formal and informal note from the editors telling me how amazing it was).

RAWSON: Are you concerned that handwriting / cursive lessons are being eclipsed by keyboard proficiency lessons in the U.S. school system?

JANNING: Yes and no. I see the use of keyboarding as necessary for the work that my students do in college, and that it is most certainly an efficient way for me to do my own writing. (Again, I'm impatient). But because I find myself grateful that my son was on the cusp of cursive instruction (he received some in Denmark when we lived there, he did a little in 3rd grade just before the school moved to a greater focus on Chromebook instruction), I must think it's a good thing.

My bigger concern with the Chromebooks has more to do with the increase in standardized testing, which I presume may be exacerbated by virtue of the fact that students are getting quicker at keyboarding. This makes testing more efficient. What I liked about my son's teachers last year was that, especially in writing (Hooray for Mrs. Hartford!), the kids would draft things by hand, learn to navigate and edit on a computer, and be allowed lots of time for crafting stories. So, as far as the creative writing process goes, I think his teacher struck a good balance.

Other than the aesthetic coolness of nice handwriting, I am concerned that students will not be able to READ handwriting, which limits our ability to learn things from historical texts.

RAWSON: When you think of your own handwritten correspondences, what comes to mind?  

JANNING: How little I do this. I am not a letter writer. I think of little notes to my son, or drafting my writing by hand. That's funny I suppose.

RAWSON: Phenomenologists have argued that the self falls away when we are engaged in an intense activity, usually one that collapses the sense of the mind-body split by activating both elements. Do you think the writing implement of choice could act as a bodily extension, and that writing by hand helps combine subject and object in ways that promote intimacy with a text, whereas typing into a word document promotes separateness of subject and object?

JANNING: I am not sure, because I have felt precisely this way while crafting my writing on a computer screen. For my aging body, the times when I am most likely to feel the mind-body split is when I am in pain. For typing, it's in my shoulder and my eyes. For handwriting, it's in my wrist.  

I Don’t Keep a Journal the Way Most Journal Artists Do • A Conversation with Brian Singer of 1000 Journals Projects

Brett Rawson

Brian Singer is a San Francisco-based fine artist whose sobriquet “Someguy” downplays the enormously unique body of work he has produced in the last decade or so. I first discovered his work at age 15, when I stumbled across the 1000 Journals Project book in my sister’s bedroom.

An ongoing collaborative experiment, The 1000 Journals Project attempts to track 1000 originally empty journals through their travels across the globe, accumulating stories, sketches, and photographs as they pass between friends’ and strangers’ hands. In addition to larger scale projects such as this, he creates visual art pieces that explore the layers of signification of the printed word, crossing out and redacting text in a process of mixed media décollage.

SARAH MADGES: The extensive, anonymous shared artifact network you created with The 1000 Journals Project speaks volumes about individuals' desires to be creative, without fear of criticism. Did you expect to find so many untapped talents waiting to give expression to their thoughts? Did you initially conceive of this project as a way to make collaborative art or did it just kind of happen?

BRIAN "SOMEGUY" SINGER: I think everyone is creative, but society tends to have a narrow definition of the word. Some people are creative when they cook, or garden, others make art. In the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie talks about creativity—I’m paraphrasing here—he says that if you ask a room full of kindergarteners how many of them are artists, they’ll all raise their hands. Ask the same question of a bunch of 6th graders, and a few will raise their hands. Ask high school students, and you’ll be lucky to get a couple to raise their hands. So, what happens to us growing up? We begin to fear criticism and judgment of society. 

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When the project was conceived, it was based on what people write on bathroom walls. Not quite collaborative art, but more like public conversations. That said, I love the works of Dan Eldon, and sort of imagined what would happened if people just layered and layered their contributions until you got a density similar to his journals. 

MADGES: In an increasingly tech- and text-based world, handwriting has lost some of its former relevance and ubiquitycursive is no longer even required in U.S. school curricula and thousands of people have never written or received a letter in their entire life. How important is the handwritten aspect of these journal entries to you? How important is the written word to you as an artist?

SOMEGUY: The hand-crafted element is crucial to the journals. It’s almost like a signature, or hint of a person’s personality, beyond the words written. As an artist, for whatever reason, it has a little less meaning to me. Strange, now that I think about it. Perhaps because it’s so accessible and anyone can do it, it feels less precious or unique. Or maybe because I don’t incorporate handwriting into my art work — I’ve never really liked the look of my own handwriting. It’s more like chicken-scratch, which I blame my dad for.

MADGES: Do you keep a journal?

SOMEGUY: No. Yes. Sort of. I don’t keep a journal the way most journal artists do. When I was younger, I kept a journal which was more like a diary of sorts. Now, I have sketchbooks, which I use mostly for notes and ideas. Not really for freeform writing, or artwork, just lists and notes and sketches. 

MADGES: As far as I can tell, the 1000 Journals Project was last on exhibition in Scottsdale in 2013. Where is it now? What are your plans for the project? Do you consider yourself its curator anymore?

SOMEGUY: There aren’t any exhibition plans for 1000J right now. A couple years back, I approached a few venues, and while there’s some interest, nothing panned out. As for plans, again, I don’t have any current plans. This is mostly due to time constraints, it takes a lot of energy to keep things going. I do consider myself the curator of the project, but am mostly playing a waiting game.. waiting for journals that have been out in the world for almost 15 years to be rediscovered and sent home. I imagine most are sitting on bookshelves, forgotten over the years.

MADGES: What do you think is the relationship between visual arts and creative writing? Do you think of yourself as a poet or writer when you create your cross-out and printed word pieces? 

SOMEGUY: That’s a great question, because I haven’t given it much thought. I tend to gravitate towards certain types of works. These can be strictly visual in nature, or strictly written. I think the ability to combine the two opens up the best of both worlds when done well. They can live in harmony, or in contrast, and add value to each other, or amplify the artist’s intent. When I create my redacted works, I mostly consider myself an editor. I’m stripping away information and creating new meaning. I’d hesitate to call myself a poet or writer, which might be an insult to poets and writers, but there are some similarities in our goals to shape language and message.

MADGES: What have you been working on lately?

SOMEGUY: Lately, I’ve been working on building bodies of work around themes. So not really participatory, or journal based projects. One recent explorations was around visualizing number patterns (connect the dots) in unexpected ways. And the current exploration (no photos online yet), are process based works where I put a shape on every page of a book (imagine a circle or letter), and then cut the book up and reassemble the shape using the edges of the paper. 

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No Other Place Publishes Process • The Origins of Handwritten

Brett Rawson

In early Spring of 2015, Sarah Madges set out on a project surrounding the Handwritten word and recalled Brett mentioning a project he had recently begun. She reached out to ask if the project was still alive. It was, barely. The exchange served to reignite the project and has since turned into this site, which Sarah is also to thank for, as she since came on board as a central curator for the project. Below is their initial exchange about the idea for the site you are seeing today, which is constantly evolving. 

SARAH MADGES: What inspired you to develop a publication/project surrounding the handwritten word? What is your own experience with handwriting?

BRETT RAWSON: I knew I wanted to start something last winter. I took a course at The New School that had us look at digital storytelling, and I found great calm mixed with wild energy in this embrace of and attitude toward technology - how can we use technology to promote our passions, digital or otherwise? On a morning in February, I was on the L train brainstorming for a separate project when the word Handwritten appeared from somewhere. I had my notebook in hand so I scribbled it down. I happened to be heading toward a workshop put on by PEN, so I wonder if that had something to do with the whole thought. At any rate, the word opened up the idea itself: a home for the handwritten word online. 

There is no place that publishes things other than finished products. I wanted to promote process. There's a bunch of theories and thoughts about handwriting, penmanship, and personalities. I do think about them, and I care about them, but I am not specifically concerned about them. I don't really care much about their outcomes or conclusions. For example, I find it interesting what people think my handwriting says about me, but I care more about saying things with and through my handwriting. What comes of it in the end is not really something I can consider while I am doing it. 

The idea is pretty simple—for people to express themselves with pen and paper, and be published for it. It's also to be a preserve of sorts—for letters written by those who have passed, for example. I am always writing by hand. I don't always write my stories by hand, though most things usually begin on paper—in a journal, on a napkin, or a legal pad. I do, however, write a lot of letters. It's how I ease myself into writing for the day. I can't jump into writing on the computer without starting by hand. I have to start somewhere free. In this sense, it's like stretching, doing yoga, starting out slow, or warming up. 

MADGES: What is the project's mission statement? 

RAWSON: A place in space for pen and paper. But I have been thinking about changing it to something a mentor of mine once said: writing is a physical activity. 

MADGES: Are you concerned that handwriting / cursive lessons are being eclipsed by keyboard proficiency lessons in U.S. elementary schools?

RAWSON: I'm not so sure I am that worried about cursive. But that's probably because mine is horrific. In fact, my regular handwriting sort of looks cursive. Or maybe it looks like it is cursing. It's hard to tell. Someone once said my handwriting looks like a string of wasted wingding characters, which is offensive, but true. But handwriting altogether, what a horrific waste of natural talent. The hand is how we gain access to our inner self. I really don't think the computer can access that wild, raw energy inside each of us. When using a computer, I get an external feeling (usually in the form of mild swells of panic), whereas when I write by hand, the noise from everywhere really quiets down, and I can finally hear my own voice.

The people making these policies, or mistakes, probably don't write by hand much. I imagine they see it as a waste of time, or something of the past, that we should get with the times and technology. This measurement feels imprecise. And it isn't a matter of sentimentality. It also isn't about one or the other. I wonder when people will wake up and coexist - to stop living in some world of ones. I write on the computer all the time. I have four twitter accounts, a Facebook profile, page, and group, five Instagram accounts, one tumblr, and three websites. You know? It's not like I don't get the beauty and power in the computer, let alone its efficiency, insanity, and amusement. I am a user, and I love using it. But what a fucking mistake to not teach kids how to write by hand. So I guess I am concerned.

MADGES: Do you notice a difference in the kinds of things you write when you use pen/pencil as opposed to a computer / word processor? How do you think the writing tool affects content/style/etc? How do you think it affects the editing process?

RAWSON: Absolutely. The medium affects everything. The effect is also bilateral. The reader adjusts his or her expectations based on the medium. A letter is sort of like dining out—there is an experience to it. An email is more like take-out, delivery, or TV dinner - it is often more quick, requires less from me, and can be done while doing something else. 

That being said, I don't see it as a matter of good or bad, better or worse. It is simply different. Writing by word processor is more about a product or outcome—a finished something—and so pieces composed there are usually toward that end. But with handwriting, it is more so a work of progress, or process. It is, inherently, more private and intimate. Computers are meant to connect, gather, and scatter. And the screen in between becomes a kind of reflection and projection, which can be a disorienting feeling that registers at a deeper level. Handwriting is about process on two levels -- one, it is about the process, but two, it is a way to process things. Not necessarily produce a product. 

MADGES: Phenomenologists have argued that the self falls away when we are engaged in an intense activity, usually one that collapses the sense of the mind-body split by activating both elements. Do you think the writing implement of choice could act as a bodily extension, and that writing by hand helps combine subject and object in ways that promote intimacy with a text, whereas typing into a word document promotes separateness of subject and object?

RAWSON: Fascinating. I imagine this has to be. There is a oneness when it comes to things like painting, the piano, or even running, and so it would make sense that it carries over to hand-writers. It makes me think of meditation for some reason, only I don't really know why. There is intense freedom within limitation, which might be why the computer is such an energy vampire. It pokes so many holes in our concentration containers that after a short period of time, we feel totally drained. Whereas with the handwritten word, I think of a dam and what happens when everything flows through a single thing—it harnesses a new kind of energy. Because with handwriting, you aren't concerned really with what you're writing. There is something hypnotic about the way in which the hands moves. 

MADGES: Anything else you would like to add?

RAWSON: Keep the beautiful pen busy!