Personal Experiences

Old Notebooks


I am learning how to write again – that is, to draw by hand those slant lines, curves and loops linked together that, well, aren’t merely lines but lines that mean something.

I often find myself now picking up a pen and scribbling on whichever sheet of paper is at hand: a line from a poem, a song, a dialogue in a novel, sometimes even the text on the labels of canned goods. It is compulsive writing.

This writing fever was triggered recently when I sorted my old notebooks from elementary and high school. The notebooks are a visual record of how my handwriting evolved from scratches done by an angry chicken to a graceful, filigree-like cursive letters, then to neat, uniform, almost mechanical block letters.

My handwriting on my high school notebooks can easily be mistaken as done with a stencil that architects use on blueprints of buildings.

Then it struck me: I don’t write like that anymore. What happened to me?

Much of the writing I do now is done on my laptop. The little writing I do by hand is my notes I scrawl during class lectures. Anyone who would look at them would say their writer was probably in a hurry or confused.

I learned to write when I was six, the summer before I went to kindergarten. My mother taught me. I didn’t have a hard time. Writing was much like drawing, which I was good at.

Halfway through the year, I amused my kindergarten teacher when I showed her my notes written in cursive script. I had been teaching myself.  I wouldn’t get any formal lesson on cursive script until a year later.

It was in Grade Two when I realized that my handwriting should look beautiful. My handwriting then was not particularly ugly; I had classmates who did worse.  I probably had lots of time in my hands and my wandering mind, having nothing to do, tripped on handwriting, picked it up, and was soon tinkering with it.

I used my mother’s handwriting as my model.  I would copy the list of names on her notebook, the people who had borrowed money from her, my mother being a 5-6 moneylender. Soon, I could copy her signature as well. My classmates and teachers started to notice, and not a few times did I receive the comment, “Your handwriting look like a girl’s.”

Throughout the years, I was always on the lookout for people who had beautiful handwriting.

I would borrow a classmate’s notebook or collect papers with a teacher’s handwritten comments on it, and copy the way they made their slants, curves, loops and how they link them all together. Some dotted their i’s with a small circle, some with a small slant, like an accent. Some drew their a’s with a handle over the loop, like a fruit with a stem; some prefer the simpler, handle-less a’s. Some drew their g’s with two loops, the one on top having a small line peeking out from the side; some choose the single-looped g, a hook in the place of the previous g’s lower loop, like teardrop with a ladle underneath to catch it.

In elementary and high school, notebooks were among the major requirements.  At the end of every grading period – more or less every two months – teachers would collect the students’ notebooks and grade them. One got a high grade if he or she was able to copy every lecture that the teacher wrote on the blackboard; it was not only until in college when lecture came to mean the professors’ reminiscences and rants. As with everything, presentation mattered, so notes that are neatly written and laid out merited higher grades.

I was always at the top of my class then and was determined to stay on top, so I diligently worked on every requirement in class, including the notebooks. To keep my notebooks neat, I wrote my notes first on scratch papers, before transferring them on my notebooks. Often, I would stay up late at night and into the wee hours of the morning, transferring my notes on my notebooks.

I even adorned the covers of my notebooks with, say, collages, and drew illustrations inside. For instance, during my sophomore year, a frog laid spread-eagled inside my Biology notebook, its body cut open to display its muscles.  Primates and hairy naked men marched on one page to show the evolution of humans. A fruit-like orb sat in another page, a portion of it sliced off, revealing smaller orbs and spirals – the parts of a cell.  On my English notebook, I drew comic strips of people talking using the perfect tenses, or with gerunds sprinkled all over their speech.

In my senior year, I made a masterpiece out of my Filipino notebook. I drew intricately detailed scenes from El Filibusterismo. I faithfully followed the description on the novel of Simoun’s pieces of jewelry and annotated each piece with its respective history. On a page stood an Old Manila two-floor building, with red globular Chinese lanterns hanging in front, my rendition of Quiroga’s bazaar. A carnival scene took up two pages, a frieze of stalls selling curios, ladies in ball gowns and gentlemen in coattails, and children running around, carrying lanterns.

When my teacher returned my notebook after checking it, I saw a note in red ink inside: “You did more than what was required of you. Congratulations.”

After four years of sleepless nights of transferring notes and drawing frogs in full spread-eagled glory, I finally graduated that year. I was the valedictorian.

When I entered college, I resolved to leave my competitive streak behind. Life at the UP Diliman is easier: no professor requires his or her student to submit their notebooks. Essays and research papers are done on computers. Book pages, and sometimes, even entire books, are photocopied. My notebooks have become jungles of ink scrawl, my desperate attempts to capture every professor’s reminiscences and rants. The carnival people have gone home, leaving nothing but trash.

One time, I was in a library, scrawling down notes from a book. I had a classmate with me. He said, “That’s painful.”

“What?” I asked.

“What you’re doing. You’re writing the wrong way,” he said. “You shouldn’t put the pressure on your fingers.  It should be on your arms.”

He was right. It was painful.

Now, I am trying to write again, with my classmates’ instructions in mind. I’ve also done some Internet research on the subject and many sources confirm what he said. And it works: with the pressure on my arm instead of my fingers, my hand moves over the page, freely, painlessly.

I am also keeping a notebook where I transfer some of my essays and short stories which I originally wrote with a computer. Writing long pieces by hand, even when a computer is available, is not exactly the most efficient way of doing things. But, in this case, efficiency is not my goal.   I want to build again that strong connection between me and my writing, that deep feeling of communion with my work, when I could almost hear my ideas surging from my head down through my arms, hands and pen, until it finally reaches paper.

A calligraphy expert says that good handwriting should also be spacious, the curves and loops widely open. So the word ‘jogger’ written in cursive script must look like eggplants hanging from a vine, with the open loops of the j and the g.

My handwriting in my high school notebooks, though neat, is cramped. The words are too small and the letters set too close to each other, like children huddled close to each other, afraid to drift away in the vast white space surrounding them.

I remember that, in high school, I would often stop in the middle of writing to rub my hand. It was painful all along. And I realized that only now.

Image Source: