Essayist Lindsay Fleming ponders the character hidden inside each person’s handwriting.
I’m filling out the permission form for an after-school activity and call Addie over to sign her name. She’s 11 and several forms in the past year have required her signature. She watches me sign in the space for parent/guardian. I hand her the pen. She says, “But I don’t have a signature.”
“Just sign your name, that’s your signature.”
“But I don’t have one—I want a signature.”
Lately I’ve come upon practice sheets around the house with her name written 20 or 50 times. Of course I know what she means by a “real” signature—something less studied, with worldly warp and weft, a Devil-may care authority.
“As you grow up, your signature will grow up with you.”
“But I want one now,” she insists. “Mine is ugly.”
Hers still carries an allegiance to the copybook, that earnest effort to form wholesome, fluidly linked letters that add up to something with structural integrity. It’s a fact that her signature will never be more beautiful than it is today.
She signs the form and heads off to school. My thoughts remain on the child who labors to construct a singular identity from the letters of her name.
My early signature is enshrined in one of my best-loved childhood books, Thee, Hannah! by Marguerite de Angeli. In a flash I locate it upstairs in the bookcase next to Addie’s bed. The story holds none of the enchantment for her that it did for me; truth is it was I, not she, who lodged it here.
Thee, Hannah! is the story of a young Quaker girl who grew up in Philadelphia during the time of the Underground Railroad. Hannah, a closet sybarite, chafes against her family with its drab clothing and humble, God-centered ways. She covets her best friend Cecily’s colorful sashes and ribbon-trimmed bonnets. Time and again she gets in trouble for being caught out in Cecily’s finery. Her mother is fond of saying that “Old Spotty” has gotten into her.
I deeply identified with Hannah and wrote my name on the inside cover of the book and twice again on the title page, along with my address. “05477 is my zip code,” I wrote, in all sincerity. Lest there be any lingering confusion, I affixed a bookplate bearing my name on the inside cover.
Studying my childhood signature, I see that the loopy “L” alone has not changed much. I’m touched by the addition of the zip code. I imagine the early me already knowing I’d come looking for her one day, and leaving this clue to deliver me precisely to her doorstep.
My husband brought me a gift some years ago from the Visionary Arts Museum shop: Transform Your Life Through Handwriting by Vimala Rodgers. I track it down in the far recesses of a cabinet in my study. The boxed set includes two CD’s, a guidebook, a blank journal and 26 cards. It’s intact, pristine enough for regifting, but still I’ve hung onto it. In the guidebook Rodgers writes: “Your handwriting is an intimate portrait of how you see yourself—a graphic representation of collective memories programmed by your subconscious mind from birth onward, reflecting both your strong points and those that have put a screeching halt to your inborn creativity.”
For Rodgers, each letter has a spiritual essence. The soul quality of the letter “L,” for example, is “Our innate spiritual nature.” She writes, “If you are driven to explore your spiritual nature… this is the letter to practice.”
Given to doodling, I often find myself writing the letter L with flowery, adolescent effulgence. Rodgers could only recommend a complete deconstruction. By now the muscles of my fingers, set to the task of scribing my name, are fugitive slaves traveling a subterranean network. My signature has grown up a collection of collapsed walls, enigmatic hybrids, contractions that leave whole soul qualities voiceless, and grandiose flourishes that render other characters stage hogs. It’s an ancient ruin of the nominal me.
Can a child be coached in the art of self-creation? Where does one turn a blind eye to liberties taken, expressive shortcuts, those places where she makes bold to substitute less formal gestures for the clarity of schooled figures? How to slant and space it? Where to press down and when to ease up?
This reverie finds me pursuing another lead in Rodger’s guidebook. “As the first letter of the Alphabet, the Letter A represents our entrance into the world as a soul encased in a personality.”
Muscle memory casts a powerful spell. Perhaps, as Rodgers would have it, my handwriting has bound my inborn creativity and holds me hostage both to convention and slouching habits. Maybe I should be taking lessons from Addie, practicing my way back, with scrupulous care, to a place of freshly minted promise. 05477 is my zip code.
Lindsay Fleming is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops, Room to Grow and Baltimore City Paper.