What If Better Penmanship Could Make You a Better Person

Cursive is supposed to happen at the right speed for steady thought. It hits the page slower than type and faster than print, and in this happy medium, one hopes the mind will hit its stride and think clearly, rationally, linearly. But what if the idea of cursive practice was to humble, even eradicate the content of the written word? That is the project of the narrator in Mario Levrero’s novel Empty Words—recently released in translation from the Spanish by Annie McDermott—to focus on neat, regular handwriting so careful that it smooths out all digressions of the mind. Though the narrator is, like the author, a writer and crossword setter, he takes a writer’s tool and divorces it from the act of connecting with the self or world. Instead, the physical act of writing becomes about avoiding spiritual searching, which has become too onerous—in an opening poem, before he begins his “graphological self-therapy” he writes “ It’s not worth searching, the more you look /  the more distant is seems, the better it hides.”

So the narrator delves into his penmanship not in hope of being a better writer, but to “make changes on a psychological level,” ones that he claims, in a burst of optimism, “will do wonders for my health and charachter, transforming a whole plethora of bad behaviors into good ones and catapulting me blissfully into a life of happiness, joy, money, and success with women and in other games of chance.” When his exercises pick up pace, though, the neat, ordered discipline of handwriting breaks down and sloppy print letters creep into that uniform line of script. This indication that thought has begun to flow freely is not positive—it runs contrary to the two-dimensional bliss he imagines neatness can herald. He takes frequent breaks to play around with his computer, which, even though the book was originally published in 1996, is a daunting tool, “very similar to the unconscious.” Nonetheless, he claims to prefer it to his own exhausted mind: “there’s nowhere left to go when it comes to investigating my unconscious; the computer also involves much less risk, or risk of a different kind.”

To avoid this “risk” he must suppresses the content of his writing, the meaning. He tries to keep his words steady and boring, though he fails hilariously, again and again. He is in a constant state of agitation about the need to stick to his task. He dreads interruptions, mostly from the family life that hums along in the background. So he tries to write nothing important, nothing complex. But when he leaves his handwritten pages out for his wife to critique, he complains that they “naturally became a way of telling her things—hence the anxiety that makes me write too fast when I have something important to say.”

The exercise is not dissimilar to the one put forth in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which a young woman decides to hibernate for a year in the name of self-improvement. Both narrators lay out stringent rules for their supposed betterment, rules that, to the reader, seem arbitrary and obviously self-defeating. The mission, for both characters, is to blot out much of life. The byproduct is a heaping dose of both anxiety and moral superiority.

In spite of the narrator’s vague resolve to be better, his discipline makes him generally nasty within his household. When his stepson looks over the shoulder, he writes on the page “Juan Ignacio is a fool.” He begrudgingly cares for his dog, even encouraging him to run away by widening an opening in the fence—an act he insists repeatedly is not metaphorical. And when he returns to his work, he complains that it is difficult to concentrate after kicking a dog. Neither the narrator nor anyone in his household is catapulted blissfully into a life of joy, but his focus on handwriting over expression protects the narrator from reflecting on these failures.

The narrator has tender moments, though. He wonders when he and his wife, Alicia, will start “living together” apart from all the “hyperactivity” of the household. The two even earmark Fridays as a time to focus on their relationship, but they can’t sustain it because the narrator brings a similar mentality to improving their relationship as he does to penmanship. And he forgets that like communication is to writing, quotidian household tasks and banal decisions are the stuff on which domestic relationships are founded. The phenomenological isolation he seeks doesn’t exist and he lashes out in frustration: he refers to Alicia’s efficient approach to daily life as a “militarization of the self” and says it is akin to pruning a tree into a geometric shape.

In another moment of frustration with a household routine he finds chaotic and distracting, the narrator calls Alicia a “fractal being.” Though he complains that fractals have not been studied enough, he never gives readers a full picture of his wife; instead he uses her as a cautionary tale, though it is he who flounders on every page. If Alicia is a “fractal,” then the things that preoccupy him, like his irregularly racing heart, can be described best in fractals. The things that comfort him aesthetically—a tree growing through a ruined piece of architecture, shattered glass, the search for patterns in the randomness of dreams—are infinitely more fractal than pure forms.

Dreams are a recurring element of the book, treated with the same distance but less frustration than the other digressions and unpredictable moments that vex our narrator. He does not explore them or elaborate on them; he even becomes annoyed when he finds himself seeking to interpret them. Levrero’s approach to dreams—his approach to writing this book even—is about as far from Latin American magical realism as one can get. Earlier Uruguayan writer (and inspiration to many of the magical realists) Felisberto Hernández molded each plot in his Piano Stories into the dreams and obsessions of his narrator; reality followed the digression. But as much as Levrero’s narrator rejects his dreams, he still nods at the tradition: the final line of the book ends with another uninterpreted, unexplored dream. The final word of the books is “Alchemy,” the thing the narrator has stripped from his writing and life, but vows in the end to return to.

And it is a thrill in the final part of the novel to see his the narrator’s penmanship exercises gather speed, to see him put aside his frustration and concentrate on specific details like the formation of the letter “R,” or to see the pages littered with strikethroughs of words he resolves to execute better. But even when the exercises have begun to absorb him, they are not what bring about a final revelation. This comes when he finally writes about his mother’s illness and death, referred to only in passing throughout the book. The narrator has let story rise to the surface of his writing, and he is able call handwriting the “evasion tactic” it is. “When you reach a certain age, you’re no longer the protagonist of your own actions,” he reports “all you have left are the consequences of the things you’ve already done.” Exerting control over one small activity does not neaten up the other strands of life, it only throws its messiness into relief.

Empty Words is a very funny, very sad reflection on the ways people try (and fail) to simplify their lives. As the narrator says at one point in the story, “you cannot become less busy by getting things done.” Perhaps that is what Levrero thinks of self-help programs, that they become one more overbearing thing on an overwhelming to-do list. In the protagonist’s case, if he was trying to find relief from the emotional and intellectual work of life by reimagining handwriting as a Zen-like practice of  “invisible work,” he picked the wrong manual task. Handwriting is the ultimate in visible work—script, scrawl, or chicken scratch, it is the tool through which thoughts grow visible and complicated.