Confessions of an Illegible Woman

by Jennifer Cody Epstein

I’ll admit it: my writing sucks.

This may seem a surprising confession for a newly-published novelist. And, thankfully, it is not the conclusion most reviewers of my book seem to have reached. (I’ve counted, and the words most often used seem to be luminous and vivid—and who am I to argue?)

My handwriting, however, is another story entirely. On a one-to-ten neatless scale it falls somewhere at negative six; a mix between Sanskrit and toddler scribble. Actually, probably more on the Sanskrit side; the last time I wrote an “a” for my literacy-aspiring toddler to copy she wrinkled her brow and scowled: “What is that, Mommy?”

It hasn’t always been this way. Throughout gradeschool and junior high my penmanship was never stellar, but it was at least as recognizable as English. American, even—particularly during that phase when I, like every other self-respecting female preteen, dotted her i’s with little hearts. When I passed notes my friends understood my comparisons between Mr. Muldoon and a tree frog. And when I wrote out papers, they were legible enough to be graded–unfortunately, not always to my benefit.

Somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, though, it all fell apart. My letters began to slant and slide and collide. They obeyed no perceivable rule or ruler in size, angle or slope; they refused to stay between prescribed lines. Cursive was even worse; my script simply refused to loop and lace in the prescribed manner. Eventually, print and cursive simply merged, producing the bastard offspring that is my present script. Foreign languages fared no better; Italian, Latin and Spanish all came out equally atrociously. Even foreign writing systems didn’t help; after 10+ years studying Japanese my tree characters still look like people, or sometimes rice.

In the golden age of the computer, thank goodness, illegibility has become less of a debilitating condition. Keyboards are, after all, the cosmetic surgeons of scrawl; they take even the most misformed of b’s, d’s and (my worst infringement) f’s, and re-shape them into perfect specimens. When I do fall back on longhand it’s generally for people too polite to admit they can’t read it–or else already well-acquainted with it’s indecipherability: my mother-in-law routinely calls (albeit in gales of laughter) to request translations of my thank-you notes. Beyond that, however, few have needed to know the truth: that I’m a writer who can’t write worth a damn.

Somewhat unexpectedly, though, becoming a published author has changed all that. It entails doing something I’d never thought about before: signing books. Lots of books. Often for total strangers, who have invested 26 whole dollars in them. Sometimes, as gifts.

I had my first inkling (pun intended) of trouble shortly before the official release date: my publisher called me in to sign some sixty editions of The Painter from Shanghai. A first-editions book club had requested them—presumably on the (mistaken) assumption that my signature would add some sort of value. I opened the first with trepidation.

“Where do I sign?”

“Oh—uh, here, I guess,” replied the assistant, pointing to a small (actually, quite small for a scrawler) space between title and byline.

“Do I use all three names?”

“Whatever you feel comfortable with.” He gave me a strange look. “Sometimes authors cross out the byline, too.”

I pondered this a moment. Crossing out the byline seemed just setting myself up for failure, implying (as it did) that I could write my own name better than Norton. Which, of course, I could not. In fact, the more I studied the lovely Fairfield font they’d chosen, the more inadequate I began to feel.

“Do you need another pen?” the assistant prompted.

“Uh, no. That’s ok.” Taking a deep breath, I put pen to page. “Shit.” My first signature now started with a smudge. I held it up apologetically, like a customer in a store who had just ruined something that they hadn’t paid for (which, in a sense, I guess I had). “I’ll pay for this one.”

“No, no,” he protested. “It’s unique. I’m sure they’ll love it.”

I squinted at the blot, trying to decide whether I should avoid it, write over it or try to integrate it into my scrawl. In the end I opted for the latter, semi-attaching it to the j that more or less looks like a bent, upside-down fishhook. Now one with kelp, or perhaps an unfortunate jellyfish, on its point. The assistant, clearly wearying of my neediness, began busying himself with the other books. I forced myself to finish the job: Jennifer Cody Epstein. I did stay between the lines. But as I’d expected, it looked nothing like the byline. I immediately imagined a first-edition clubbie opening up to it and exclaiming, in fury, “What the hell is this?”

The next 59 signatures were only marginally better (though thankfully there were no further blots). Still, I couldn’t help but feel, as I scrawled determinedly on (some left-slanting signatures, some right, a few undecidedly going in both directions), that same, vague unease I usually feel signing legal documents, hoping that no one notices I have no real grip on my own name. (This has actually happened to me in Hong Kong; the bank I used while living there would frequently call me in to verify that I wasn’t committing bank fraud on myself.) That same fear also had a lasting impact on my wedding; I was so worried about scrawling outside the prescribed lines on my Ketubah that my signature came out roughly three millimeters in height, four in length. (“What the hell is this?” my husband of five minutes exclaimed.)

Still, there’s nothing illegal about a sloppy signature—at least, not that I’m aware of. So what, exactly, am I so worried about? That if people see my dreadful script on this luminous book, it will somehow belie my luminosity? That my signature will, Toto-like, tear back the curtain on my talents and reveal the bald, fat little reality that, well, I suck? And—hold on! If our writing really tells us about ourselves, what exactly does mine say about me, anyway?

To find the answer, I went to Lifelong Learning Excellence Inc. and took their handwriting analysis test. Online; so you know it’s accurate (here’s the link: http://WWW.HWA.ORG/SelfEval.shtml). Using their criteria, I deduced the following: The sharpness of my hand is quite sharp, the general slant tends to vary a bit, and slope is (sic) slightly upwards slope to it.

And here, apparently, is what that tells people: You have some hesitance to accept your power, and sometimes vacillate between “I’m great.” and “I’m not okay.” All in all, It’s perhaps confusing to be Jennifer Epstein, huh? (Well, yes. Yes, it is.)

Furthermore: You probably have some questions about who you are and have some trouble being stably consistently YOU. And lastly: You probably have quite a bit of difficulty letting go of things and could be prone to digestive disorders due to your unwillingness to seek peace and quiet.

Excellent. So according to Lifelong Learning Excellence, my writing broadcasts to the world—or at least, to my readers–the fact that I have chronic indigestion.

Somewhat more enlightening was the fact that—at least, according to certain studies—there is a genetic component to handwriting; that as with so much else (humor, shopping habits, annoying laughs) hard-wiring predetermines our behavior in ways both macro and micro. As an adoptee (yes, I am illegitimate as well as illegible—but that is an entirely different blog) questions about nature versus nurture have always fascinated me. Handwriting in particular—at least, since the day ten years ago that I received a registered mail tag back from a letter I’d sent to my biological father. To date, the letter remains unanswered. But that signature spoke volumes to me: it scrawled, sprawled, sloped and collided. In fact, it looked just like mine.

In retrospect, I suppose that that sprawling half-line of longhand is as reassuring as it is disconcerting. It seems to say that, neat or sucky, my writing is what it is—and whatever it says about me will have to stand. In any event, it seems unlikely to change; despite my best efforts my inscriptions and John Hancock continue to confound those around me. One friend did, indeed, reject a signed copy she’d been planning on gifting on the grounds that the signature simply sucked. (“What the hell is that?”) Another reader, buying the book for his wife, looked over my note with obvious puzzlement. “Uh—her name is Christine,” he said. “And the book club I asked you to note is actually called the ‘Best Ever Book-Club.’”

“I know,” I said, apologetically. “That’s what I wrote.”

We looked at each other a moment, and I held my breath, half-expecting him to demand another copy, another try. In the end, though, he just shrugged.

“Ok,” he said. “I’ll pass along the message.”