Last night I watched the Montage of Heck documentary about Kurt Cobain. As someone who came of age during the grunge movement I was pretty stoked to see it. I wasn’t disappointed; the film brought back wistful memories of headbanging to Smells Like Teen Spirit, and of my first love’s homage in the form of a self-inked smiley face tattoo. Like the palette of a restored painting, Kurt’s humanity emerged through the grimy layer of adulation and demonization that we all caked on before and after his suicide. More so than the interviews with loved ones, the many images of his handwritten notes tied the film together and made that happen.
Like a time-traveling voyeur, I couldn’t get enough of Kurt’s writings. I was fascinated in part because I’m a fan who was looking for evidence of genius in his words. The other part of me was looking for evidence of the ordinary. Of course it’s cool to see a song emerging from the scribbles; but I also loved seeing the mundane accounting and to-do lists, the scratched-out lyrics and misspelled words. The mélange of emotional intensity and everyday concerns provoked questions about what it means to be an artist. It also made me wonder if writing notes is itself an art form, one that we’re in danger of losing now that everyone types on a screen.
Something happens to ignite creativity in the brain when the pen-holding hand is its proxy. Maybe it’s the simple fact that it takes longer to jot down your thoughts longhand, which gives your mind time to go in new directions. Or the fact that an idea must be meaningful if it didn’t get lost between its genesis and its transcription. When Kurt declared that he loved his parents even though he was completely unlike them, or that he could understand why religion served a purpose for other people, it was as if he made these statements true only by setting them down in ink.
Kurt’s handwriting was its own form of expression. His was simple, masculine, sometimes neat and at other times scrawled across the page. I think most of us feel that our handwriting is tied in with our identity. My husband, family, friends and students are well acquainted with my script and I with theirs. If something is written in haste or with great care, it comes through on the page. Slants, spacing, flourishes, dots and dashes are all significant. Cursive handwriting is already disappearing from school curricula. Will there come a time when students don’t know how to write with a pen or pencil at all? E-mail and text have pretty much replaced letters, and phones and ipads are quickly replacing notepads. Will emoji replace the alphabet? I don’t think it’s entirely farfetched to think so. We will have circled back to hieroglyphs, or rather a lazy, thoughtless version of that ancient art.
Regardless of whether emoji spell the decline of our civilization, the world will be a different place if we stop writing things down. What if Kurt had been born in 1997 instead of 1967? Would he have written those notes that were so clearly essential to his creative process? Would he have become the musician that he was? It’s not just about gaining insight into the lives of cultural icons, either. Our grandchildren won’t find treasure troves of journals and love letters to help them understand who we were. Sure, there will be plenty of digital information available, and creativity will emerge in other ways, but I’m convinced we’ll miss out on something — the quirks, brainstorms, epiphanies, musings, aborted ideas, and humanity of people both ordinary and extraordinary.