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What Does That Say?

I’ll admit it: I’ve never had great penmanship. As a young child I was an overachiever with report cards filled with “E’s” for “excellent.” The one exception was penmanship, for which my teachers typically gave me an “S” for “satisfactory.” My older sisters used to tease me about my messy letters, laughing at me in comparing my writing to a toddler’s. So I acknowledge that a career as a calligrapher was never in the cards for me. That being said, the impact of rheumatoid arthritis on my penmanship has been striking.

My fingers always have at least some swelling, which makes it hard to hold a pen. Even though I spring for the larger (and more expensive) ergonomic pens, it’s difficult for my fingers to maintain a firm grasp on them. Fortunately I live in the technology age, where it’s expected that any formal writing be typed. (I shudder to think of the reactions I would have garnered a hundred years ago when seemingly everyone had gorgeous longhand.) Yet, there are plenty of times when I still write notes, cards, and even checks, as old-fashioned as that’s beginning to seem in the era of debit cards and paying via smart phone. Over the fifteen years since my diagnosis, my scrawl has become looser and looser, making my penmanship less and less legible. Leafing through journal entries of years past is like watching a flipbook of the progression of my disease; as my joints have suffered deterioration, so has my handwriting.

My penmanship has become so bad that even my husband, who is able to decipher my scrawl better than anyone I know, has difficulty reading it at times. I take pride in the heartfelt cards and notes I write to friends thanking them for gifts or kindnesses or offering support during difficult times. However, I not only put care into the words I choose but must also concentrate on forming the letters on the paper. Otherwise my carefully selected sentiments will be illegible to the loved ones I am trying to communicate with. If I don’t slow my writing pace to at least half of what I consider “normal,” my friends and family will have as much luck reading my notes as they would a doctor’s scribbles on a prescription pad.

While thirty years have passed since the days when my sisters taunted me about my poor penmanship, it has now become so bad that sometimes even my friends will tease me about my “chicken scratch.” I don’t mind the teasing, as I can’t argue that they don’t have a point. However, recognizing that my RA is the cause of just how bad my writing has become does sting a bit. Each time I realize the ways in which my body cannot do things as well as it could five, ten, or fifteen years ago, I feel both the grief of the loss of physical ability as well as worry as to what the coming years will bring. While the writing may be on the wall as far where my disease progression is heading, it is as difficult to discern as my penmanship.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Anita
    4 years ago

    So true! I have the same experience, though my penmanship grade was a ‘U’ for Unsatisfactory. My parents didn’t care much because they also had terrible handwriting. In high school, one of my teachers told me she saved mine and another student’s essays for last because we had horrible handwriting. She then went on to say that she had found over the years that her smartest students had the worst writing because their hands simply couldn’t keep up with their brains. Needless to say, I was happy with that statement.

    RA has definitely made my writing worse. I’ve had all my MCP joints replaced, which helps, but the pain and deformation always has an effect. Wrists and shoulders get in on the action, too. I’ve given up on ever having good penmanship, but at least I can use the RA as an excuse if I’m ever criticized 🙂

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Anita. I love what your teacher said about smart people’s hands not being able to keep up with their brains. Unfortunately, because of RA now it’s the rest of our bodies that can’t keep up with our brains as well!

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