I Spent Independence Day Copying the Constitution By Hand
Here are some things I did very badly in my teens:
- Parental relations
- Personal style
- Government class
This last would not ordinarily rankle so much — after all, we have all have things that we gravitate to more naturally. Except, not only was I terrible student in Mr. Palmer’s government class in high school, I was also a terrible student in Dr. R’s government class in college. It was a nightmare. I really could not be bothered with any of it. I hated the Federalist Papers. I distinctly remember being bored out of my wits in government classes in high school, and I tell you what, when you can distinctly remember being bored out of your wits, there’s something going on.
In college, I was so bad at understanding government that an absolute jerkface classmate told me that people like me were the reason America was going to pot. (I just couldn’t remember what the GAO* stood for, that’s all.)
Anyway. We are more or less beyond that now (more or less; it still stings to recall), and I have learned a lot about our government and the way it works since then, but I still have never read the Constitution through end to end, even though I have had a pocket copy of it for years and would read through portions of it if I had a loose minute waiting in line for something or waiting for a friend to show up for lunch or whatever.**
I’ve also learned a lot about my own writing practice since then, and one of the things I’m always interested in is how much I get out of something if I have to re-type or re-write it for myself. In other words, when I come across a phrase I like in a book, or an interesting fact, or something, I get yet another dimension out of it by seeing it in my own handwriting, or on a fresh page by itself.
It’s called copywork, literally the act of copying something straight from the original source in your own handwriting. Back in the 1800s it was used as a primary method of schooling, for everything from grammar to spelling. And since then, everyone from annoyingly manly copywriters for web sites (I kid you not; it was touted as a good way to improve your handwriting so that women would be impressed by your letters, and no, I’m not going to link to something so asinine) to freelancers looking for a way to build both writing skills and discipline. The idea is that your muscle memory will help you to produce great sentence structure and maybe thought structure on your own when you actually go to write something original.
But that’s not what I was looking for. What I was wanting was an added touchpoint with the Constitution. I wanted some deeper connection to it than just reading it and hopefully understanding it, and I got that in spades.
A few surprises
I don’t think I’ve ever really copied something before in this strict fashion. Usually I’m tempted to abbreviate, or shorthand something. But I didn’t feel that way with this document.
I paid close attention to the punctuation (utterly beautiful use of semi-colons), and to the now-anachronistic use of caps for certain words (“Things,” Article VI, point ).
I was very surprised, in fact, by how little I wanted to abbreviate. How much time I was wanting to spend with the document. I’m sure part of this is that I had read somewhere that it’s only 4400 words long. And I’m equally sure that I was happy to spend time with it because it was laying out for me things that I knew, somewhere in the common-sense part of my brain, in language I could understand.
(I can’t for the life of me understand why I found this stuff so tedious when I was in high school or college. I think maybe I’ll just chalk it up to not being ready to absorb such things yet, which then also leads me to wonder why the heck everyone insists on people learning Shakespeare in freshman lit. I mean, geez.)
Down the rabbit hole
But what copying The Constitution did for me goes far beyond the aching shoulder and cramped fingers I acquired. (I even resorted to trying out a new way of holding my pen.)
I found that spending time with this text loaned me curiosity. It made me want to interrogate history; find out more about the men who signed it and wrote this document; think a little more about what it was like for them to want to build a republic in this fashion.
Like a good novel, the experience opened doors and windows for me; it has encouraged me to dive into the way our country was built, and under what conditions. I want to know more about the names I don’t recognize in the list of signatories; I’m fascinated by the amendments that were made to modify what I have always suspected, and now firmly believe, is a living, fallible document; and I’m interested, too, in the Articles of the Confederation, as well.
I’m grateful that I waited this long to engage in this exercise, even though it’s something that’s been floating around in my head for a long time. I think certain things float to the surface at strange times; and there is a school of thought that says that your brain only gives you things to handle when it believes you’re holistically ready to handle them. So maybe this year was just my year.
But I’m glad I did it.
Some final thoughts about copywork
I read recently about Ryan Holiday’s method of organizing and retaining his thoughts: He writes loose thoughts and things that interest him down on 4x6 index cards. Every thought, every intriguing-to-him passage that he reads from whatever book he’s reading.
I love this idea for a lot of reasons: First, I love index cards. Second, I love neat, uniform piles of things. And now, third, I’ve seen how copying something down can drill import and your own subjective feelings about it into your muscle memory and your consciousness.
Finally, it’s really only a half-step removed from my current method of organizing my thoughts, which involves a lot of Post-Its and reviewing the book in its entirety before I can build something concrete from what I’ve learned from said books. In fact, it cuts out that pesky step of having to re-read. If I write the thing that has interested me about the book in its entirety; copy it down, store it someplace, then I am likely to be able to revisit without having to open the book again.
So I’m likely to try this copywork in Holiday fashion, and see what it does for my working process.
Never say never, anyway; and isn’t it wonderful to know that we can always be learning new things, whether it’s from a document 230 years old; a method of learning that’s 150 years old; or some marketing guy who’s a decade younger than you are?
*Government Accountability Office. I’ll never forget it, Nick.
** Obviously pre-COVID-19 times.