Remember childhood lessons on cursive writing?  Remember learning to create the big loopy tail for the lowercase “y” and where, exactly, to dot the “i” and “j”?  Are you a writer who drafts or revises by hand?  Or do you go straight to the keyboard?

Process is fascinating!  What goes on in the brain and body when we write by hand versus on the keyboard?  Do we access ideas/memories/sensations differently?  An article in the New York Times in June 2014 took a look at research into the writing of kids and adults. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fades.html?_r=0  One study found that when kids “composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas.”

One researcher reflected on the connection between mind and the movement involved in shaping letters:   “With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important.”

There’s a certain liveliness to handwriting, too, a spirit that inhabits the letter shapes.  It bristles or floats or wavers or spikes–often a reflection of the writer’s personality or mood.  One of my husband’s great joys is calligraphy.  He often creates whole pages of specific letters or words, delighting in the swivel of the “Z,” the plumpness of the “Q,” the cradle of white space in the “V.”

In the past few years, I’ve been saving a few Christmas cards with handwritten notes from older family members and friends.  In this age of the constant, static selfie, these notes seem not fixed but infused with breath, flowing across the page.  A form of embodiment, perhaps.

How about you?  Before you toss the holiday cards, might you look closely at and appreciate the idiosyncratic handwritten notes and signatures? What do you notice?  Might you try handwriting a few paragraphs of your new creative project?   And as you do so, you might slow down and take pleasure in shaping the letters, letting them build into sounds in your inner ear and sentences that sway or sweep across the page.




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19 responses to “(Hand)Writing

  1. Mary, recently my pen refused to write despite the fact that inkwell was full. I spent a great deal of time (unsuccessfully) making loopy doodles all over my page and was reminded of handwriting prep that was mandatory. Before letters came lines and lines of loops. Happy writing.

    • There’s something very pleasurable about creating lots of loops, isn’t there, Anna? Sometimes when i’m writing and trying to figure out what might come next, I try to stay with the momentum of writing by just writing the word I just finished a few times or making some loops. Much like doodling, I suspect. Hope you’re doing well!

  2. While they no longer teach hand writing in schools, this side of the Atlantic, they’re stepping it up in France. French spelling is difficult, and they’ve found that kids learn the words better hand writing them. I no longer write fiction by hand but I always write songs and picture book stories that way and I pay special attention to all those loops and where the dots end up.

    • Ah, the French are onto something that American researchers are just beginning to discover, Tim! A recent study of a football team (college or pro, I can’t remember) showed that players learned the plays at a deeper level more quickly when they took notes by hand. (Okay, I did wonder why these studies on effective learning were focusing on football players rather than kids but tried not to dwell too depressively on that.) As to the loopy handwriting, I still do all first drafts by hand (except articles/journalistic pieces) as a way of staying better connected to the material. Do you write all over the page as you draft songs and pb stories? Handwriting allows me to do more nonlinear thinking, literally traveling in all directions on the page. Enjoy your loops and “i” dotting!

  3. laurakvasnosky

    I love handwritten stuff. Years ago I put together a family recipe book, combining family stories and photos and recipes. Whenever possible, I used the handwritten version of the ingredients. Those original recipe cards are my favorites, their food stains attesting the quality of the recipe. There’s something telling, too, in my mother’s tiny precise script and my Grandma McGee’s round loops. Who would guess that a person’s handwriting could make you miss them even more?

    • Oh, Laura, I know just what you mean! Handwriting to me is like hearing a person’s voice — it just, well, seems to contain their spirit in some way. And what a treasure for your family, to have those handwritten recipes and photos. My best friend died almost 10 years ago and I have a recipe card she had written for an apple pie even years before that. It’s falling apart and covered, as you mentioned, with food stains but that just makes it livelier.

  4. Shannon Morgan

    I discovered this year that I write more steadily by hand than when typing — my brain uses the time it takes me to write something to form its next thought. Since those pauses when typing can also give me time to DOUBT the next thought, I think I write more (and more adventurously) when I hand-write.

    • Hope you are enjoying the adventure of winter rez, Shannon! And I know just what you mean about the handwriting freeing one up to create more (and more fearlessly). Perhaps it’s a certain momentum that is created that keeps moving us forward, almost as if the writing is emerging just in advance of a complete thought. I also can think/write in a more nonlinear fashion when I’m writing by hand since I feel free to travel all over the page and do symbols, arrows, little drawings, etc., which the computer won’t allow. Have you discovered that as well?

  5. Julie Larios

    I keep an empty jar of honey in my cupboard just because my dad, who died 30 years ago, wrote out the label in his beautiful handwriting. Those flowing letters – i just love seeing then! When learning cursive, I remember the thrill of the “z” (so strange) as well as the feeling that those hillocks that mounded up in the letter “m” could just go on forever until you hit a bump that carried you to the next letter….mmmmmmm…..

    • Ah, Julie, I, too, can remember the joys (and challenges) of learning to do cursive. And I can remember the pleasure of creating letter shapes that looked beautiful on the page (all apart from what they meant). It seems, by not teaching cursive–and by treating the act of putting words on paper as purely utilitarian–that our educational system is denying children a pleasure in the aesthetics of writing (and one they could master). How lovely to be greeted by your dad’s honey jar whenever you open your cupboard!

  6. martineleavitt

    Mary, I always write first drafts by hand. I need the time it takes to hand write a word in order to know what the next word should be. Typing is too fast. Sadly, my youngest child can only print, although he is brilliant. Teachers nowadays don’t think handwriting is all that important because they know they will soon be attached at the naval to a keyboard.

    • Ha, Martine, we should start a club! I have to write creative work by hand first, too. It allows me to jump around the page and draw arrows, etc., and to experience the work as more organic and lively. Work on the computer always feels like work, to me. Dutiful. And handwriting feels more playful and experimental. On school visits, kids often ask about process and some have told me, quite earnestly, that I could produce more if I wrote first drafts on the computer.

  7. kmquimby2014

    I take the notes for stories by hand and I often write portions of the first draft, but usually at some point the words start flowing faster than my fingers are comfortable with–the cramp, cramp of too many double-jointed fingers–and I move to the keyboard. The handwriting feels more playful, somehow, and helps me keep things loose.

    • louisehawes

      I never type a free write from a character. (And I ask my students to handwrite them, too. Sorry, guys!) I need the kinetic connection, the reaching out, the touching ….okay, the bridge, between my character and me. Thanks for this post, Mary. I love it!

    • Handwriting does feel more playful, doesn’t it, Kathy? And it looks so much less scripted and allows us to move around the page with impunity. I love looking at others’ handwritten drafts. We tend to experience Emily Dickinson’s poems as very contained and small because of the way they have appeared in print–but that’s not how she experienced them. She bound all her poems by hand in books and the poems take up the whole page in big, loopy writing!

    • Whoops, Kathy, somehow I replied to your comment on Louise’s below. Thanks for (hand)writing! How go your metafictive wriitng adventures?

    • Kathy, for some reason, my replies to your comment keep showing up on Louise’s comment. If we were handwriting, we wouldn’t have this problem.

  8. Well, Louise, somehow the computer has gotten its feelings hurt and feels one-upped by all this discussion of handwriting and has started posting my replies to Kathy’s comment on your comment section. Arrrgh! I love your idea of the writing creating a curvy bridge, a lively line, between you and your character. I got a big kick out Battle Bunny (Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnet’s new book), where the (fictional) child re-wrote parts of the book in his own handwriting and “corrected” the author’s text.

  9. Thanks for this post, Mary. I usually write more when I write by hand. I need to return to that, instead of trying to churn out a draft on the computer.

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