It takes my 20-year-old son almost a full minute to sign his name. Yes, he has a long name, but that’s not the issue. He’s dysgraphic, which means he can’t write.
He’s also dyslexic. And gifted. So I’m glad he lives in 2014 rather than 1914. Or even 1940. Despite his utter inability to print or write cursive, he’s been able to play the “learning disability card” and require his university to give him accommodations. He can use a computer for exams. He gets extra time. And he’s doing really well. (He’s pursuing a B.Mus. and studying to become an opera singer.)
Most other 20-year-olds these days can’t write, either. Cursive handwriting is disappearing from public schools, according to The Washington Post. The New York Times agrees, although it seems to feel more regretful about it.
It makes me sad, too. I think most writers should object to this change as well.
Here are three reasons:
1. Writing and printing make it easier to learn to read. Once my husband and I identified our son’s dyslexia, we sent him for tutoring. One of the first things the tutors did was require him to print. It wasn’t easy for him, and, given his disability, they didn’t make him do a lot of it. But he had to do enough to “cement” the understanding of the phonemes in his brain.
I agree with Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at Collège de France in Paris, who says, “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.” We could see it happen in our own son. His ferociously bright, profoundly learning-disabled mind eventually caught on to reading and his first-ever book, at age 13 was an adult one, Pierre Burton’s “War of 1812.”
We writers have a stake in having people read, no? If we do, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the value of printing and writing.
2. Using our hands helps us think. I’m old enough to have written my thesis (Poli Sci, 1979) on a typewriter and my very first magazine article on a borrowed IBM self-correcting selectric. In reality, this meant I wrote my first drafts longhand.
I’ll never forget switching to a computer when I started in daily newspapers. What I had so long wished for—the chance to delete easily and painlessly, the ability to move text with a few quick clicks of my fingers—suddenly seemed like a false, misleading dream. I felt totally awkward and completely inept.
For the longest time, it seemed as though my brain was broken. My hand kept reaching for a pen so I could capture my thoughts, apparently unaware that my fingers could fly across the keyboard at five times the speed. It took me a full six months to adapt to writing on a keyboard.
Although I’d never go back to writing most things by hand today, I completely understand the value of handwritten morning pages, as promoted by writers like Julia Cameron. Writing by hand helps us think.
3. Using our hands allows us to be more creative. To this day, I always mindmap by hand. Mindmapping allows me to capture the deep interior thoughts of my brain—the things I really want to say—without having to stare vacantly into space for an eon (which is not a terribly productive way to write, in any case.)
If you’ve never used mindmapping for writing, I urge you to try it. Yes, you can find relatively inexpensive software for mindmapping, but I still suggest you use a paper and pencil. I was unlucky enough to have had a stroke at age 46 and then again at 51 (unrelated to any lifestyle or genetic risks).
For me, the only deficit I have been left with is that writing by hand is painful and what I create borders on unreadable. Yet I still force myself to mindmap by hand. I get better, more creative results that way. I wrote the mindmap for this article in less than three minutes, and that helped me write this piece in 30.
Writing by hand might seem clunky and awkward and old-fashioned, but it’s never a waste of time. I think Andy Rooney was right when he said: “Don’t rule out working with your hands. It does not preclude using your head.”