The Physicality of Writing

Posted by on Jun 26, 2013 in Creativity, Writing | 0 comments

The Physicality of Writing

If you’re over 25, you probably learned to write in cursive in school. In fact, it’s such a fundamental part of what most of us learned in school that you might be surprised to learn that a lot of schools don’t teach it anymore.

That’s right. In all but a few states, kids don’t learn cursive. The logic is that kids don’t need it because they type most of the time now. If that logic had been in play when I was a kid, we wouldn’t have learned math because we had calculators, but you all know how well that argument worked, and rightly so. But cursive…it’s outta here. Someone in power obviously hated it.

The thing is, writing in cursive is good for you, just like math is. It’s not just because it helps to develop your fine motor skills. It’s because the physicality of writing affects the way you write.

I can speak to this from personal experience. When I started having trouble with carpal tunnel and, before that, golfer’s elbow, I was told I had to stop typing. Well, I’m a writer, and I work as a writer and editor, so you can guess how likely that was, not least because I was in the middle of my MFA program. Taking a break from writing my thesis and doing my other work for school was not an option, so I decided I’d try dictation software.

I hated it. It worked, sort of, but then there were the times when it didn’t, which are a completely separate topic. I hated it because it altered the way I wrote. When you’re used to writing as a comparatively silent process, hearing the words come out of your mouth is a jarring and unpleasant experience. Reading your work out loud is a great way to catch things that need to be fixed, and I used it regularly. As a result, I could not separate my internal writer and editor, because I noticed things that needed to be changed far too strongly and it would stop me in my tracks. Maybe this stuff works for emails and newspaper articles, but for fiction writing (and even for less formal work), it was incredibly uncomfortable.

By the same token, right now, I can type, but I can’t write with a pen. My post-surgical right wrist is still in a semi-permanent splint. I can drive, I can type, and I can even pour from a heavy pitcher, but I can’t write my own name. (I’ve been doing my best to avoid the need since last Wednesday, which is interesting all on its own.) Of course, over the past few days, what have I been wanting to do? I’ve been wanting to write in my journal. The one thing I can’t do. Could I type? Sure. But typing in a journal is not, for me, half as useful or introspective as writing with a pen on paper. I often think best on paper, and the virtual item just ain’t the same.

Do I think kids should learn cursive? You bet I do. It was good for me to learn arithmetic, and it’s good for kids to know how to write. If we don’t teach our kids how to write on paper, what will they lose? What neurological processes won’t work as well? What will they write, and how—and will it have the depth of the writing produced by earlier generations?

Do we really want to take the chance that it won’t?

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