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Speak Out: Creativity Flows from the Hand: The Case for Longhand Writing

By Leigh Donaldson
arttimesjournal June 17, 2017

Both of my parents were educators. My mother taught elementary students at a Jesuit school and my father was an economics instructor in both high schools and community colleges. Despite or perhaps because of their academic backgrounds and professions, they were also artistically creative in their own right. My mother was an accomplished clothing designer and wrote children’s books as a hobby. My dad was an avid reader and amateur writer of poetry. Growing up with my two younger brothers, there had always been an implicit emphasis on being able to convey thoughts on paper whether on a to-do list, thank you letters to relatives or notes left on the refrigerator explaining our whereabouts.

For almost two years, I taught English at a high school largely overflowing with wealthy kids, too many of whom had managed to get that far without being able to link a noun and a verb in their heads, let alone on paper. Encouraging them to keep journals was widely helpful to them, I learned. I will always recall visiting my mother’s classroom and over-hearing her suggest to a seemingly inarticulate student that he ‘write down’ what he wanted to say and read it back to her. She was teaching that hapless child an indispensable tool of communication. For a high-school graduation, one of my father’s gifts to me was a Waterman fountain pen, which I interpreted as a nod toward both my ambition to become a writer, as well as to the craft of handwriting itself.

Long ago and far away are the days we were able to complain about the illegible prescriptions our doctors wrote for us or feel our heart throb over the scribbled note from a lover. Even the dreaded “Dear John” letter has been replaced by a colder, more succinct, acronym-riddled, Internet slangy, grammarless, misspelling-filled text message, tweet; etc. We may communicate more from the keyboard today, but nothing will ever quite replace the poignancy of a handwritten message. Handwriting takes more effort and thought.

In the mid-1800s, abolitionist and bookkeeper Platt Rogers Spencer formulated a cursive writing system, known as the Spencerian method that was quickly adopted in schools and businesses from the 1860s through the 1920s. The original Coca-Cola logo is an example. This style of writing is also reputed to be based on natural forms in nature such as leaves and trees. At the turn of the century, Austin Norman Palmer invented a script known as the Palmer Method that required students to form loopy characters between horizontal lines that were supposedly better suited to the oncoming industrial age, being less rigorous and ornate, more plain and geared to an emerging commercial culture.

After the Civil War, the Remington Arms Company decided that rifles were slow on sales and launched the first typewriter, a heavy, loud monstrosity that you could write blindly on because the keys hit the underside of the paper. Businesses and the buying public responded with a resounding ‘thumbs down’. According to many reports, even author Mark Twain rejected the machine in that form. Developers added a carriage return and features allowing writers to actually see the page as they typed. Then the QWERTY keyboard came into being, separating common letters to prevent bars from sticking when struck sequentially. This construct continues to exist even in the most user-friendly keyboards of late.

Word processors followed, then rapidly the most advanced computers and software imaginable that seem to have virtually wiped handwriting out of households, classrooms and offices. Penmanship or cursive handwriting study is all but non-existent in the American, Canadian and European curricula. The modern-day student, when motivated to write at all, devotes far more time mastering typing/keyboarding and computer skills, than writing in long-hand as did their forebears. Handwriting and even basic printing skills have declined since. Thus, the illegibility of what so much of what is handwritten these days.

In her book, “Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting”, Kitty Burns Florey, who learned the Palmer Method of handwriting in Catholic schools and considers herself a “penmanship nut”, argues against the widespread belief that forming letters on paper is obsolete in a digital age. Florey traces the evolution of handwriting, writing implements, scripts, pen collecting societies and the popularity of handwriting analysis, while making a convincing empirical and practical case for preserving the tradition. For example, she notes that bad penmanship costs businesses nearly $200 annually in lost revenue.

Most of our educational systems appear to think that handwriting, especially cursive writing seems downright unnecessary to many Americans. The Common Core Standards Initiative adopted in 2010 by 45 US states established a set of standards for students through 12th grade in the English arts and mathematics and has no mandate for handwriting, only legible writing in kindergarten and first grade. When North Carolina passed their Back to Basics bill reintroducing cursive writing into school curricula, considerable pushback from parents as well as teachers resulted. Opposition arguments ran the full gamut. It’s a waste of time when most writing happens on the keyboard nowadays. It’s not what kids will need in the workforce. Teachers have enough to teach these days which is true enough given ever-expanding requirements and criteria. Others are merely against making cursive writing compulsory.

Yet, isn’t it true that people will always need to write legibly whether they are signing a check, documents or leaving a note to a delivery person, just as much as it is helpful to know how to add and subtract?  As long as there is the possibility of power outages, computer crashes and battery run-downs, won’t we need to write down messages? It’s disconcerting how many people in the world throw out a blank look when you ask them if they happen to have a piece of paper and a pen.

Even putting aside concerns about clear, coherent sentence structure and grammar, the ability to write with your hands remains the ultimate emergency backup. It’s folly to think that you will never need to write things down some time during your lifetime. And, let’s face it.  A hand-written thank-you note enclosed in a hand-written, personally-stamped envelope will always trump an impersonal e-mail or tweet on the sincerity scale, hands down.

Letter-writing, now considered a cultural dinosaur, has largely been replaced by the e-mail and texting much to the loss of creativity, depth of thought, and clarity in communication among people. Historically, professional writers maintained their correspondence as a useful complement to their literary projects, writes Mason Curry in a 2013 New York Times article, “The Death of Letter Writing”. Curry, who spoke with several contemporary writers, painters and composers, discovered that most of them were “wary of the distractive potential of e-mail”. E-mail is always alive, unlike snail mail, beeping on the laptop, never quite done with until it’s somehow dealt with.

There are other reasons that writing is valuable to us. Psychologists, Pam A. Mueller from Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer at the University of California/LA conducted a study of the advantages of longhand student note-taking over using the laptop. Among their findings, they state: “…we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand…Laptop note-takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.” The implication is that we don’t require digital support systems to fully comprehend what we see, hear and feel as much as we’ve been programmed to believe. A growing body of evidence reveals that handwriting for young and older people alike enhances focus and even critical thinking, finger and eye/hand coordination motor skills, spelling and memory. It has also been demonstrated that children learn faster, become more literate, are better equipped to generate original thoughts and both retain and process new information when they have learned to write by hand.  The hand written word stimulates the brain and aids in targeting what is significant in all aspects of life.

It is in our best interest to preserve handwriting skills and their association with reading and communication with each other. Computers, by their very inanimate nature, lack emotion, personality and compassion. The effort taken to write by hand symbolizes an authentic sense of inner-strength, regardless of the content. Conveying thoughts by writing them down has become a very underrated achievement considering the literary wealth we have reaped from the likes of Shakespeare, Plato, Einstein, as well as authors such as Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Joyce Carol Oates, Andre Dubus III, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King, who wrote and write primarily in long-hand, composing many original drafts of their works in pen or pencil. There is human depth and warmth in handwriting that will never exist in an e-mail or text message. Losing the ability to write down thoughts through digital influences can be compared to losing a native language through cultural assimilation.

“I believe strongly most so-called literary writing can be assisted by beginning with pencil or pen in hand because of their links to drawing,” author William Least Heat-Moon, in a recent interview with The Writer’s Chronicle. “A different part of the brain seems to kick in when those primitive instruments are in hand. There’s no power grid or digital contraption to interfere, and there’s no glass screen between my words and me.”

Ultimately, will handwritten manuscripts, letters and notes only appeal to collectors, hobbyists and historical ephemera enthusiasts? Will the younger generations need to learn how to handwrite through specialized computer software?

Hopefully not. Inspired by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association (WIMA), a National Handwriting Day was established on January 23, 1977, the birthday of founding father John Hancock who signed the Declaration of Independence, which incidentally was written on parchment by a professional scribe named Timothy Matlock. On their website, they state that the holiday allows “…a chance for all of us to re-capture the purity and power of handwriting”.

Composing thoughts and reflections on paper is a powerful layer of expression that should never be reduced to being an antiquated art form. Short of face-to-face contact, handwriting remains an effective communicative tool for expressing the full range of human thought and emotion. Spoken words often leave very little trace unless recorded by a machine. The written word can be literally and physically held on to for a lifetime and beyond for everyday people, historians, biographers and writers alike.

Resources

Anderson, Sam. “Hand Off: Loving, and mourning, scribbling”, New York Magazine, 15 February 2009.

Brown, April. “Is Cursive Handwriting Slowly Dying Out in America?”, PBS NewsHour, 24 April 2014.

Cohen, Jennie. “A Brief History of Penmanship on National Handwriting Day”, 23 January 2012.

Curry, Mason. “The Death of Letter Writing”, New York Times, 10 November 2013.

Florey, Kitty Burns. Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting. Melville House Publishers, 2009.

Konnikova, Maria. “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades”, New York Times, 2 June 2014.

Mueller, Pam A. & Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note-Taking”, Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, vol. 25 no.6, 2014 June.

Naparsteck, Martin. “An Interview with William Least Heat-Moon”, The Writer’s Chronicle, 2015 December.

Reynolds, Denise. “Should schools stop teaching cursive writing?”, examiner.com, 2 June 2013.

Whitelocks, Sadie. “Should handwriting lessons be abolished? How parents and teachers are divided over the value of cursive in a digital age”, Mail online.uk, 3 September 2013.