Celebrating a Writing Rite of Passage – National Handwriting Day

Jan 6, 2016

Xianna Michaels Flower Mandala

January 22nd is National Handwriting Day. Now, I am well aware that many people might consider such a day a relic in the age of the iPhone and the ubiquitous keyboard. Who actually picks up a pen anymore, or connects their letters in what used to be called penmanship?

Well, it turns out plenty of people, and some who do it rarely wish they did it more. Like one family member who says that sometimes he needs to take hand notes in meetings but twenty-four hours later can’t read his own writing. Or the physician who always had the typical dreadful doctor’s handwriting but says these days it’s far worse: never mind the pharmacist; now even he can’t read his own prescriptions! Or the students who are at a complete loss to write out a one sentence honor code on a standardized test. Then there are the students laboriously writing answers by hand in workbooks, itching to get back to their devices, and the poor teachers trying to decipher what they’ve written.

I could go on, but I think everybody knows the drill by now. Clearly things are changing; we all know we are in the midst of a technological upheaval not seen since the advent of the printing press. But talk of the complete demise of handwriting may be a bit premature, not to mention shortsighted. So, a few observations:

It might be well to think about handwriting not only from the perspective of end result, but of the process itself. Yes, a case might be made that the elegant handwritten thank you note is well on its way to extinction, and that eventually students will simply be typing away taking notes in front of teachers who never knew any other way and are not driven to distraction by the constant clack-clacking. But it’s not only about those end points. Among other things, there is on-going research into how learning to connect letters at a young age actually helps kids form new neural pathways in the brain, activating areas that using a keyboard doesn’t. Writing in cursive helps train the brain to integrate information; practicing the connections it requires may actually increase language facility. Certainly, it helps develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. And yes, I realize the brains of the young are wired differently and that they, the digital natives, are way ahead of us digital immigrants. But still, before all the evidence is in, do we really want to risk all that brain development that we used to foster in the schools?

And it’s not just about the very young. There has been at least one study done of college students wherein one group took lecture notes on their laptops and the other by hand. When they were tested on the material afterward without having the opportunity to study their notes, it was found that the students who took hand notes did far better. Apparently, typing allows you simply to transcribe fairly mindlessly everything that’s said, almost like a court reporter; whereas taking notes by hand requires some degree of synthesis and summary, which facilitates memory.

As a writer I feel compelled to weigh in on all this vis-à-vis the creative process. Yes, most writers today, particularly the young ones, probably compose on the keyboard. But not all. There are those, young and pre-digital, who prefer doing at least a first draft by hand. They find that the movement of the hand, the sweep of the pen, allows accessing the creative right brain in a way that the keyboard does not. The keyboard is perhaps a step detached from the intuitive brain.

For my Baby Boomer self, suffice it to say that I love writing by hand. I have, however, lately learned to type some of my essays. I don’t love the process, but I can appreciate the efficiency of it. When it comes to composing poetry though, when it comes to creating my stories, only a fountain pen will do. I work intuitively, and the pen, ink and hand are as much a part of the process as my brain. In fact if I’m really in flow, they will bypass my logical left brain altogether!

There is another advantage to writing by hand. Our handwriting has life to it. Years after we’ve written something, the words on the page not only reveal their obvious meaning but can provide a treasure trove of revelations about our thoughts. A case in point is my new book Lily of the Valley — An American Jewish Journey, scheduled for release in March. Lily was originally written as a poem to be performed at a banquet for Chabad of the Valley in Encino, California. When I decided to turn it into a book more than a decade later, I went back to my original notebooks. And there I found not only stanzas that had been cut in the interest of time, not only arrows and cross-outs that might serve as a roadmap to how I arrived at the finished version. I also found embedded in the lettering itself a record of my thoughts. Why did I put this here? What was Lily trying to tell me there? What was the character feeling in this passage? I found a wealth of information that would have been lost to me had I had only a typewritten version saved.

Back in the day, learning cursive in about third grade was a much-anticipated rite of passage. It was one of our first forays into the adult world. It was one of the ways we sought to establish our identity. Fewer and fewer students have that experience today. Cursive writing is not part of the Common Core curriculum. As one LA area teacher put it, there is very little time for teaching anything outside of Common Core. But if a teacher really wants to, he or she is welcome to try to fit it in. We can all figure out what that means.

My grandchildren attend Jewish day schools, however, and imagine my delight when I found out that they are being taught handwriting! I have two third graders this year in two different schools, and they are actually learning to connect their letters. Both blissfully unaware of any controversy surrounding this new skill set, they are delighted to have reached this milestone.

Perhaps the most interesting analysis I’ve heard of this whole conundrum comes from a very astute middle schooler I know. She learned cursive in the third grade and says that she used it for about two years but then reverted to printing, which she actually finds faster. Her teacher requires that formal essays be typed, but for other work doesn’t care if the letters are connected or not. Gone are the days when “Penmanship” took up a place on the report card. However, this young lady did say to me, completely unprompted, that she likes to write the first draft of her essays by hand. It’s easier, she says, to come up with ideas that way. She also has developed a distinctive cursive signature, and she informed me that she and her friends like to dot their “i’s” with hearts. Some things, I am happy to report, never change.

And for those who would prefer to buck the current trend, there is help and hope. DeAnn Singh, master calligrapher and founder of Designing Letters in Los Angeles, has a steady stream of handwriting students. Many are adults who come for refresher courses. They have seen their handwriting deteriorate over the years because they spend so much time on keyboards. Yet there are times when they do need to hand write, and they want their work to look presentable and be readable. Still other students love and collect fine fountain pens and want their writing to reflect the respect they have for the art of handwriting. She also teaches children who are not being taught cursive in school and whose parents feel that learning handwriting is important. More than just wanting their children to have legible writing, many parents feel that people still make judgements based on a person’s handwriting, and that those with fine writing will always seem more sophisticated and perhaps a bit smarter.

Cindy Abrams, a Handwriting Initiative specialist with a background in occupational therapy, adds a further perspective. She teaches handwriting at various grade levels in the Jewish day schools in Los Angeles. She speaks of handwriting as a way of firing circuits in the brain, and of the fine motor skills it gives young children. She has seen very bright children with great ideas have difficulty getting them down on paper because they were never taught proper letter formation. Once they learn, the fluidity of cursive motion ensures that ideas come more fluidly. Interestingly, she also says that when children learn to write properly, they develop better posture for keyboarding, which will help them avoid syndromes like carpal tunnel in the future. Finally, children enjoy connecting letters as an art form, as a way to express themselves.

Surely that’s how it was back in the day when we all eagerly awaited the privilege of learning handwriting. To me it’s always been an art form, and a joyful one at that. So even if for many it ceases to be the primary mode of written communication, let it always be one of our most beautiful arts. So bring on National Handwriting Day! Pick up a pen, sweep it across the page and feel the utter delight of creating art out of letters.