Noelle Sterne ~
Handwriting? That remnant of the writer’s Stone Tablet Age? In this explosive age of iPads, tablets, laptops, mensa-phones, endlessly propagating apps, smart watches that make your coffee, and GPS trackers that pin down your editor in the Hamptons and remind her to respond to your latest email?
Whatever your writing genre or specialty, you’re probably wired with at least a laptop and daily upgrade cravings. And you have that irresistible capability of being connected anywhere. In the ATM line, on your iPad you can visit rival banks for their lowest check-cashing charges. With the mall’s free WiFi, in a department store you can see which coupons match that divine shirt. Under a tree in the park, you can sit cross-legged, laptop in your lap, and saving paper to boot (or reboot).
How can handwriting (I use a clipboard with loose white sheets) possibly supplant such tech-orgiastic wonders? Well, at the electronic emporium, while my husband valiantly tries to understand the grade-school electro-wizard’s explanation of the latest generation of gargantuan gigabytes, my clipboard quietly waits. I find a corner by the stockroom and sit on a carton. My clipboard opens instantly to the page for the next scene in my current short story.
On camping trips, while my husband gets his elbows smacked by the preprogrammed, auto-surefire-guaranteed-to-open tent poles, my clipboard unpacks quickly. At the campsite, I curl into a canvas chair, a thermos of faux cappuccino propped nearby in the grass. With the clipboard cozily against my knees, I survey the lush forest and turn to the setting of my novel’s next chapter.
On the ride to the car repair shop, when my husband’s eyes pop at the mechanic’s dazzling estimate-upping electronic diagnostic panel, I settle into a chair in the waiting area. Not searching for outlets, I flip open my clipboard to the main character’s description.
Wherever I travel, my clipboard fits easily into a tote, with no need for batteries, memory cards, cables, adapters, chargers, plugs, backup disks, motherboards, skateboards, kiddy boards, or chairman boards. The clipboard automatically accompanies me to the coffee shop, library, restaurant, and park. It’s with me on the subway, the Sunday drive to relatives’, and the eternal supermarket line.
My clipboard also immunizes me from electronic anxiety disorder (EAD).
I harbor no looming fears of crashing hard drives, suffer no spiraling panic at power spikes, dread no contagion of file-chomping viruses, or blanch at hackers’ abrupt attacks. My clipboard never displays puzzling sluggishness, sudden dips in energy, or heart-stopping flutters, gasps, buzzes, dings, or crackles.
Granted—handwriting has its drawbacks. It doesn’t store your body of work, rough as it may be, for later major surgery. It doesn’t show off sixty-five alternatives for the precise word that maddeningly eludes you. And it doesn’t cut, paste, delete, or redo your revisions with mind-boggling speed.
Nevertheless, I defend the virtues of handwriting. For one thing, to arrive at the right word isn’t like choosing from a Chinese menu. Often you must stop, probe deep inside, and ask yourself pointed questions (“How would she really feel?”). Only as you quiet down and listen, do you finally allow the right word to emerge from your internal database.
For another, sometimes speed is the last thing you want. You need to sit, stare, ruminate, groan a little, and chew on the pen top. At your computer you can sit and stare, but how can you chew on a keyboard, and who wants to chew on a mouse?
When you write by hand, much of the pleasure springs from the sheer physical act of forming the letters. As I watch the words become real on paper, the process, like drawing, carries an irreplaceable sensuality. Surprisingly too, the act of writing is calming and meditative.
Lest you think I’m the only throwback to the AnteDell-uvian Age, I assure you I’m not alone in my praise of script. Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala, 1986) illuminates:
Writing is physical and is affected by the equipment you use. In typing, your fingers hit keys and the result is block, black letters. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart…
You are physically engaged with the pen, and your hand, connected to your arm, is pouring out the record of your senses. (pp. 6, 7, 50)
Multi-award-winning mystery writer Phyllis A. Whitney, who published her last book at 93, agrees: “I believe there’s a connection between the brain and the fingers, and there should be as little interference between the two as possible” (“Tools of the Writer’s Trade,” The Writer, August 1992, p. 29).
And Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way (Tarcher, 1992) helps us break through blocks and self-censoring by prescribing the “morning pages . . . three pages of longhand writing” daily (p. 9) [italics mine].
Even science concurs. The London Daily Mail reported on a study with children who learned better with handwriting than computer typing: “Something is apparently lost in the brain process when switching from pen and book to computer screen and keyboard” (January 21, 2011). The neurophysiologist Jean-Luc Velay and colleagues found that handwriting activates parts of the brain that keyboard typing does not (Arfinn Christensen, “Paper Beats Computer Screens,” ScienceNordic, March 13, 2013).
Poet, novelist, and writing teacher Steven Taylor Goldsberry argues from etymology (The Writer’s Book of Wisdom, Writer’s Digest Books, 2004): “Look at the word manuscript. [In Latin] . . . manu means by hand; scriptus means written” (p. 41).
When I’ve finally settled down with my clipboard at the new page, and the writing flows from heart-mind to arm to pen to page, I sigh. And I feel fuller than kissing my niece’s infant or diving into an overflowing hot fudge sundae.
A Grudging Nod to Technology
Despite these paeans, though, I cannot deny the merits of today’s technological marvels and must admit to using the computer for after-first drafts. Many writers have successfully navigated the fearsome sea from the safe harbor of pen and paper to the wilds of unknown electronic shores. Both, I’ve found, have their place in creativity’s fickle waters. Nevertheless, my devotion to clipboards remains steadfast.
Other Handwriting Devotees
Who else writes or wrote by hand, in notebooks, with clipboards, or on stalwart yellow pads? The distinctive roster sparks confidence. Only a few: Maya Angelou, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, J. K. Rowling, William Styron, Quentin Tarantino, Tom Wolfe.
So, if you’re a closet scrawlaholic and find yourself gaped at, giggled at, pointed to with derision, or if you feel inexplicably guilty in our post-cursive era, remember that you belong to a proud elite. Ride out the ridicule, stand tall, look ’em in the Webcam, and flourish your pen—in praise of handwriting.
Author, mainstream and academic editor, writing coach, mentor, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 articles, stories, and poems in writing, literary, spiritual, and academic venues. A PhD from Columbia University prepared her for her handbook for graduate students on overcoming their underestimated nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). In her spiritual self-help book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), Noelle helps readers release regrets and reach their lifelong yearnings. Going after her own dream, she is working on her third novel.