June 2, 2011
Long live the written word
I got busy and haven’t had much time for writing lately, though I was following with interest the debate that broke out over the course of a couple weeks, across internet news sources, about, of all things, writing. Specifically, on the value of cursive. Whether we should still be teaching it, what its value is, whether it’s effectively a dead language, an art form but with little practical utility in the age of ubiquitous keyboards, a waste of teaching time or whether it’s still a necessary skill.
Dozens of commenters attempted the argument that we shouldn’t waste time on cursive anymore because they never have to use it in their work. But that would be like me saying that because I don’t use calculus on a day to day basis, we should stop teaching it. I don’t use calculus; that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who need to use calculus.
And I need to write by hand on a nearly daily basis: Aside from this blog, I still keep a personal journal. At rehearsals, while I mostly type notes immediately into my laptop, I can’t always have it with me, and the ability to write notes quickly and understandably is indispensable. In college, I never took class notes on my laptop, even though I can type faster than writing, not only to avoid carrying a computer around all day but because somehow the physical act of writing makes me visually absorb and retain the information better than typing it does. I still keep a paper planner for the same reason despite the easy and free availability of a number of computerized options. If I haven’t written it, I haven’t actually remembered it quite the same way. I write to my grandparents–both of my grandmothers have gorgeous cursive handwriting–and also to friends. A Facebook message, fantastic as I think Facebook is, can’t beat the time and attention inherent in a real letter for some kinds of personal communication. I love the idea of something being physically carried between two people, an artifact of affection. There’s note-taking in circumstances where it would be rude to whip out a computer, but I can do so discretely and quietly with a notebook.
But more importantly that all of that for me, none of which is totally insurmountable without cursive, is this. Most of this debate has been conducted as if the content or quality of writing or communication exists independently of its format or medium, and I don’t think that’s true. I think that the physical process by which we communicate deeply affects the quality of the communication. Not only do I write much differently than I speak, but there are things that I actually cannot speak, that I can only write. Someone once described the phenomenon very succinctly when she wrote of her own daughter, “It’s like her hands know a language her mouth doesn’t.” (Laura, this happened somewhere on your blog, but I cannot for the life of me find the post or the comment to link to it.) Most people apparently can talk through their problems and uncertainties; I can’t. Speaking is too much work for me to engage in problem-solving at the same time. It requires a level of translation that writing somehow doesn’t. I can’t problem-solve by speaking, but I can problem-solve by writing.
And within the realm of writing, I not only write very differently when I’m typing as opposed to writing by hand, but there are things that I cannot articulate by typing, only by handwriting, and vice versa. There are thoughts that I can only will into existence with pen and paper. Almost any creative, emotional or personal writing, I must do by hand. When I write poetry (which I still do very occasionally), I can only do a first draft by hand. I literally can’t type it; the words and the meter won’t come. And something about the quality of thinking that requires complex or deep reflection matches the speed of writing in cursive for me. Printing is far too slow to be useful for much of anything to me. Typing is too fast; my fingers can get ahead of my brain to the point that what I type is meaningless. Writing in cursive matches up to the speed of my train of thought.
It’s like how in Harry Potter’s universe, wizards require a wand to do magic. Children can express a kind of vague and disorganized magic by will alone, but a real wizard has to use a wand for any purposeful, articulated magic. For some kinds of writing and some kinds of thinking, my hand needs a pen the way a wizard needs a wand.
(But for other kinds of writing, typing is much better than writing by hand: anything fairly factual and straightforward, requiring the transcription of a large amount of information or detail, or when I basically already know what I want to say and only need to fine-tune it, such as when I have a longer paper or essay already extensively outlined.)
For me, the ability to write in cursive isn’t just a technical one, a compromise in speed between printing and typing, or an artistic one. Cursive is a key to my own mind and my own creativity that’s granted by nothing else. For me, saying that we shouldn’t teach or use cursive anymore is like saying that an entire mode of thought, practically an entire language, and one I think we can ill-afford to lose, should be eliminated. And I think that’s something worth resisting, for more than aesthetic or romantic reasons.