The Case for Handwriting

I have heard people say, for years now, that handwriting is a dying art. My kids are barely taught it in school. I have no idea how they will ever sign important documents. For most kids of their generation, handwriting is like rotary phones, postcards and Walkmans. Except for me, it’s a lifeline.

Years ago, pre-kids, Jason and I lived overseas. I worked as the communications manager for a government-funded child welfare organization. It was my first real full-time job. I had to manage a communication plan—from building a website, to writing and editing the monthly newsletter, to press releases, to planning our launch.

I hate planning events. My son’s bar mitzvah is in less than a year and already I have heart palpitations. I hate details, and feeling responsible for hordes of guests, and managing dynamics. In other words, I was fully unqualified to be planning the organization’s launch. But I didn’t realize that until I was in the throes of a serious bout of anxiety. I would come home and I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t eat. I felt nervous all the time. I would wake up before my alarm and my mind would be spinning so fast, I felt like my toes were buzzing.

I don’t remember what made me decide to try this, but one morning I grabbed my pen and journal and just free wrote my thoughts, got them onto paper just so I could organize myself and feel more in control. An amazing thing happened: The act of handwriting actually slowed down my thoughts. I was transcribing the words buzzing around in my head. My anxious mind had to settle down so that my hand could catch every thought. And just by slowing down my thoughts, I felt my heart slowing down, my lungs expanding so I could breathe deeper, the tingling in my toes dying away.

I have always written by hand as part of my writing warm up. When I teach, I tell my students that we are warming up our writing muscles. They moan when I make them freewrite by hand for five or 10 minutes; they get writer’s cramp so easily because they aren’t used to holding a pen. But still I make them do it.

When I was a teenager, I read a quote (which I believe was attributed to the late, great, Carol Shields) that when you type, your thoughts go from your brain, down your neck, to your shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, keys, through a bunch of wires, and then magically appear on the screen. When you hand write, the connection is fluid: brain, neck, shoulder, arm, hand, pen, ink, page. You are always physically connected to your creation.

When I am working on something new, I will handwrite first until I feel the direction the story is taking. This could take many, many writing sessions, and pages and pages of a journal. But only then will I turn to my computer, transcribe and work from there. It’s the same for me with editing—I much prefer to print out a story and work in a hard copy, hold it in my hand and highlight with a pen, cut up scenes with an actual pair of scissors.

But then, I’m the Luddite who won’t read a book off a Kindle. My house has four working rotary phones. We have a collection of road maps in a bin, which we consult with before heading out on a road trip. I need to be able to touch things—whatever the journey is that I’m on. It’s the physical connection to the real world that grounds me.

I eventually came out of that bout of anxiety, partially by finding coping strategies (like journaling) and also by advocating for myself once that event was done and saying to my (very understanding) manager—event planning is not my strength. Right now, I’m at the very beginning stages of a new creative project. I don’t know where I’m headed with it, but I start each day by journaling, listening to the character and transcribing what she has to say. It’s a slow process, but the more I do it, the closer I feel to her and her story. Almost like I could reach out and touch it.