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Mares: Hand Writing

At last I have some justification for my wretched penmanship. Well,"justification" may be too strong a word. "Excuse" might be more to the point.

A recent article in the NYT described research documenting increased brain activity when small children learned to write letters by hand, rather than by tracing or typing them. It also reported that when kids composed text by hand, they not only produced more text than on a keyboard, but they also expressed more ideas.

Other studies further suggest that adults too, learn better when we commit letters to memory through writing. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that students retained more when they took lecture notes by hand rather than by computer. They suggested that while typing certainly speeds up the transcription process, it can diminish our ability to process new information. In other words, the more we surrender the physical act of writing, the more we lose some capaciousness of mind.

Even a skeptic of this line of research has theorized that, "The very act of (handwriting) forces you to focus on what is important."

Personally, I welcome this line of inquiry. One of my favorite literary quotes comes from the novelist, William Humphrey, who said "Writers are people for whom writing is difficult."

I’ve always found writing to be painful from outline to final draft. However, the least painful stage (aside from the research) is the first draft - which I build with 3X5 inch cards and lined legal pads, pencil and pen. There I joust with words and ideas, sometimes slashing through thickets of sloppy images like a Don Quixote, or climbing a mental mountain to reach an original image like a Sir Edmund Hillary.

For respite, I doodle in the page margins. But this can be a challenge on the computer. About all you can do is play with emoticons or turn on YouTube!

And I'm a terrible typist. On a typewriter or computer, I not only reverse keys; my sausage fingers keep striking two keys at once. This in turn fractures my focus like a shattered mirror. Writing by hand gives me noisy satisfaction from the firm scratch of pen on paper, instead of the bland antiseptic click of keys.

Every manual of the craft intones that "Writing is RE-writing". Thus, with pen or pencil in hand I lambaste limp prose, whop windy words and skewer smug sentences.

The exercise of writing extends to using traditional reference sources - I pull off the shelf physical copies of the Intercollegiate Dictionary, Bartlett's Quotations, or the thesaurus and bounce them on my lap. I don't want Google to baby-sit my prose.

Like those kids in the NYT article, creativity for me is both physical and mental. But I still have to agree with feminist Gloria Steinem, that the best part of writing is… having written!

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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