Sunday, July 24, 2011

Handwriting and Creative Writing

When I taught bookmaking to kids several years ago, a Chinese-American mom came up to me with a question about writing. It took me a few moments to understand whether she meant the forming of words on a page, like handwriting, or creating narratives and poems, like creative writing. She seemed to mean both. The mom did not exactly say why she was unhappy, did not explain her feelings, but I could tell she was displeased. Later, I was able to understand that she felt troubled because of the importance of both art and writing in her cultural background. In the excellent catalogue for the 2006 exhibit Shu: Reinventing Books in Contemporary Chinese ArtWu Hung writes about the deep connection:
…painters since the emergence of scholarly painting…have always played multiple roles in cultural production, not only as visual artists but also as poets, essayists, playwrights, and calligraphers. Their works often combine images and texts, and are subjects of both viewing and reading. After literati painting became the mainstream of Chinese art…the artistic persona implied in this practice grew into a standard model for all educated artists to follow.…two major forms of traditional painting—the handscroll and the album—are also used for writing and printing books…As a result of all thse factors, paintings and books have enjoyed a unique relationship in Chinese culture… (2)
The mom said that her son only liked to write on the computer. He wouldn't use pencil and paper. What did I think about this? My personal reaction was mixed; I spent much of my childhood teaching myself calligraphy, practicing handwriting, designing and redesigning my signature, practicing with my opposite hand and upside down, then later took calligraphy in high school and a Spencerian workshop as an adult. I like forming letters. But clearly the boy did not.

Thoreau, famous for his journals, wrote "It is not easy to write in a journal what interests us at any time, because to write is not what interests us" (from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers).

The parents clearly tried to make writing interesting. The dad told me that he was a construction worker, that he brought a notebook with him to work, and that he wrote down what he did that day. He encouraged his son to write about his day, too, so that at night they could read the journals and talk about their day together. The dad was happy that his son wrote at all, so using the computer to write about his day didn't bother him.

The mom was certain that it was important to form the letters by hand. She felt it was better to write than to type. I finally said I was glad he was writing at all. But I didn't feel totally comfortable with my answer.

"Handwriting Skills Key to Helping Students Learn," a recent article by Julie Deardorff in my local paper, reprinted from the Chicago Tribune (June 15, 2011) reinforces the idea that greater learning is linked to handwriting. In one study at Indiana University, pre-school children were tested for brain activity after they had been exposed to letters. One group just practiced looking and saying the letters, the other group also practiced writing them. "After four weeks of training, the kids who practiced writing showed brain activation similar to an adult's." Another study, this one at the University of Ottawa, found that "The contact, direction and pressure of the pen or pencil send the the brain a message. And the repetitive process of handwriting 'integrates motor pathways into the brain,' said [Katya] Feder." It is possible that in the future, stylus and screen could be used for handwriting practice, but the immediate response of a pen or pencil, the sound, and the physical mark/groove on the paper cannot be duplicated. The stylus and screen are too far removed from the body.

And handwriting is very much an expression of the body and through it, nature, particularly Spencerian. In Handwriting in America: A Cultural HistoryTamara Plakins Thornton writes "Spencer…claimed to receive inspiration for his letter forms from waves and clouds, pebbles and shells, sunbeams and flower petals" (62). I like that some handwriting was supposed to be connected to nature, that the spaces between the letters were supposed to resemble waves. Spencerian has a natural flow to it and is calming to practice. It's not easy and it takes much practice. For those and other reasons we are not teaching children Spencerian, but what if we taught handwriting when we taught natural history? Here are some of the tree letters: k l t . Here are the waves: u e a. Here are the birds: v w.…

The mom was right: something was missing. But the dad was right, too. Both fluent handwriting and fluent creative writing are important. But in order for each to be a joy rather than a chore, at the early grades perhaps the two should be separate activities. Practice handwriting for the love of the flowing letterforms, look at positive and negative space, curves and lines. Work with short phrases, poems, jokes, or haiku. For longer works, just getting the story out there is important. We don't want to set up obstacles when a child has an idea to express. Ultimately, in the upper grades, perhaps middle school, the two can gradually be combined. Art and writing as a single form, a concept our western culture has yet to embrace.

Spencerian is written with a pointed pen in an oblique pen holder. A wonderful instructional book by Michael R. Sull and Debra E. Sull is Learning to Write Spencerian Script. All supplies (nibs, penholders, McCaffery's ink or Pelikan 4001 ink, book) can be found at Paper and Ink Arts. Classes are available in Berkeley at Castle in the Air.


Mary said...

There is a movement to do away with teaching cursive writing in schools. As a self-taught calligrapher and admirer of beautiful handwriting I find this idea troubling. How would people sign legal documents? By printing their name or (perish the thought) would it all be done electronically?

Lin Max said...

Hi Alisa,
After reading your 7/24 blog entry, I'm wondering if you read this NY Times article about cursive in April? It was recently reprinted in our local Santa Rosa paper. The realization that young people find cursive "cryptic" and have to struggle to translate it stunned me! So maybe all of us compulsive journal writers who've been wondering whether or not to burn our personal journals before we die don't need to worry about it . . . they'll be like hieroglyphics. Lin

Alisa said...

Cursive as a second language is a strange concept indeed. Thanks to both of you for making interesting points. If no one can sign their name in cursive and printing is easier to forge, we may end up making thumbprints instead. Somehow it feels like we are going backwards…unless we offer these classes ourselves or are willing to go into the schools.