Thinking By Hand

I knew there was a reason I write out my first drafts with a pencil!  All this time I’ve been telling people that I need something to chew on while writing fiction, and pencils work better than keyboards.  But now the Wall Street Journal comes to my aid with proof of “How Handwriting Trains the Brain.” 

Penmanship has been the subject least likely to be taught for at least twenty years; old fuddy-duddies like me have been complaining about the increasing illegibility of the average hand-writer.  Now that we’re teaching kindergartners to keyboard it might be time to ask if we’re losing something.  Not Spencerian penmasters capable of addressing all your wedding invitations, but mental connections.  It makes sense that children learn their letters faster and better if they have to write them, but research indicates that handwriting stimulates brain activity.  Neural scans show that “sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory–the system for temporarily storing and managing information.”

I’m a little skeptical of “studies” that reinforce what I already believe–in fact I’m skeptical of “studies,” period.  But this one has a lot of anecdotal support, including Shop Class as Soul Craft: an Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew Crawford.  Crawford is a PhD and former policy wonk who quit wonking in order to start a motorcycle repair shop.  He argues for an integration of mind and hand, claiming that we think better when we make or repair or build.  Practical skills merge with abstract thought to a greater degree than we know.

I have a permanent callous on the middle finger of my left hand from holding a pencil.  When the thoughts are flowing, I love the downward stroke and the upward curl, rhythmic as breathing.  If I were to look at a draft years later (which I never do) I’d be able to tell the good days from the bad ones by the exuberant cross of a ‘t’ or the lariat-swirl sweeping back to dot an ‘i’.  Maybe that’s just me.  But it was heartening, at an autograph session last Friday, so see girls approach my table with journals for me to sign.  “Fill up this book!” I wrote.  With thoughts by hand.

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