The Handwriting’s on the Wall

According to the NCTE inbox for last week, Jan. 23rd was National Handwriting Day.  Who knew?  Furthermore, who knew such a day existed?  One last one: who thought that such a thing was necessary?

Anyone with whom I have a writing relationship (my students, multiple family members, friends, cat sitter, etc.) can tell you that my handwriting is a horror.  That’s not hyperbole; it’s truly wretched.  It’s not effective, as virtually no one can decipher every word in a given document (this sometimes includes a check); it’s not aesthetically-pleasing as letters are not uniform size and are often not fully formed to begin with.   It would work wonderfully as a code that only I could read, but I have found myself returning to books and notes being able to recognize that I wrote something, but not the content of that writing.  As long as I can remember, I’ve blamed this on being left-handed; surely having to invert all graphical instruction (i.e., “do this, only backward”) has a dire effect on the quality of  handwriting!  As an adult, however, I’m sure that there are plenty of lefties out there who write right.

For all of these reasons, the increased move toward writing in a digital space has been a godsend.  I tend to embed comments on drafts using Word, my film notes are usable a year later because I typed them while viewing, I send grocery lists to my spouse that he can actually read.  (True story: “Why did you buy coconut milk?”  “It’s on the list.”  “Where?”  “Right here!”  “That says ‘chicken broth’…”)

All of that, you’d think, would add up to a unilateral love for writing=typing.  Effective, efficient, decodable—what more can you ask for?  Add to that this quote from NCTE’s 21st Century Literacies Report: “digital technology enhances writing and interaction in several ways. K–12 students who write with computers produce compositions of greater length and higher quality and are more engaged with and motivated toward writing than their peers.”  Hot diggety!

And yet.  There’s something to be said for the tactile experience of pen on paper.  The sense of the ink flowing out behind your hand as you move across the paper; the ability to cross out–rather than delete–text; the indentation of the nib.  These have given literary scholars some of their best metaphors ever:  Pushkin’s white ink; Heidegger’s Being; Derrida’s palimpsest.  What happens at the moment when these experiences of writing become only metaphors, and no longer associated with the process of writing itself?  And what new metaphors await us in the age of new media composition?

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