Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Act of Writing

Glen Campbell--"Words (Bee Gees cover) (mp3)

I've already started grading, or at least commenting on, papers again. It has been very difficult, that writing.

No, not writing. Writing. In the literal sense. As in the physical act of putting a pen tip to paper and moving it around.

It is no surprise that as we age, our bodies unlearn skills that we do not use. The surprise for me is that the act of writing seems to have become one of those skills. While writing may be like riding a bicycle, in this case, that means just as wobbly.

Right now, as I look over the beginning of a comment I've written over on a student paper, I notice several things: the "n" has been written over top of itself twice to make it clear, the "a" isn't all the way closed and looks more like a second "e," there are stems missing all over the place so that, for example, a "u" looks more like a check mark. Trying to make a "z" is laborious. My "ly" looks like the slope of a face and nose pointing right.

Sure, my writing has been deteriorating for years. It happens to all of us. But this time, it almost feels like I've had a stroke or something and am trying to work my way back.

It makes me wonder: what did I not write over the summer? I think, as I look back, that I did not write much of anything. Maybe a note here or a list there, but certainly not a single paragraph and probably not even a full sentence. A couple of bank checks.

As I sit here with my hands back to the more normal activity of typing, they have a kind of tingle to them, a reminder that muscles have not been used for a long time, at least not in these strange muscle formations. The number of times while responding to those student essays that I had to go back to a word to make it right is a little alarming.

I have always thought of myself as a writer. Many of my earliest accomplishments involved making lines and solid blocks of color with crayons, pencil writing inside the triple lines (middle one dashes, not solid) of writing paper, smearing the ink of early Bic ball point pens as my left hand slid over what I had already written. The paragraphs in grade school that seemed to take forever, the essays and stories and poems and notes and tablets filled with ideas or fragments or half-finished thoughts.

Now my hand is unpracticed; now that kind of writing in motion across lines and down pages is pretty much gone. I cannot imagine the circumstances under which I will fill the pages of a notebook with handwritten words again.

Students like to point out their bad handwriting; some will even apologize for it. Increasingly, I now have to explain to students what I have written.

Oh, I will get it back, some of it. The grading, the notes in meetings, the reminders on Post-Its all will help me to re-establish some base level of readability. But it's the loss that is haunting me. On a guitar, by contrast, I can practice and practice and, at least to my ears, get back to where I was with some songs and techniques.

Not so with writing. The signature on my Social Security card, signed when I was a child, is not a signature that I could write today. I can examine it and confirm that I wrote it, can acknowledge that it is part of the evolution of my signature, perhaps the de-evolution, but I cannot return to its precision and flourish no matter how often I write it.

Maybe one day people will not write at all, will only enter words in some different, advanced, technological way onto pads and screens or through the air. And maybe that is fine. But let us acknowledge that something is also lost when we aren't scratching out letters, when the computer swallows every revision we have made as if it never existed. Then our relationship to the words changes, if only semantically, for we are no longer writing, only entering text.


Daisy said...

Yet another reason handwritten thank you notes are important!

Sara C said...

Love this post, Bob. Especially: "when the computer swallows every revision we have made as if it never existed. Then our relationship to the words changes, if only semantically, for we are no longer writing, only entering text." Brilliant. Thanks for affirming my decision this morning to sketch out a poem idea longhand. It would likely be an embarrassment in future, but it is a record of my relationship with the idea and the evolution of those words.

John said...

Really interesting notion. I was talking to my students the other day about something similar. We were working with the idea that sometimes when we write, new ideas come to us in the process (Writing is Discovery, as our style manual says) and I was telling them about a study I'd read years ago that linked the physical act of writing with a pen in hand to certain synapses firing off in areas of the brain. I wonder if the same synapses get fired with the motion of fingers on a keyboard.

Hank said...


I remember you telling my class about the process of writing study.