Cursive or Cursor?

As I entered my local library, I walked past a sign that read, “Quiet corner, slow reading in process.” I have been seeing announcements about this on various Internet threads around town: a return to placing books in hands. A device free zone. A place for the whispery rustle of turning pages. A place to curl up with a good book. A life-long habit for me—being rehabitualized in the digital age.

I peeked in to see a mixed group of grey heads, teen heads, and a girl of about ten reading. Just reading. In the knick of techno-e-time the library is hosting a place to remember, learn, and enjoy the art of handling paper pages. Like many things these days that seem about to disappear, some group is grabbing treasured human experience back from the brink of disuse.

I turn left into the community room. I am carrying my ever-present journal and a fountain pen into a meeting with Kindles, iPads, and smart-phones spread out on the table. Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book about my relationship to journal writing. It was titled, Life’s Companion—and it’s a most accurate description of how writing sidles up to the busy edge of my life and invites me into the slow zone.

Volume by volume, now stored in boxes at the back of my closet and under my desk, and filling the bottom row of my corner bookshelf, I accumulate uncountable pages of handwritten heartfelt reflection, inquiry, lament, and celebration. I have favorite pens and brands of journals that support my attachment to writing.

CB&journalsWhat erodes this attachment is the lure of the cursor… the demands of typing, typing, typing that that fill modern business and create modern busyness. I can’t imagine how I would construct my workday or personal life if I could not type. Typing has become essential to our communication patterns, a core skill. Little children, barely able to recite the alphabet, are learning to type it.

Typing seems to carry the day, but as someone who has been both writing and typing for sixty years, I know they are not the same activity. I know that handwriting and typing stimulate different thought processes. My journal is a handwritten document, and it has taught me to trust slow writing, to experience writing as a form of meditation. When writing professionally, I often warm up my creative flow by writing first by hand and then very carefully switching to the keyboard. Carefully, because the switch from pen to keyboard can rattle a line of thought right out of my mind. It’s a delicate maneuver. I breathe into it. I move as though I have a hot cup of tea in hand—don’t spill the inspiration. (And don’t-don’t-don’t look at e-mails or start shopping for a new journal, pen, or whatever!)

Over the years, discussion between cursive or cursor has been passionately debated in hundreds of my journal and memoir writing seminars: write or type; type or write? Finally, neurologists and psychologists have joined the writers’ debate.

Journalist Maria Konnikova, a student of Harvard’s Stephen Pinker, raised the question in the New York Times in June 2014, “Does handwriting matter?” She sites several interesting studies, that are no surprise to me. Here are two quotes from her piece that seem to be the crux of the matter:

“New evidence suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development run deep.

Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.” And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,” he continued. “Learning is made easier.””Teacher holding student's hand

“A 2012 study led by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, lent support to that view. Children who had not yet learned to read and write were presented with a letter or a shape on an index card and asked to reproduce it in one of three ways: trace the image on a page with a dotted outline, draw it on a blank white sheet, or type it on a computer. They were then placed in a brain scanner and shown the image again. The researchers found that the initial duplication process mattered a great deal. When children had drawn a letter freehand, they exhibited increased activity in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write: the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex. By contrast, children who typed or traced the letter or shape showed no such effect. The activation was significantly weaker.”

Child and mother using a digital tabletI don’t know where the fusiform gyrus is in my brain, but I know it’s been activated since I was in first grade—and that my life is a study in the power of the hand to the page, and the power of the fingertips to the keys. My point is to caution the larger “us” from removing something so foundational as writing by hand just because it seems temporarily “not modern” or not necessary. The brain has been evolving for basic literacy for thousands of years, and it knows what it is doing in a way that developers of the digital keyboard do not.

Shall we not protect this heritage? Shall we not bend lovingly over the shoulders of our children and grandchildren and help them hold the pen as well as help them find the letter on the Qwerty board?

Besides…. If the coming generations don’t learn to write and read cursive…who is going to peruse all the millions and millions of journals, letters, and old fashioned first drafts for the bits of encoded genius streaming out of our activated fusiform gyruses?



7 replies
  1. Katharine Weinmann
    Katharine Weinmann says:

    Just a few days ago, as I observed and then commented on the beautifully legible penmanship of my local pharmacist, I learned school children are no longer being taught writing skills. A “lost art” we both agreed, she a bit resigned, me, feeling more than a little troubled, perhaps our age difference speaking? I’ve long thought and research is holding up that technology is causing our brains to rewire and “evolve.” What you’ve written helps me understand another cost. Thanks, Christina.

  2. Susan Embry
    Susan Embry says:

    Wonderful article and observations on a topic that is debated more and more. The gift of writing, not typing, has profound implications for the results we soak inside us while journaling. I shared this on FB with great joy!

  3. Jude Rathburn
    Jude Rathburn says:

    As a user of both cursive and cursors (what an ingenious title!) in my writing practice, I have been concerned about the lack of emphasis on developing legible handwriting in our schools. For the past few semesters, I have been requiring my business students to submit their lecture and text notes as part of their grade for contributing to our learning community. It has been interesting to see evidence of how the quality of their listening is different, when they type their notes during class, rather than writing them by hand. Typewritten notes have the benefit of “searchability,” when it comes time for the take-home final exam. Yet, the students who take notes by hand, in their notebooks, seem better able to capture the essence of the stories that they hear, as well as the emotions they feel.

    My original purpose in requiring note-taking, was to help my students be more present when they come to class and give them an incentive to prepare by reading the book. Thanks for articulating (with evidence) that there are also some important benefits for learning and cognitive development. Inspiring piece, that I will definitely be sharing with my students!

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      I love this–how you are ever the researcher, and contributor to collective knowledge. Thank you, Jude.

  4. Kathie Hempel
    Kathie Hempel says:

    I had just finished reading the NY Times post when I saw this. To me cursive is the bridge I found as a child over the mechanics of learning the alphabet and printing and between trying to tell stories with brightly colored crayons and the final freedom of using the art of cursive to put words to those stories.
    I cannot imagine a world without the distinctive beauty of a handwritten note or the ability to sit watching the sun rise, with yellow lined sheets and yellow pencil, gathering the day’s thoughts and images. Or the wonder of freestyling with doodles and fragments of incubating thoughts blossoming in patches of potential covering the once dreaded blank page.
    How can we not pass this on to inspire young minds past the limited expanse of electronics? They must be allowed the adventure of seeking the answer to “who am I’ with pen in hand.

  5. Kristie McLean
    Kristie McLean says:

    Such resonance I feel when reading this! I spend hours per day typing on my computer, so when I move to my corner chair with a mug of Earl Grey tea and my pen and paper journal it feels like a gorgeous, conscious declaration of self! Looking back over decades of notebooks I can still tell my mood from my handwriting and the differentiation of content that I chose to print rather than let loose in my usual easy cursive. I’m profoundly grateful for this gift! Thank you for the scientific data around kinesthetic processing as well as the tender honoring of this slowly disappearing art…

  6. Margo
    Margo says:

    Great article, thanks so much. Some years ago I wrote a memoir in which I accessed a child’s voice. When I sat at the computer to write all that came forward was the proficient, competent adult version of what the child wanted to say. I took up the pen and with time and patient encouragement, the child’s voice emerged – and what a powerful voice it was. Like you, I mostly journal and ‘create’ with a pen and polish and edit at the screen. It’s important to be bilingual!


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