Writing therapy

Editor’s note: Rex Huppke is on vacation.

Your handwriting is a mirror of your soul. I live with this fear, and I say fear because my penmanship, like the penmanship of almost everyone I know, has devolved since the glory days of childhood into a gibberish of dots and lines.

Once graceful, precise and bold, my handwriting is now so crabbed that even I sometimes can’t make sense of it.

A reflection of my soul?

I really, really hope not. But I’m convinced that at a minimum it reveals some rotted wiring between my fingers and my brain.

I’ve been obsessed with handwriting since second grade, when I took unabashed pride in the fact that despite what was seen as a disability – I was left-handed – I learned to impeccably imitate the cursive alphabet that adorned the classroom walls.

I spent hours, days, months practicing the loops and swoops of the capital letters. I used a ruler to make sure the lowercase letters were an orderly height. My A in penmanship was proof that the world was mine to conquer.

The fact that it all went bad sometime in adulthood – a tragedy I blame variously on computer keyboards, cheap pens, laziness and scribbling in reporter notebooks – did not quell the obsession. If anything, the deterioration made me more obsessed, perhaps because loss, in any realm, is always fuel on an obsessive’s fire.

My obsession was further stoked recently by a New York Times article headlined, “What’s Lost as Writing Fades.”

The piece focused on research that suggests that handwriting, which many schools now treat as barely more necessary than quilting, is critical in the brain development of children, notably in their learning to read.

“Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand,” the story said, “but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information.”

Among the research cited was the work of Karin James, an Indiana University psychologist who’s studied preschoolers who haven’t yet learned to read or write.

In one of her studies, children ages 4-6 were shown an alphabet letter. One group of kids was then asked to type it on a computer. Others were asked to trace it. Another group wrote the letter by hand.

When the children were put into a brain scanner and shown the letters again, the brains of those who’d written the letters freehand lit up along the network associated with reading. The children who’d traced or typed didn’t have the same response.

“What we suggest from this research,” James said when I called her, “is that handwriting stimulates the brain in a certain way that makes it ready to start reading. We think that it’s important for children who are learning letters of the alphabet to learn to print those letters.”

While some experts remain skeptical, other research supports James’ conclusion.

I’m no scientist, but I viscerally sense the link between my fingers and my brain, and while a similar case could be made for knitting or playing the banjo, I feel something specific in the act of handwriting.

Sometimes when I need to calm down or get clear on what I’m thinking, I find a pen or pencil and write the old-fashioned way, on paper. I think of it as penmanship therapy.

Sometimes I write thoughts, sentences. Other times I just write out the alphabet, A to Z, as close as possible to the letters in my grade school classrooms.

Writing by hand, if only for a couple of minutes, seems to shake something free in my mind.

We’ll never return to a world in which penmanship is a prime currency of communication – who would want to? – but there are reasons beyond nostalgia to keep teaching kids how to write by hand and reasons to keep that waning skill in the adult repertoire.

It helps your brain. And who knows? It just might improve your soul.

—-

Mary Schmich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune.