Pen or PC? It’s in the writing

I have to admit I’m writing this blog at my computer. Using my keyboard. Perched on my lap. This does not make me feel any less like I’m writing. Composing.

But it would give Julius, the kid at my daughter’s school who quit the newspaper because he couldn’t write by hand, great cause for glee.

I’m helping the kids put together their school newspaper. They’ve just finished writing the articles, a process they’ve found exciting – they’re engaged in the school, sniffing out stories, conducting interviews, talking to their peers, teachers, even the principal, and putting the story together.

They’re part of the community.

When I asked Julius the other day for his story, he had an excuse (definitely a journalist in the making): “Marcus moved and he took all of our work,” he said.

“All of it?” I asked, incredulously. He and Marcus had partnered up three weeks before to write about new staff who’d joined the school.

He nodded. Sigh.

“Okay,” I said. “The deadline’s approaching so there’s going to be a change of direction. Write me three or four paragraphs about the computer lab. What it means to you. What you like about it. How it helps you with your school work. Why it’s important to the school. Just give me your personal thoughts.” If there’s one thing Julius loves, it’s the computer lab.

He looked at me and shrugged. “Sure.”

About 15 minutes later he came back to me. “Miss, I can’t do it.”

“What do you mean?” I ask. “You love the computer lab, don’t you? That should be easy to write about.”

He shook his head and held up the paper and pen. “I can’t write it like this. Can I go up and use the computer?”

“No,” I said. “You have to write it on paper.” All of the kids were writing in longhand first.  He refused.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “And how do you write?”

“I can write with a pen and paper.”

“Meh,” he said, left the group and went back to his class.

I have to say I get his point. Writing this blog on my computer makes makes for quick editing, which I do as I write. Good for a blog and many other types of writing; perhaps not so good for creative writing. I think one needs to be able to compose by hand – particularly if I’m teaching a kid how to report. Taking notes is basic. And a story might crop up when there’s no computer around.

Funnily enough, the great writer and technogeek Margaret Atwood, just a few minutes ago tweeted a link to an article titled Why you should write by hand.

Margaret Atwood. Credit George Whiteside

Apparently, the article says, “Dr. Virginia Berniger, who studies reading and writing systems and their relationship to learning processes, found that children’s writing ability was consistently better (they wrote more, faster, and more complete sentences) when they used a pen rather than a keyboard…”

It goes on to note that: “The difference, Berniger notes, may lie in the fact that with writing, you use your hand to form the letters (and connect them), thereby more actively engaging the brain in the process. Typing, on the other hand, involves just selecting letters by pressing identical-looking keys.”

I was interested to read what a profound impact changing the technology could have on writing. It makes me feel better about pushing the point with Julius.

I do think that, for myself, the most poetic writing I’ve done has been in longhand. When I want to write fiction, I write by hand.  There is something beautiful about writing with a pen, pencil and paper, a visceral, sensual connection between the action, the technology and the words.

Leonard Cohen once signed a book for me. I was working for a television show and we’d taken a camera crew and an anchor to interview him. Afterward, Cohen was gracious enough to sign my book. Watching him was a wonder. He treated the act with enormous respect and attendant ritual. He pulled out of his bag a stamp and a fountain pen, laying them carefully side by side. He wrote  carefully around the words on the title page.

The title page Leonard Cohen inscribed for me.

And then he placed the stamp, just so. The design, he explained, was his own. Two hearts intertwined.

This is a writer who understands that there is art simply in the act of writing, of creating, separate from the words themselves.

I hope I can get Julius to come back.

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6 comments

  1. Once again, Deb, we’re polar opposites. When I want to gather my thoughts and organize them into something coherent, I need to do that with pen and paper. I don’t believe there’s anything mystical about this, it’s just that I can do it in a graphic form much more quickly than if I had to fiddle around with software. When I sit down to do the writing, however, it’s digital all the way — especially when I’m on a roll. When the thoughts come fast and furious, there’s no way I can keep up with a pen. I’ve had a brilliant idea in Starbucks, and haven’t been able to get it all on the napkin before it peters off into nothingness. When my fingers fly across the keyboard, nothing can stop me. And it goes without saying that I love and respect you anyway. 🙂

    1. I don’t think we’re as far off as you think. I don’t think that it’s a one or the other choice – it’s about using them both, which we both do. The thing I thought wasn’t so great was that this kid couldn’t do a thing with pen and paper. At least when you write it down on a napkin, you’re capturing part of it … he’d be at a complete loss. I did think that article was interesting, though – I’m going to put into my post one more quote from it that said there was something about actually linking the words together that made a difference when writing by hand – and that link isn’t made when you’re hitting individual keys on a keyboard.

      1. For me, linking written words together is more about retention than creativity. In school, I always made a point of rewriting my notes — the act of writing the words seared them into my brain. It didn’t work when I typed them. In fact, when I tried taking notes directly onto my laptop, that wasn’t so great either. It’s hard to draw the squiggly lines connecting ideas or the big stars that indicate an important point with a keyboard!

  2. That’s interesting – I think that same impulse works for the creativity – since there’s a more intimate/immediate relationship between you and the words they become more memorable you and for me it inspires my creative side. Doesn’t mean technology can’t be used … a stylus and tablet would work!

  3. That is really interesting, and something I’ve never considered before. I’m sure I’d be like Julius and most others – not having the patience to go slowly and formulate ideas and expression in that way. And would you then change everything when typing it up? (Envy you spoke to Leonard Cohen).

    1. Thanks, Roy. Yes, that’s what I find about writing by hand – it slows me down and forces me to think. Having said that, I haven’t written any blogs by hand yet. And there is something different about reading the cursive writing and then the typed text (even only onscreen). Leonard Cohen, by the way, was one of the most lovely, charming people you’d ever want to meet. But I’m sure that comes as no surprise!

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