grown ups are like that....

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

penmanship

Lynda Barry is really asking me to work now. Last week I listed ten cars from my early life and wrote about my memory of just one of them. The exercise continued this week with other topics: other people's mothers, pets, houses, etc. It doesn't sound terribly difficult, but it is hard work in that she 1) asks you to do the exercises by hand, and 2) that you do it without stopping for seven straight minutes. Sounds easy enough, right? But in this day and age of computers and texting very few people write by hand any more, and I found it challenging in surprising ways.

First, I scrabbled to find lined paper among the plain, white printer paper. After I found some and got started, I found my forearms tightening up and my back tensing. I was constantly thinking about how legible my work was (not very) and if I should be using a pen instead of a pencil. I couldn't believe how much physical effort was going into this.

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When I was in college and grad school, I wrote all of my formal papers by hand before typing them into the computer. I had to have a large yellow legal pad and several sharpened pencils, though a pen would do in a pinch (ball point, not felt). My friends thought I was crazy, but writing like that felt good. It allowed me to write anywhere at any time. It was a primitive laptop, I suppose.

And I was a letter writer. Oh, I loved to write "real" letters to my many far away friends. For years my grandmother and I wrote to each other constantly. One friend and I wrote to each other at least once a month. We'd swap long rambling stories about my grad school work and she would tell me crazy tales from law school. Then we wrote to each other about getting married, then about our babies, and now. . . nothing. We are "facebook friends." We just leave quick comments on each others status updates, but we no longer send hand written letters except at Christmas.

Yet despite the fact that I rarely write letters anymore I still collect stationary. I have a large treasure chest shaped box filled with it. I love to open it and breathe in the papery smell of envelopes and note cards, post cards and thank you notes. But for the most part they go unused.

I also used to have several very nice heavy pens. They were given to me as gifts when I graduated from college. I can't find them now; they seem to be long gone. I suppose I don't really need them much anymore since I do most of my writing and correspondence on the computer.

As I sit here thinking of stationary and pens (with the computer screen glowing in front of me and "qwerty" spelled out on the keys beneath my fingers), I feel sad. I miss writing by hand. The act of writing by hand, I have realized, is quickly becoming a lost art.

In What It Is Lynda Barry says that there "is a state of mind which is not accessible by thinking. It seems to require a participation with something. Something physical we move like a pen, like a pencil" (page 106). I think of this as I remember back to the days when "real" letters and hand written paper drafts were the norm for me. The whole act of writing wasn't simply a cerebral activity. It was a whole physical and mental practice. Writing required not just my mind to be active but also my body. That is, I believe, why so many people can do their best thinking while walking or running. When we move our arms and legs and ask our bodies to physically engage in the act of writing and thinking then we literally get the creative juices flowing. Blood pumps through our veins invigorating our hearts, air fills our lungs as we quicken our breath to match our movements, and our muscles contract and stretch while our pens fly over the paper or we think through that problem that has been plaguing us.

Yet for so many of us (particularly those in the academic world) writing and intellectual thought is completely disconnected from the physical body. Our bodies get in the way of our "work." We have to stop to eat, use the bathroom, or stretch the kink out of our neck. We have to schedule time to work out so our bodies can be healthy and thin. The body is a block to creativity and intelligence rather than a tool that can be used to achieve higher levels of thought. Rarely do we move our bodies in conjunction with mental thought processes and intellectual pursuits. Our fingers sweep over a keyboard, or we walk from one class or meeting to another, but in general physical movement and intellect are often unconnected.

Our society also often has a hard time believing that those who do physical work can also be intelligent.* We have all heard the term "dumb jock." There are many people in the world who look at their housekeepers or nannies as "just" maids or babysitters. When I became an aerobic instructor, two of my dearest friends actually laughed at me. They openly confessed to thinking fitness instructors of any ilk must be unintelligent.

(*Classical dancers and artists are often given a break by the intelligentsia. I say classically trained because street dancers and self taught artists are often not considered "serious" in the academic community.)

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The work Lynda has asked me to do this week has made me re-think how I write and made me re-focus on the link between my body and my mind. Maybe I'll get out some of the old stationary and try and find another sturdy pen. Do they even sell them anymore? Are they next to the cellphones and lap tops? Or are they by the ever shrinking stationary aisle?

9 comments:

Emily said...

This post is quite poingnat for me.
*I have just hand written my grandmother a letter. She has been my longest standing pen pal...since I was a little girl.
*I collect stationary and it's one of my favorite gifts to receive (especially since I can't justify buying it for myself anymore.)
*I have hand written 3 notebook pages of utter mind drool every morning (or just about) for nearly 2 years now, as a result of The Artist's Way study I did. I really do feel like the action of writing pulls the ideas from my head like taffy and stretches them, loops them around, until they make sense.

I absolutely love the way you explain the act of writing as engaging our bodies with our minds. It makes absolute sense. Thanks for this one, Christine.

Lindsay said...

I always write by hand -- not my papers for school, but any creative writing I do. It comes too easily when I type straight onto the computer and I don't completely trust it.

And why is it that people don't write letters anymore?! I used to have a pen pal in elementary school. I kind of miss that.

Hart Family said...

I love that you are doing the tasks and savoring that book. As I read your words I noticed I started to skim and made myself go back. It was then I caught myself avoiding the thoughts of how much I miss writing and receiving real letters. it was and effort and it was worth it. (B has a stack of them tied with a belt I can't wait to read when we're old.) Letters are the best-thanks for the reminder.

slouchy said...

Is there anything better than receiving a handwritten letter?

de said...

I have been ruminating for a few days about the mind/body/spirit connection. This was timely and interesting to read.

I have noticed that I write better if I write longhand (although every time I have to get over the shame that my writing is illegible to anyone but me).

nad said...

Great blog! Sad to note - the schools don't even teach cursive any more. I've asked about it every year for the past 4 and get the same answer - no time in the curriculum and no need for it any more with computers.

InTheFastLane said...

I love computers and type most everything. But, i found in high school and college, that if I really wanted to LEARN something, I needed to write it. And the act of writing it (vocabulary words, facts, to do lists) made me own it. And really, once I had written it, i knew it. For me there is a huge link be tween my hand and my mind. This is also why, even know my todo list first goes on paper, and then, the things that don't get done go in my digital list.

learning, owning, being a part of the connection to the words.

Rachel said...

Wow. This is a great one. After having read "penmanship" through, I'm going to go back and sip it, like a good wine, there is so much to think about. You make Lynda proud and inspire the rest of us. I love the connection between getting your creative juices and your blood pumping. You're on to something!

Jennifer Hooper-Barnett said...

Oh my dear sister, I have always enjoyed your writings. One of my favorite things in life is receiving hand written letters from you. I love to write with a pen and paper. As a matter of fact I usually write out my blogs on pen and paper in my backyard and then come and type them out.

I love how you explain things. You are a verbal artist!