Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Keyboard and Writing

The year book from my Junior High School years was really more literary magazine.  There were essays, many of them, written by a diverse array of students, and art work to accompany the essays so that the pieces displayed within a bigger picture. There were all these students and all this writing but there was nothing by me.  Now I'm puzzling why.  One reason might be on the content.  These essays were bits of memoir, the students wrote about themselves and their own experiences.  I may simply not have been ready for that.  Better (for me) to write something about a subject viewed from quite a distance, one where the writer is not a participant.  There was a Social Studies Magazine and I wrote something for that, on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the 1967 War fresh in one's memory.

A year later in ninth grade, which was in High School since the Junior High had converted to a Middle School, we had to write essays on occasion for English class.  The teacher liked the pieces I produced.  On the back of one he wrote, "Do try for Salamagundi," which was the school literary magazine.  I didn't take the teacher's advice, with no reflection about the choice for the next 35 years or so.  But with the blogging exposing an interest in writing quite regularly and a joy from doing so, I started to regret my decision from High School.  Had I denied myself this sense of joy for all these years?

Then happenstance brought me into contact with a classmate I had been fond of in High School.  She had become a writer and a teacher of writing.  I asked her if we had been "slotted" in High School and thereby not allowed to explore our full range of potential talents.  So I was a math guy and she a writer, because that's where the vast majority of encouragement came from, even if we might have fared quite well in the other's domain.  She said she had wanted to be a writer since early on, so she didn't feel slotted. And then she said she didn't know me well enough to make a judgment in my case.  Perhaps it was just me putting myself in a box because it seemed appropriate at the time. 

There is a different explanation entirely that rests in the tactile act of handwriting.  Mine was atrocious.  My father was particularly disturbed by that.  Starting perhaps in fourth grade, a couple of schoolmates would come to our house and then we'd walk to school together.  On more than one occasion my dad would ask them to open their loose leaf binders and show their written work, not for the content but to display the handwriting.  Then he'd take out mine.  I did dismally in this comparison.  Much later in life, as I began to learn the elements of effective pedagogy, I came to understand that such comparisons would only achieve the opposite of what they were intended to produce.  Shame rarely amplifies motivation to better performance.

One experience in fourth grade offers some explanation for why my handwriting was so bad.   The teacher gave us a few paragraphs to copy in a letter and the one that was the best in terms of the quality of the handwriting would be selected (for what purpose I no longer recall).  I wrote larger than usual and took my time to produce well formed letters.  This was cursive writing.  My approach that time went against my usual inclinations, so there was little flow in the process but it did result in a readable product.   There was another kid in the class who could dash off elegant looking script and his letter clearly looked better than mine.  But the teacher chose mine, an A for effort the operative principal.  So I could produce decent handwriting if I exercised patience, which I could do when copying somebody else's ideas.  But with my own thinking there was a discord between the pace of the flow of ideas and the tempo of the handwriting, with the quality of the latter suffering as a consequence.  There was no multiprocessing.  Paying attention to how my letters formed would block my ideas.  The handwriting offered a telltale sign regarding what I cared about, but it may have been quite myopic on my part since it quite possibly blocked the writing as well.

In the High School year book, my biology teacher writes, "A handwriting analyst would have a ball..." offering some confirmation for my interpretation above. I doubt he wrote about the handwriting of any other student.  I also doubt that any of my classmates had teacher comments in their year books that spoke to their handwriting.  And reading the student comments in my year book, they either had excellent handwriting or they printed.  I hadn't yet figured out to do the latter, perhaps because it was even slower than the script.

One might think an obvious solution would be typing.  Term papers were typed but shorter pieces were not.  We had a Royal manual typewriter at home.  Using it was arduous, especially if you didn't know how to type.  For the term papers I would hand write a draft and then my mother would type the version to be handed in, editing it somewhat in the process.  (Hand written shorter pieces got no editing whatsoever.  It was one and done.)  This worked fine through ninth grade.  Then, as I had a personality clash with my mom and a war over who'd make my life decisions, something else was needed.

In the summer after tenth grade I took a typing course from a commercial school in Flushing.  This was an odd thing to do.  I believe most of the students were taking the course so they'd have the appropriate secretary skills to land that sort of job.  I was doing it mainly, because I wanted to just bum around, but I wasn't allowed to do that.  Something had to be found and this was the something.  Also, we got an electric typewriter at home.  I'm not sure when that was and whether there was some causal aspect in that with regard to taking this course.  But it might have been that I needed qualifications to be allowed to use our electric typewriter.  Also, there was this vague thought that typing might help me in college.  I surely wasn't learning it to obtain a job qualification.

Typing on a manual typewriter is a physical act.  Of course there is the hard return.  But one also had to strike the key firmly and squarely to ensure a good imprint on the paper.  I had a weak left pinkie.  My "a's" and my "z's" would appear below the line of text for that reason.  It took mental focus to avoid that consequence.  So while the result was clearly more attractive than my handwriting, I'd never have gotten interested in writing if I had to use a manual typewriter.  The same issues about conflicting with the thinking would have arisen.  Near the end of the course we got to try out using an electric typewriter.  The experience was more enjoyable because it was far less physical work.  This was not the IBM Selectric, if memory serves.  There were still keys, as in the manual typewriter, and they could jam if you went too fast.  But you could now get a pace and learn to type to it.  The weak pinkie hardly mattered with the electric.

Electric typewriters were a bit pricey at that time.  To justify having one you needed to know with certainty that it would get a lot of use.  In college I had a cheapie manual typewriter and did what most kids do, write the term paper the night before it's due, with the first draft being what was submitted.

Let me take a different angle into this writing question.  This is about the need that writing satisfies.  Conversation with a friend satisfies a similar need.  In high school and in college I had enough good friends to have such conversation on a regular basis.  I enjoyed that a lot and it was enough.  So I didn't feel the writing compulsion.  But in High School I did develop a bad habit at home.  I started to mumble.  Ideas I had needed to get out but I knew they'd create a negative reaction in my parents.  Mumbling seemed at least a partial solution.  Keeping a journal may have been a more healthy alternative, but it didn't occur to me.  At the time it would have involved handwriting.  You do what you can do.

I still enjoy conversation immensely and if I had the choice of having a coffee with a friend or writing a blog post, I'd choose having the coffee every time.  I'm sure the conversation is better because I care about the person and because I can get immediate feedback on my ideas.  Neither of those are available in writing.  But I've come to like writing, first because most of my friends have a day job and I'm often alone with my thoughts and, second some of my interests are quite idiosyncratic and wouldn't be the basis of a good conversation. To pursue those interests, I need to be reflective and writing helps greatly with that.

Composing at the keyboard now, the typing is semi-autonomous.  That typing class after tenth grade ended up paying big dividends, though only after a lag of several decades.  The left pinkie still creates problems once in a while hitting the Caps Lock key instead of the Shift key.  And the typos that seem more and more apparent result in part because the brain says one thing and the fingers say another.  But the minimal amount of pressure that one has to put on a key to get it to work and my proficiency with QWERTY means for the most part I can think of the sentence I'm generating and not be mindful of what I need to do to produce that sentence on the screen.  It is quite different with texting on my iPhone, where it is effort to get a few words out, and even on the iPad, though I can do two finger typing (using both the left and the right index fingers) on it, though it is not bad in the absence of a regular keyboard.  In other words, if the input function doesn't interfere with the generation of thought, writing can be a pleasure.

There is, of course, still work in writing, but it is mental work, not of the manual sort at all.  One is proofreading each sentence as it appears and then asking whether the flow in the piece is right for the reader.  It is not stream of consciousness.  It is one part that and one part self-editing.  Student writing is more pure stream of consciousness, to the teacher's chagrin.  Having gone through implicit writing lessons getting papers rejected at economic journals and coming to understand to not give them an excuse for rejecting the paper I learned the popular mantra.  Let the writer do the work so the reader doesn't have to.  It is something students need to digest.  Applying it requires spending more time with their own creations.  Composing the term paper the night before it is due doesn't allow that time.

On the other hand, if one inputs by hunt and peck, then input and the composition of the idea must compete for the person's attention.  That is tiring.  Then the person may be too exhausted to attempt any self-editing.  It has never occurred to me until now to ask my students about their typing skills.  I simply have assumed they have the requisite skill.  (I no longer worry about whether they have access to a computer connected to the Internet and in that I think I'm justified.)  I'd like for them to find the same joy in writing that I do.  Some do and it is apparent as they compose longer blog posts as we get further into the semester and that they play with the ideas more in the posts.  But other students do not.  Writing for them seems an obligation, nothing more.

If they can't type, that could be the reason why.

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