I wouldn’t be a writer were it not for the computer

Much hullabaloo was made in June when the Indiana Department of Education sent a memo to schools that made teaching cursive handwriting optional and emphasized teaching keyboarding skills. The decision touched a statewide nerve, and the responses were binary: hands were wrung, or relief was sighed.

All of my sons, I’m sure, are in the latter camp. My 12- and 14-year-old sons discarded cursive shortly after they learned it, rebuffing my protests that cursive writing is faster than printing. My 26-year-old stepson was compelled to use cursive in school, but has printed ever since. I believe he’s representative of his generation – this anti-cursive sentiment is not a recent development.

I was taught the dreaded Palmer Method in elementary school in the 1970s, but never got the hang of it. I hated writing in cursive until I was about 13 when I decided to heck with Palmer and adapted his method to suit me. My hand became legible and writing in script became a pleasure. But then my teachers started asking me to write papers, and handwriting became a drag again. I’d write, rewrite, and re-rewrite until I had all the words arranged to my satisfaction. Then I’d write a final clean, legible copy. It took forever. I decided that if I had to go through all that, then I hated writing!

Looking for relief, in the eighth grade I took a class in touch typing. Row after row of Olympia typewriters just like that one filled the classroom. But I found no joy on them, as I found typing to be difficult. It was work pressing those keys hard enough to get the typebars to reach the platen. An A in typing required 40 words per minute, but by the end of the semester I managed a dismal 14 words per minute. The less said about the corresponding grade the better.

But then my dad bought me a Commodore 64, which was a watershed moment in my life not only because I taught myself to write code on it but because it finally made typing a pleasure. Light pressure on any key made its character instantly appear on the screen. When I entered college, one of my roommates let me use his PC and word-processing program to type my papers. My typing skill and speed increased dramatically, to the point where I could type almost as fast as my brain could think. The mechanical process of transcribing my words was no longer a barrier in the writing process, and I began to enjoy writing. After college, I took several jobs as a writer and editor and thus fed my family for 14 years.

I type blazingly fast today. Is it any wonder that when I have anything substantial to write, I want to do it at the computer? But that doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy, and often miss, putting an actual pen to actual paper. Perhaps I should take up writing and mailing short notes and cards to my friends and family. If enough people did that, maybe the United States Postal Service wouldn’t be so strapped for cash.

The other thing I came to enjoy in school was singing. It sustains me. Read that story.


21 responses to “I wouldn’t be a writer were it not for the computer”

  1. Lynn Avatar

    That’s interesting. The reason why I’m a writer is because of actual writing. The forming on the letters and stringing them together to make sentences. All of those things were so… I don’t know how to put it. I look at words on the paper and some simply are more beautiful than others. Then there are some that you say that because how your mouth forms them are also beautiful.
    I had really nice hand writing until I broke my left hand and it all is just chicken scratch now. For me just typing a story is just lazy. Most of my stories were formed best by the slow process of long hand.
    Again, this is interesting.

    1. Jim Avatar

      It sounds like something about forming words by hand feels really good to you, and somehow that process was interwoven with the feel of the words themselves.

  2. Ermilia Avatar

    I agree. I love writing (I have bad hand writing though) but typing is a thousand times faster. It doesn’t compare. My writing is so much more flowing, rich and structured. It is so easy to edit and to fill extra bits and pieces, also to share with other people. I type very fast, around the 100 words per minute mark as well. To be honest I wish I could write that fast, that legible and it was as easy to transfer because I would keep writing then. I think the feel of writing, particularly with a quill just feels so… nice in terms of being a writer. It’s what I would love to see myself doing as I write novels. A very romantic image.

    – Ermisenda

    1. Jim Avatar

      I wish I could write (legibly) as fast as I type, too. But even then, I couldn’t move words and paragraphs around as easily!

      When I was 12, I wrote a bad novel. I did it longhand, with a fountain pen, because that seemed the writerly thing to do. Ah, the misguided notions of youth!

  3. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    Man! That is the exact same model of Olympia I learned to type on. But I’m nowhere near 94 wpm. I think I can manage that 40 you were talking about. :)

    1. Jim Avatar

      I really got fast during my years as a technical writer. I didn’t know I had it in me!

  4. Chris M. Avatar
    Chris M.

    What a flashback to the past! I never liked those old typewriters at Jackson Middle School, but I loved that Commodore 64. That computer opened up a whole new world for me!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Ha! Yes, those old Olympias at Jackson were dreadful. I had an ancient Royal portable at home and even though it was dirty and one of the keys jammed, it was easier to type on.

  5. ryoko861 Avatar

    Oh, all those reports that had to be “perfect”. AH Teachers!

    My kid’s handwriting is atrocious! Neither of them have very legible handwriting. They would have made good doctors.

    I hate to say it but I still feel they should teach cursive handwriting. Even though you can pay bills on line, checks still need to made out now and then, forms need to be signed and applications need to be filled out and a signature needed.

    1. Jim Avatar

      If my teachers had actually taught me the mechanics of writing, from outlining to rough draft to final draft, I might not have had to write eleventy-seven drafts every time.

      I’m glad my sons had to learn cursive, but I’m not disappointed that they now have the option to not use it. My sons both sign their names just fine.

  6. Laura T. Avatar
    Laura T.

    I was also a terrible typist in high school. I got faster when I finally got a computer in college. But when I got a job in software programming my typing really took off. Now, I type everything. I think when I started typing so much

  7. Laura T. Avatar
    Laura T.

    Damn phone… anyway, when I started typing more than writing I think the muscles in my forearms and hands developed differently. It is actually painful for me to write more than a short note longhand!

    By the way, I still have a folder full of your letters. I love your handwriting!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Holy cow, the incriminating evidence that lurks in that folder!

      I’m kind of with you; my hand and arm cramp up when I write more than about a paragraph with a pen.

      1. Laura T. Avatar
        Laura T.

        I don’t think there is anything incriminating… except maybe that pair… nevermind… LOL.

        The other writing issue I have now is that since the accident, 3 fingers on my right hand are either fully or partially numb. Makes it hard to write with a pen so my penmanship has gotten substantially worse!. My right pinky is completely numb and prone to wandering off, so I realized that I don’t even use it in typing anymore! The less numb, but still mostly numb, ring finger picks up the slack! Oy!

        1. Jim Avatar

          I didn’t know about your numb fingers. Sounds like you’ve adapted, though.

  8. Scott Palmer Avatar

    I have mixed feelings about all the technological change we’ve seen (so far). Certainly, it’s faster to write on a computer, but it feels less personal and intimate. I’m sure that when typewriters came into widespread use (http://nspalmer.com/Portfolio/enirTypewriter.htm), people who preferred cursive said the same thing about them.

    I’ve spent most of my life working with things that either have or are in the process of disappearing. I’ve worked on printed newspapers, printed magazines, and printed books. My apartment looks like a branch of the Indianapolis Public Library. I’ve worked with slide rules. I’ve written about philosophy, which nobody cares about anymore because it won’t help them get a job. Ludwig Wittgenstein advised that it’s a bad idea to out-live one’s time. I understand what he meant.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Some will lament every advance. I’m sure you’re right about those who lamented the advent of the typewriter. I understand that longhand business writing was commonly quite beautiful. The typewriter killed that, and it was a loss.

      My grandmother had an elegant hand. Her style of writing was typical of people born at her time (1910s). Few have such a fine hand today. All of my sons, even my 26-year-old, print like second graders. They will likely never know, or care to know, the pleasure of a beautiful hand. But the kinds of written communications in which they engage involve software 90% of the time.

  9. vanilla Avatar

    I won’t try to match you speed. But having learned typing on a manual, wife, across the room, will holler at me to remind me that it is not necessary for me to pound the keyboard as though it were a manual typewriter!

    I do appreciate the non-necessity of erasers and white-out. But I am pretty good at this thing, if I do say so myself.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I tend to pound the keys when I’m typing something about which I feel strongly! The stronger I feel, the more punishment the keyboard takes.

      If I had to go back to erasers and white-out, it would end my writing “career.”

  10. Michael Avatar

    Hey, if you want some cursive practice, I need 42 short notes to prison inmates by October 18. ;)

    1. Jim Avatar

      Well played!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: