In first grade, my teacher, disgusted with my penmanship, watched as I held a pencil to jot down—something: a math problem or the year Abraham Lincoln “freed”Â the slaves. No one taught me how to hold a pencil. It’s one of those things you pick up and begin to use—literally. To my shock, the teacher said I held the pencil wrong, hence the bump on the side of my right middle finger. More like a callous, I suppose.
The next day, she handed me this purple, rubbery blob in the shape of a triangle. Decades later, I assume now that the corrective device was made from leftover dildo material. Regardless, I slid the triangle onto the pencil. The teacher positioned my fingertips just so, into the proper resting places, and my handwriting turned out worse. She said “practice.”Â I took off the rubber and ended up digging notches into it with my pencil”â€out of boredom, of course.
Fast forward seven years. My middle school English teacher was proud; his room was among the first to be adorned with computers. The monitors and keyboards wrapped around the classroom, from left to right walls, and he intended to teach us how to type. “The home keys,”Â he said, “are here. Place your index fingers on the F and J keys—feel those bumps?—and rest your fingers along the corresponding keys, your thumbs hover the Space Bar.”Â
That was as far as I got in the proper typing position. Once I began to type, I kept my eyes on the keyboard and my fingers kept losing their way home, bumps on the keys notwithstanding. I’m sure I used the pecking method at some point. I had to. The girl next to me, with her frizzy, auburn hair in a ponytail, turned to me and sneered. Her braces sparkled through the ugly face she made. “You suck,”Â she said. Who was I to disagree? After all, she was the teacher’s daughter.
I was still four years away from identifying myself as a writer; as a trumpet player, all that mattered was pressing the right combination of valves, of timing when my various solos came around, of precise pressure of lips on mouthpiece. Breath control and such. In other words, I was a typical student, on my way to becoming a typical adult: writing when absolutely necessary, never giving it another thought otherwise. Along the way, however, braces were in my future, ending my ability to play the trumpet well, thereby ending my desire to play at all. Between sex and graduation, I found myself writing more. Out of love. Penning corny poems to my high school sweetheart. When that too ended, I started writing poems and stories for myself. Out of joy or, maybe, self-love, if I may be corny again.
Writing longhand, I soon learned, was painful. I guess my first grade teacher had a point after all. My fingers cramped, my wrist ached and then, my right hand would begin to shake altogether. I would expect this after at least a thousand words. I doubt my word count approached the halfway point before the discomfort began. Pain amid creativity, for me, wasn’t an exercise in honed focus. On the contrary, it was a constant distraction, having to stop and shake out the pain, losing whatever momentum I worked up because my hand was out of shape. Out of position, as though I pressed the wrong valves during a trill up the scale.
Moving to the keyboard worked out a little better. Just slower. Again, I had no need to be competent at typing; I only did it when teachers had the gall to no longer accept handwritten reports (especially from me). If writing longhand caused pain because of a dead sprint, a feverish pace to get down my thoughts, then typing was a marathon: I was in last place while my thoughts and ideas led the pack. There was no pain. Only frustration. Typing too slow meant that I forgot words, pieces of dialogue, that sang in my ear, that impressed upon me the connection of rhythm, melody and language. Rather than keeping up with the metronome, I tooted along like a 4th chair trumpeter, fumbling through “Mary Had A Little Lamb”Â and mouthing the beats of rest under my breath. Shameful, really.
I’ve gotten better with typing. To hell with the home keys, though. My right hand is dominant, faster, and probably in a better, more proper position than my left, which sort of lags behind, pecking at letters, albeit with four fingers. Actually, as I’m writing this, I wonder if my choice in words, turns of phrase and whatnot, leans more to the right. Go-to words that are easily accessible through my right hand, easy to type, easy to reach with my long, less chubby fingers. Maybe.
What I do know is my writing changes with application. Indeed, writing longhand is more “organic,”Â I suppose. More patient. There’s a chance that the wrong word written by hand may, in fact, be the right word; I wouldn’t doubt poetry and fiction instructors recommending longhand for this very reason. “I meant to write ‘smoke,’ but I wrote ‘smite’ and it worked better.”Â It happens. And some would suggest that typing is more antiseptic, scientific, as though it implies writers are hunched over sterile keyboards, wearing white lab coats, experimenting with the combination of acid and base (aka mixing tenses in the same sentence).
I’m not an acolyte for either school of writing, so to speak. Physically, typing is easier for me, but I see the instant shift in my writing when I switch to longhand. Using any of my many journals causes my writing to become less daring, perhaps. More concise and, in my eyes, the end result is a little bland. Maybe the discomfort takes a bit of fun out of the writing. Or maybe it’s because I haven’t written a story in longhand—from beginning to end—in over ten years. I save the journals for my inner thoughts, when I’m less concerned about “getting it right”Â for Craft’s sake. Forget about wordplay and the perfect metaphor; when writing longhand, I’m just trying to “get it down”Â on paper.
That said, typing means less room for a Freudian slip. The red, squiggly line underneath a misspelled word screams “correction!”Â And if I meant to write “smoke”Â and, instead, typed “smite,”Â well—the editor in me is less forgiving when I type. It was a miscalculation in dexterity, in concentration, and I can’t let it pass. And unless I take “snapshots”Â of my work in process, as my writing program of choice allows me to do, then the “incorrect”Â word, once deleted, is gone forever. No peeking through cross-out lines like watching scrambled porn, missing the money shot miscue, losing the opportunity to say, “well that went bad and yet, it still worked. Better.”Â I’m telling on myself here, but we’re all grown (I think).
Never mind my physical ailment—or, I should say, an ailment born out of sheer unwillingness to hold a pencil or pen correctly. Does your writing change when you switch from longhand to typing (or vice versa)? Do you have a preference? Are you merely concerned with doing the work, even if it means scratching in the dirt with a stick? Speak your peace.