When was the last time you picked up a pen or pencil and scratched out a line or two of handwriting? Not printing. Not blocky capital letters listing a handful of items you might need from the corner store. But long looping swirls and scratches and spikes and curlicues of flowing ink? Cursive writing. Joined up writing. Like grown-ups use.
Maybe it was only a few minutes ago. Maybe it was weeks. I'm ashamed to say that I can go weeks without putting pen to paper. But then I might go for weeks using my notebook – my actual Moleskin Notebook – every day.
There's a debate on at the moment – not a particularly fiery or engaging one, I'll concede – between the true believers in cursive, the running writing you learned about half way through primary school, and the unbelievers who think it's all just bullshit and people don't need it because... SCIENTZ! And, er, TECHNOLOLOGY!
Nobody's saying an adult doesn't need to know how to make their mark on a piece of paper, but some academics and keyboard jihadists and dictation fanatics don't think there is any point in preferencing handwriting.
Although I don't use it every day, I would be lost without the ability to write in longhand. Granted, nowadays when I take notes on the fly I mostly do so on my iPhone using either the keyboard or, if I'm in the car in particular, dictation. (There's a whole 'nother entry to be written about the limitations of Apple's dictation software, licensed from Nuance who provide the engine for the desktop system I use at home. But we won't get into that). Bottom line, you can use neither your thumbs nor a pencil when you're driving the car, but if you are willing to speak in a staccato Captain Kirk voice you-can-dictate-with-a-reasonable-degree-of-accuracy. Except that the iPhone would probably miss the translation of the words 'reasonable' and maybe 'accuracy'.
So why do I still write longhand? Because it's a great way of unblocking a stream of thought which has become hopelessly damned. It's also a really good way of laying out your thoughts when you haven't really... well... thought them through. When you are just playing with the ideas. Dictation is hopeless for this. Dictation software is now advanced enough that it much prefers a conversational flow of sound. If you have a whole paragraph formed in your head and can just let it all out without a break, the transcription is likely to be much more accurate than a bunch of phrases and half formed thoughts stuttered and stammered into the microphone.
There is nothing contemplative about dictation software. The need to dictate formatting and to wake up or pause the program interrupts any 'flow state'. Dictation, and to a lesser extent, typing, are less well suited to wool gathering than paper.
For a few years, until recently, I was on the lookout for a proper desk journal. Something with a surface area of an old desktop blotter. A3 page size at least. I eventually found one Berkelouw's secondhand bookstore Eumundi. (Dragon Dictatte's first pass at Eumunid was 'your Monday'). I think they may have ordered too many. I managed to pick up this massive tome – a Moleskin no less – for about the same price as I paid for the small moleskin notebook I keep in the back of my jeans pocket. It's now my "daybook".
At the start of each day I jot down a few notes about the tasks I have set myself to accomplish by the time the sun goes down. It's normally a short simple list. A blog, half a book chapter, maybe some admin. As I work through the tasks I tick 'em off. There's no reason for using a massive journal to record this sort of minutiae when a scrap of paper blue tacked to the screen of my iMac would do just as well. But into the daybook also goes chapter plans, book structures, character notes, the drawings of certain scenes such as the floor plan of the cell in which Prince Harry and Otto Skorzeny have their fight to the death. The datebook in its current incarnation contains 'zoological' notes about the various monsters in A Protocol for Monsters. There's a complete chapter breakdown for Stalin's Hammer: Cairo and a couple of thousand words worth of notes written down longhand in the old-fashioned way while I was reading extracts from a couple of Wilfrid Burchett books.
I haven't used the daybook in this way, but at some point if I ever write myself into a corner, I will inevitably turn a new page, pick up a pen, and ask myself the question "What the fuck am I trying to say here?" Without thinking through the answer, I then lay pen to paper and start writing as fast as possible. Doesn't matter if it doesn't make sense. It sure as hell won't be in anything approaching polished prose. But after I fill up half a page or so with closely spaced handwriting, whatever had caused me to stop typing or dictating will no longer be an issue. I will know what I'm trying to say and how to say it.
This doesn't mean some nine-year-old kid needs to maintain an author's daybook. But I can't help thinking that different areas of the brain are involved in forming and structuring and expressing our thoughts when we write them then when we type or dictate them. The latter I am qualified to comment on because as we've canvassed here previously, there is a real cognitive difference between dictating a story and writing it. It's a difference I've managed, I hope, to resolve over the years, but it's still there. I can feel it every time I sit down, or stand up to put my dictation headset on. It requires an act of will, of conscious effort, to set aside the very particular way of thinking that lies behind expressing yourself through spoken language as opposed to writing. And there are still certain forms of writing, usually the denser more intellectual or polished forms, for which I don't even bother turning on Dragon Dictate. I know it's better to type out the words or even to write them with pen and paper before transferring them to the screen later.
Is there a difference between typing and writing? They're both creating a neural link between the language centers of the brain and those parts involved in the control of fine motor skills. I would say that after twenty-five years of writing there isn't a difference. But I'd be lying or mistaken. Because if that was the case there would be no need for me to maintain the daybook sitting on the desk a few feet away from me now. And I would never have to pick up a pen and turn to a blank piece of paper to start writing out my thoughts longhand on those occasions where I suddenly found the thoughts resisting all efforts to put them on screen.
But anyway, I was really more interested in what other non-writerly people have to say about this. Do you still use the cursive script you learned in grade three or four at school, and would you be willing for your children or some theoretical future generation to do without it?