This week I have developed a new appreciation for those who are learning to write or draw for the first time, thanks to a foray into ambidextrosity. As I have mentioned here recently, my right shoulder has been giving me trouble, and so I was distressed to think that I couldn’t participate in a 100-day art-making challenge I heard about. I realized that while my right hand works considerably better than my left, I do have two hands, and if I really wanted to participate without over-straining my right shoulder, I could use my left hand. It might even make an interesting creative challenge/constraint/improvisational score.
It is hard. I often want to switch back to my right hand for things I know it can do that the left cannot. Straight lines, for example. So many things my right hand does without any intentional thinking require planning and troubleshooting, if they can be done at all (and many can’t). Then there’s the challenge of writing against the flow of traffic, as it were. My father and brother are both left-handed and so I have watched plenty of left-handed writing-utensil-wielding but not ever given thought to the degree of difficulty involved.
I’ve also been thinking about what it’s like for kids to sort these things out, and how much practice they need, and how much easier it would be without someone breathing down your neck about how neat it is, or how to do it “right.”
While we’re on the subject, here’s a little thing I posted on the subject a few years back:
I know several kids who write very, very slowly. I know others who like to decorate their letters as they write, many who form their letters starting at the bottom rather than the top, and lots who despise the task of holding a writing utensil at all, complaining of tired and weak muscles.
I watched one of these slow writers doing some math the other day. The speed of her math performance has been a point of concern and discussion in school lately. It occurred to me as I was watching that part of the reason she takes a long time getting through math problems is that she wants the numbers to look nice. For her, writing numbers (and anything else) is an opportunity to make art.
Artistry is often at work with the letter-decorators I mentioned too, though I’ve also seen letter-decorating used primarily to combat boredom. Here are two other interesting coincidings: those writers who work from the bottom of the letter also tend to be the ones who would rather be designing and building things than sitting bent over a piece of paper, and the messiest and most apparently tormented or resistant are often the ones to whom the words are the most important. The writers.
I’ve been observing young writers for a long time, and I was also one myself once. The year I was eight was significant for me. I spoke in front of a large group of people for the first time, among other things. But the thing that got the most attention that year was my handwriting. It wasn’t very good. I was in too much of a hurry, the adults told me. I could do better.
Fortunately, that flurry of concern over my sub-par penmanship didn’t leave much of a mark on me, as far as I can tell. I know that the parents and teachers who harped on my letter formation back then had my interests at heart and in mind. I’m pretty sure that if they had realized I was just trying to keep up with my thoughts, they’d have handled it differently. The teachers I know now aren’t as hard on kids about handwriting as the ones I had when I was young, but we still tend to miss the opportunity to learn from what goes on with kids when they sit down to write – not just how the letters look but how kids are about it and what communication there may be for us to receive in the course of watching.
We miss this opportunity for noble reasons; we believe we know how to tell when writing’s going well and when it’s not. The sight of neat legible letters soothes us, makes us feel as though things will be OK for the child forming those letters. But too much haste, too little haste, unusual pathways, and general resistance worry us. The task of writing feels important, so we get rigid and frightened about it and push for the results we know to push for.
But being rigid and frightened makes it hard to see what more there is to see, and it tends to undermine access to the very proficiency we’re after.
Here’s the thing. The word is penmanship. As with craftsmanship or sportsmanship, there’s grace and individuality suggested by and allowed for in the word. Penmanship has come to refer only to how tidily we write, but it didn’t start there and we don’t have to settle for that. We can ask ourselves more interesting questions about the emerging penmanship(s) of those newest to the tool – the way each one wields his or her pen. What is there to see in a child’s resistance to writing? What might it lead to? Why would a person spend as much time drawing spiraling tails on every letter as choosing the words the letters make up? Why is the messy writer in such a hurry?
If we ask questions like these, we’ll get insights into the behaviors themselves and also, most likely, surprising causes for further curiosity and even celebration. And we’ll make lots more room for young people to come to own the work of writing, and to call on it to serve and support them in whatever paths and pursuits they choose.