Handwriting versus Typewriting

It was brought to my attention via Twitter a few weeks ago that the Common Core education standards don’t place much emphasis on legible handwriting. The wave of the future, as you might guess and The New York Times reports, is the keyboard. Kind of obvious, right? But the decline in handwriting isn’t something to write off as a sign of our technological times. The article states:

“Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.”

KnowledgeIf schools teach students how to write the alphabet and make a signature, but then focus more exclusively on keyboarding skills, what might we be losing beyond the physical act of handwriting? I love to write. Books, letters, lists, doodles. (I have an earlier post on letter-writing.) If there is paper and pen, I want it in my hands, so this article got me thinking that “what if?” The relationship between hand, pen, and paper—and the way the hand, eye, and brain engage in that format—is different from hand, keyboard, and screen. I don’t even need to see the keyboard to use it.

With a keyboard, I can type more quickly and scroll all the way back to the beginning and correct something before I ever reach The End. Despite that, this format always feels more official and formal to me. In contrast, writing by hand is a subtle sign to my brain that I’m allowing myself to be messy. It’s okay to scribble things out, to take the whole thing less seriously. I can always tear off the page and throw it away.

I’ve identified some consistent reasons behind when I switch to paper:

  • Screen fatigue
  • A difficult or emotional scene
  • I’m stuck and my perceived formality of the file on the screen feels too constraining

Whatever the motivation that gets me to switch from keyboard to pen and paper, these handwritten scenes are always my better ones. I’m finding the computer and keyboard fine for originating words on setting and structure and all those little in between details. For action and emotional resonance, I want to pour it onto paper. On paper, it becomes more about the story and less about the producing of the story and how many words I’m getting out. (Because who doesn’t like to check their total word count at the end of a writing session?)

Given everything I feel I gain from handwriting, I wonder what younger generations may lose if they’re less inclined to pick up a pen. What value does handwriting have to you? (Does it?) When do you turn to it?


Publishing Fads: Covers and Interiors

I spend my day job in a publishing company. A year or so ago, we saw a lot of circles on book covers and interiors. Not just our books, but other publishers’ too. It made me really hate circles. These sorts of fads happen regularly, but there are certain things we tend to dislike no matter how contagious they become.

Here’s a short list of things we currently have an aversion to:

  • Pink (this is a forever aversion resulting from earlier trauma)
  • Cheesiness (I like a bit of cheese but Head Decider does not, much to my sadness)
  • Stock images (like stick people and other punch-card-like figures)
  • The / between the names of multiple authors (seen so often it feels like lazy design)
  • A new cover that looks a lot like a competitor’s cover (never a good thing; also a forever aversion)

For balance, I could make another list of things we like, but that’s much more a “know it when I see it” sort of thing.

Amnesia! Aliens! Hearing loss? Bees! … Mining?

All of these things are related, somehow, in my head. Years ago I had an idea to use my experience with tinnitus (ringing in the ears) in a novel about an amnesiac alien on Earth who has no idea she’s not native to the planet. The premise was not nearly so coherent when it first occurred to me, and I was busy working on other material so no need to think much about it.

The subconscious can be very wily. In December, as I was wrapping up revisions on one novel and about to begin revisions on a second, I felt the need for something different. So I shook off the preconceptions of what and how I write, metaphorically cracked my knuckles, and when the words started coming, they were about the amnesiac alien with tinnitus. In first person present tense. (Really not sure how that happened.) Only now my alien had a hearing loss too, and something about endangered bees and evil aliens who mine a planet to death.

Bees, somehow very important to my new novel. These bees are in Seattle.

Bees, somehow very important to my new novel. These bees are in Seattle.

The tinnitus aspect of my main character, Deja (DAY-hah), is straightforward enough. If you’ve ever gone to a concert or been exposed to a loud noise, you may have experienced some ringing in your ears afterward. For many people, that ringing doesn’t always have a definite cause, and it never ends. I can’t remember ever not hearing the noise in my head because it was there long before I was ever aware of it. It would be much cooler if the “Beeeeeeep” was the result of something like alien communication. Thus, Deja’s tinnitus gets a Higher Purpose (hardware malfunction).

What I didn’t plan for this book was to incorporate my experiences with hearing loss. As with the tinnitus, I don’t remember ever hearing better than I do. And because I hear well enough despite the loss, it wasn’t caught until I was in elementary school. As I got older, I wised up to the ways in which I was compensating. And I realized that my left ear sucked at its job so the right one inherited phone duties. Combined, they’re an okay team. And now they’re helping me to write a main character who’s not defined by what a piece of her can and cannot do (or several pieces considering the amnesia). My previous MCs have struggled more with ethics than anything else, and I’ve never incorporated so much of myself onto the page before. I’m looking forward to the journey. I’m especially looking forward to that “something about bees and mining” part.

If you’re curious about what the world sounds like with hearing loss, check this out.

Creating Habits

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. I believe that every day, every moment, is an opportunity for change. Start tomorrow or right now, but do it. That said, the change of the calendar can be a good opportunity for a lot of things: flip the mattress; clean out the spice cabinet (which is really just an excuse to buy new spices); vacuum the cobwebs out from that one corner where they live. Because the new year comes during the holiday season, I had time to catch up on my sleep and, for once, did not check my work email on vacation like a zealot. Those things combined provided an opportunity to reflect.

2014 was an overwhelming year for me professionally. I struggled just to tread water amidst all the deadlines and demands and found little room left for the things I enjoy. Still, in the few non-work hours I had last year, I managed to complete revisions on one novel, finish another, and begin a third.

2015 should bePen 009… calmer in the workplace. I hope like hell it will be. And with that hope, my new year’s reflections found opportunity for creating new habits. I read something once that said a new habit takes at least thirty days to establish, and common sense says that if I want to write more, I need to write more regularly. Schedules work well to keep me disciplined, so I’m establishing certain days and times to write. I’m also going to seek out more resources to feed my creativity, like a March lecture at the Smithsonian on art fakes and forgeries. (That kind of screams plot idea, doesn’t it?) I want to query one novel, revise a second, and finish the new one begun last year.

That list of wants could be overwhelming. I’ve set expectations in the past to write so many words in a day or weekend, and the failure to do so made the next goal feel all the more oppressive. This time around my goal is simply to write. One step at a time – one word at a time – I can do it. By the end of 2015, I’d like to say that success is my new habit.

What habits do you want to create?


Mount Everest as your first mountain climb?

Apparently this is a thing people do. They want to climb a mountain, so they buy the gear and fly to Kathmandu or somewhere thereabouts, and hire a company to take them up Mount Everest. Whether or not they have skills to climb it is not necessarily something they worry about. And some climbing companies also don’t concern themselves overmuch with the experience of those handing them tens of thousands of dollars. Sherpas carry the climbers’ packs. The food. The oxygen tanks. Sherpas run lines up the mountain for climbers to clip into and follow. Up. To the top. Over 29,000 feet up. Covered in snow and ice and at risk of avalanche. Sherpas lead the way and assist the climbers in every way they might need. (That’s not to say that there aren’t experienced mountaineers climbing Everest.) Check out this traffic jam at the summit.

Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air recounts the 1996 tragedy that claimed a dozen lives. Ten people died in 2012. Most recently, an avalanche killed sixteen climbers in April 2014 – all of them Sherpa guides. I attended a discussion at National Geographic this past week on Mount Everest, climbing, and Sherpa culture. I learned that when tragedy strikes on Mount Everest, the Sherpa guides are the ones who most often pay the price. The Nepali government offers $400 to the families of those who die on Everest, which doesn’t even cover the cost of a funeral. According to Lakpa Rita, the Sherpa speaking at National Geographic, the families of those killed in April still have not received that money.

Obviously, climbing Everest is a risky job. So why do it? To feed their families, educate their children, and hope that their kids won’t have to climb the mountain one day to do the same. It’s not a fun job to them. It’s livelihood. It’s a necessary risk to give their children a chance at better. Other work is scarce and not nearly as lucrative. Lakpa Rita confirmed this at the National Geographic Live! event. Yet The Atlantic reports, “Being a Sherpa on Everest these days is far more dangerous than, say, being a soldier in Iraq from 2003 to 2007.”

Think about that.

It kind of puts my hard week at the office in perspective.

National Geographic sent photographer Aaron Huey to Everest as part of its story on Sherpas. He spoke at the National Geographic Live! event and you can see some of his fantastic photos on his website.


The Lost Value of Letter Writing

I’m a child of the ’80s. Email didn’t come into my life until midway through university, and it needed to build momentum before the centuries-old tradition of letter writing began to fall by the wayside. When I was thirteen, I wrote to my first pen pal, another thirteen-year-old in Brisbane, Australia. From there, my letter writing quickly expanded. I came to have friends in places like Argentina, China, Egypt, Estonia, and Thailand. The postman delivered letters to me with exotic stamps, in penmanship much nicer than anything I could produce, and with details of lives lived far from me. This was before “the global village”, before information sharing was so easy and you could “friend” someone you met in passing at a party with little thought or effort and no commitment for the future. As with anyone you meet, some of us clicked more than others and our letter writing burgeoned from the obvious and polite questions, like “how is school?”, to real discussions of culture, events, and beliefs. I learned how Thais celebrate the new year, discussed the fall of the Berlin Wall with a girl in Germany, and exchanged candy with a friend in Japan. (They’ve got some good stuff.) My letter-writing friends opened up the world to me in a very personal way. “What’s happening in Poland” as the Cold War ended meant “what’s happening to my friend Krysztof.” It made politics relevant and the world accessible in a way I couldn’t otherwise reach as a young girl in a very homogenous American suburb. And it was fun.

Stamps 008

Stamps from my letter-writing days. Yes, that is Lenin’s face glaring at you top left.

Today I’m still in touch with several of my old pen friends and have met a few in person. On my first trip overseas, I met in person my good friend in the Netherlands and she showed me around her home country. Before the trip, we discussed (via MS-DOS-styled email) how we’d handle things if we didn’t get along as well in person as we did on paper. On another trip, I met a friend who drove with her husband and young sons to the town I was visiting to meet me for dinner.  When I, with my American sense of geography, asked if it was too far for her to come, she set me straight: “Nancy, nowhere in Slovenia is far.” When I began writing letters at age thirteen, I didn’t look into the future to see the impact that my overseas friendships would have on my life. I didn’t realize that these would become some of the most enduring friendships I would have, that they were the first step in me exploring my interests in other peoples, languages, and cultures. I just wanted to find out if traffic lights used the same colors in other countries. (They do.) And I loved the anticipation of waiting for a reply. Would it come swiftly? What news would it contains? The mailman and I became pretty well acquainted, and we shared disappointment when a long-awaited letter from India arrived with the envelope torn on three sides, the contents lost.

That anticipation, enjoyment, and surprise is largely gone now. Email is the vehicle of twenty-first century correspondence. That’s been great for more regular communication. I email my friend from the Netherlands nearly every day. We can share so much more of the ups and downs of life for being in frequent contact. But the anticipation of an email reply is not the same as opening the mailbox and pulling out a letter. Typed words on a screen are not nearly as intimate as handwritten words. And emails are a lot harder to pass down to future generations. I still have many of the letters I exchanged in my youth, and many of the gifts that were sent with them. Today, though, we’re more likely to keep in touch on Facebook or via email than by putting pen to paper, and sometimes I feel we’ve lost something for that.

This has been brought home to me over the past year, when I began writing letters to an elderly cousin whose address I uncovered online while doing genealogy research. (The Internet: both helpful and creepy.) There’s a joy in receiving and reading her letters, and amazement when she enclosed a letter that my grandmother had written to her, telling of her joy in her grandchildren. I’m not giving up email, but I intend to revive my letter writing. It won’t be nearly the same as in the past. Today is what it is, and before I write my cousin, I type out what I’m going to say first. But I believe in the value of letter writing, in the unique sharing of self that comes from pen on paper, and I don’t want to lose it.

Frustrations with Roasting Chestnuts

Chestnuts are a wonderful nut. Roasted, they are warm and meaty and full of nutrition. But I’ve found them rather fickle. Cut an “x” onto the surface of the nuts’ shells, stick them in the oven at 350 F for about half an hour, and you get something edible. You’ve got to crack them out of their shells while they’re still warm, but don’t do it right away your you’ll be playing hot potato trying not to burn your fingers. This is a recipe worth trying.

Lately though, I’ve been finding a third to half of my chestnuts come out burned, while the rest are fine. It’s preventing me from enjoying all of the lovely goodness that is warm, spiced chestnuts, and I protest. There’s a limited season for these things and I want to enjoy them to the fullest. So, chestnuts, please stop burning. I want to consume you all.

I ate all of my remaining chestnuts yesterday, so on this Happy Thanksgiving, I’ll have to turn to my precious chanterelle mushrooms, which are divine. And I don’t say that sort of thing about mushrooms.