Hand-Writing

January 26, 2016

Tags: cursive script, Common Core, italic script

I remember the first time a student brought a laptop into my writing workshop. His eyes were on the screen as he was taking notes and, even worse, he was hiding behind the screen. I asked him to shut it down and have not allowed laptops into the workshop since—unless a student has a disability that requires the amplification of the computer. Otherwise, no. And here’s why:

The workshop is real, it is dynamic, it has three dimensions, perhaps more. And, most importantly, it is interactive. We read, we talk, we talk to each other and make warm, solid eye contact.

Please understand, I am not a cyber luddite, not at all. I am in love with my iPhone and iPad. I am writing this blog post on my computer. I use a Kindle app, look up words on my electronic dictionary, donate to Wikipedia every year, and occasionally ask a student to look something up on her smart phone in the midst of a class. But I also still have notebooks, pens and journals. They slow me down. Hand to paper, I think differently. I don’t want to skid along all the time, I want to pay attention. And what I’ve found over the years is that my students really appreciate the opportunity to write by hand in their journals too. In just a week or two, they are showing off the rich, thickening pages in their hand-made, hand-written books. Every writing project begins there before it is transported to the computer; one technology does not preclude the other. In the silent, serene space between their hand-held pens and paper, there is no hurry and no fear of making a mistake. Nothing is written in stone (as in a cuneiform stone), nothing is permanent, it’s all process. And writers, especially beginning writers, need this gentle freedom.

And so it is a bit alarming to hear that instruction in cursive writing has been abandoned as part of the “common core” curriculum changes in America’s schools. What are the implications for writers? They will grow up only knowing how to print! Or, they will only use the computer which has many other drawbacks, most significantly the illusion that everything we enter into the computer is final and perfect. It is not.

Yes, we want to be slowed down, but print is too slow! Cursive—which means “running”—was invented to create fluidity in writing (and to spare delicate quill pens).

There has been the suggestion—once again, in educational circles—that italic script is a possible compromise. Certainly it would be for writers. That is the only hand-writing English children learn in school and they learn it right away; it spares them shifting from print to cursive in third grade, part of the pedagogical problem, apparently.

I’ll weigh- in on this debate: let’s think about italic. It’s clear, it’s simple and it’s fluid, a writer’s dream. I learned it myself when I lived in England though I have retreated to cursive in recent years. I’d pick it up again in a heartbeat. I love those nibs.

A Snowy Day

January 23, 2016

Photo by Carol Bergman
And the city is quiet and the air is fresh. I heard the plow at 6 am or so and went to look out the window. Yes, the forecast was accurate, we are locked in for the day, though I will certainly go walking with my ski poles up the hill and into the park if the wind dies down. The children will be on their sleds, a wonderland. Rudy and his dog friends will be wearing their booties to protect their paws from the salt. We will all romp, we will all smile. And it’s a perfect day for reading, writing and napping. I’ve been away for several days, unable to write except for journaling. Stories for my collection--Nomads 3-- accumulate, recorded as titles in the back of my journal.

Sometimes it’s hard to begin again, a bit like a lay-off from the gym, the muscles lazy and atrophied. But the desire is too strong for resistance to win. And so it is for the new students I will meet this term. Many have resisted registering for a writing workshop year after year, or they didn’t have the time, or the money. (Writing workshops are getting expensive!) Now here they are, pens and notebooks at the ready. I will welcome them eagerly.

I Write With a Pounding Heart

January 17, 2016

Tags: YMCA, Harlem YMCA, Martin Luther King Jr., redlining, gentrification

There are some days when I write all day. There are some days when I do not write at all except for entries in my journal which may take me up to two hours, so that is writing, too, of course. And then there are days when I have no time to write because I am teaching or traveling, and by the end of the day I am so full up with ideas and sentences that I feel as though I will explode. This is especially true if I witness injustice of any kind. It’s because of my background and I have accepted it.

Yesterday was such a day. I took the subway from the gentrified enclave where I live in upper Manhattan to 135th street in the heart of Harlem. I am in search of a lap swimming pool, one that I can afford, or my insurance company will pay for. The Harlem YMCA was on the list, an obvious choice, I thought. YMCAs are always well run, immaculately clean and friendly. The pools are gorgeous and well life-guarded. I was not disappointed with the Harlem YMCA; it is an oasis, albeit an oasis amidst a wasteland.

And it is the images of that wasteland that woke me at 5 a.m. this morning, my heart pounding. I did not feel safe walking from the subway station to the Harlem Y. And this suprised and upset me. I am a street-smart native New Yorker. I have hung out in Harlem a lot since I returned to the US, but not this particular neighborhood. It’s a swath of neglect. And I was scared walking into it.

I write today from my immediate physical experience, traveling from a safe neighborhood into an unsafe neighborhood where there is no supermarket in sight and few people on the street in the middle of a weekend day.

Why is our city and our nation so divided? Are our neighborhoods still being redlined? That has been a great injustice in the past. Is it possible it is still going on?

I joined the Harlem Y even though I won’t be able to travel there after dark and my husband does not want me to travel there at all. I walked around the facilities filled with people of all ages and complexions, America’s dream fulfilled, except for the frustration of not being able to get there safely.

Hemingway's Drafts

January 10, 2016

Tags: Morgan Library, Hemingway, Fitzgergald, war reporters

“Wearing down seven #2 pencils is a good day’s work.”
--Hemingway in a Paris Review interview with George Plimpton, Spring 1958

And this was the first of several surprises in the Morgan Library’s exhibition of Hemingway’s papers between the wars: he wrote drafts of his fiction in pencil. And why did he use pencil instead of pen or a typewriter? So the text would feel “malleable and fluid” and could be improved. The penciled draft went to a typist and then was scratched over again—in pencil—with deletions, additions and word changes, and then went to the typist again. The last chapter of “A Farewell to Arms” was written 39 times. And only then did Hemingway contemplate a title. He made long lists, ideas from poetry, the Bible, Shakespeare.

This is the exact opposite of my process so I found it interesting. I have long lists of titles in my journals some of which get made into stories or nonfiction essays, most of which do not. The title becomes the armature, or is the armature, and I don’t begin until I have it solidly in my mind. The fluidity for me comes with revision of the text; I rarely change the title although sometimes an editor will.

Hemingway worked well with his editors though, like all of us, he was resistant to certain changes. But in the end he studied the suggestions and revised his work. He changed plot outlines, developed new characters, read voraciously as he was writing, kept notes.

“The Sun Also Rises” filled seven small notebooks. There is plenty of space between the lines and the handwriting is eminently legible. Hemingway crossed out, changed words, shifted phrases, but he rarely re-structured. I think this was because he was already a practiced writer before he attempted fiction.He had deadline experience as a reporter, a wonderful discipline for any writer—fiction or nonfiction. Copy had to be quick, clean and precise. His first journalism job was with the Kansas City Star, then the Toronto Star and, finally, with Collier’s during World War II. Last year, I downloaded his dispatches from the Toronto Star. They are wonderful to read—dynamic and prescient.

I don’t think it matters if we use pencil, pen, a computer or our smart phones—we all find our own way—so long as we are disciplined in our writing lives. Until he became debilitated by alcohol, Hemingway was a disciplined writer, as was his friend and rival, Fitzgerald. They read each other’s work and critiqued it. Casualties of war, suffering from undiagnosed “shell shock,” that we now label PTSD, both men self-medicated and eventually blew themselves away, Hemingway with a shotgun, Fitzgerald with booze which he gave up—too late.

The exhibition of Hemingway's innovative drafts and correspondence will be at The Morgan until January 31st.

http://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/ernest-hemingway

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