I used to have beautiful handwriting.
Growing up in the '70s and '80s, when it was assumed writing in cursive was a necessary skill, I actually practiced my letters, trying out different capital "Gs" and inventing fancy swirls to go under my signature. If I ever needed to leave a mysterious letter in an old diary (I loved Nancy Drew), I was going to be ready.
But now, when I take notes for an interview, or just try to write a note for my daughter's second-grade teacher, I stare at the resulting chicken scratch with the horror of someone not recognizing her own face.
And it's not just the appearance of my writing that's changed. I used to be able to take legible notes for long lectures or interviews, just writing and writing. Now, after I write in cursive for just a few minutes, I feel my hands revolt against this once-so-familiar motion and start to ache.
Yes, I'm getting older, but my parents, who were born in the 1920s and never used computers as much as I did, maintained their public-school-taught penmanship their entire lives. Not long before my dad died in 2014 at age 93, he didn't have the strength to complete his 12-letter last name. But the characters he could render were still elegant enough to address a wedding invitation.
What happened? I'm no doctor, but it seems obvious. Like almost everyone out there, my life calls for less cursive writing, and more keyboarding. Even a once-proud marathon runner can't expect to loaf off on training for years and jump right back into the flow, right?
"It is probably just because you are doing mostly keyboarding and are out of practice, which is normal for any skill," says Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Berninger has authored, co-authored, edited or co-edited 16 books, all of which touch on writing in some way. She's also been co-investigator on several studies of the brain and handwriting and co-authored articles and chapters on related studies.
"Just like our car engines that need tune-ups periodically, so do human writers need periodic tune-ups of handwriting skills," Berninger says.
Berninger outlined several exercises recommended to help elementary and middle-school students improve their handwriting. In one, they're asked to print the alphabet in lowercase, then to write it in cursive, recording the number of legible letters. In another, they're asked to write the letter that comes before and after the letters named by their teacher. "When we compose, we continually have to find letters in ordered series in memory," Berninger says.
My problem is likely tied simply to lack of use. "There are specific neurological disorders associated with specific kinds of acquired handwriting disorders," she notes. "But in general it is related to how often handwriting is used when we are using other technology tools for writing."
Michelle Dresbold, a handwriting expert and author of "Sex, Lies and Handwriting," notes that I'm not necessarily wrong to point the finger at my keyboard. "Keyboarding has taken a toll on handwriting for a variety of reasons," she says. "It is possible that lack of use leads to poorer motor control skills."
The cure for my chicken scratch isn't surprising, and there's no shortcut, dang it. "Practice, practice, practice," Dresbold says. "Slow down, relax, breathe. Write thank-you letters."
As an experiment, I set next to me one of the recipes I wrote out in 1994 and tried to copy it. I took Dresbold's advice and wrote slowly, concentrating on the shape of the letters and the flow of the words. I wasn't rushing, as I usually am when scribbling a request to a teacher or taking interview notes. The more I relaxed about the letters, the more I recognized my old handwriting. Constant computer use may have reduced my stamina for writing, but the style I used to take pride in is still there. I may seldom call on it in these busy days, but when I do, my brain remembers.
"Studies show that it is very important to handwrite," Dresbold says. "You will retain more information, do better in school and work, keep your brain healthier, be more creative, learn languages quicker, recover more information and feel more connected to others. Handwriting can also help the brain to recover from a stroke, help people with ADHD, focus and calm children, and help the brain from aging as quickly."
My second-grader hasn't done any cursive learning yet, and she's not alone. "The issue is that the Common Core standards in the US are not yoked to typical development of handwriting," Berninger says. Research and teaching experience note that children should be taught printing in kindergarten through second grade, cursive in third and fourth, and touch-typing in fourth and fifth. "The Common Core calls for handwriting instruction (in) kindergarten through first grade only," she notes.
But there's hope.
"Our recent research has shown the effectiveness of computerized handwriting instruction for teaching children and youth to improve their handwriting," Berninger says.
So the very technology that has put handwriting on shaky ground could be the same thing that saves it.