Is writing an emotional experience?

Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise.

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, p. 94

A friend of mine  remarked that she has to write things down by hand or else she doesn’t remember them as well.

Then I came across a newspaper headline, ‘Why the pen is mightier than the keyboard’ I went to the source of this news item, this article: Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay. ‘Digitalizing literacy: reflections on the haptics of writing’. Advances in Haptics. April 2010.

This is a summary of the article.

The displacement of writing by hand by writing by keyboard may not be as innocuous as it seems.

We think it is harmless because we tend to assume that writing is an entirely visual-cognitive process and that the keyboard and pen are interchangeable input devices connected to a CPU-like brain.

This assumption is false.

The entire body senses, not just the eyes. What happens within the brain is influenced by the entire human ‘sensorium’, in which hands and fingers—as they explore, sense, know—play a major part. We ‘know’ with our hands and their fingers. Their sense of touch, movement, position and balance is their ‘haptics’.

Now, the haptics of hand-writing and ‘type-writing’ differ markedly and this is reflected in what and how we know.

Handwriting is uni-manual, although the free hand holds and positions the paper that is written on.

Letters are formed by hand. They are graphic shapes created by the release of a line of ink formed by the pressure of the pen’s nib on the paper.

The writer’s attention is focused, on the task of moving the tip of the nib with sufficient pressure to release a line of ink with which to form letters and words on the paper.

Haptic feedback from the movement and touch of hand, arm and shoulder and motor-commands to the same are closely connected, in space and through time, to our sight of what we write. We write, not with out hand, but with our sense of touch.

Handwriting is an individualized skill, such that a signature is a test of a person’s authenticity.

Typewriting is bimanual.

Letters are ready-made and imprinted on the screen via finger pressure on the key. The skill is in locating these ready-made letters on the keyboard.

The writer’s attention is divided between keyboard (motor) and screen (visual), and oscillates between them.

The writing is disembodied and impersonalized. We can never be sure of the identity of the author.

The two kinds of writing—hand and type—activate different neural pathways in the brain, because they engage the hands as sense organs, and thus the attention of the writer, in different ways. The attention of the hand-writer is focused. The attention of the type-writer is divided. As a result, they differ in their ability to retain an understanding of what they write about. Writers by hand retain more information than writers by keyboard.

This line of argument leads the authors to conclude:

‘… the decoupling of motor input and haptic and visual output enforced by the computer keyboards as a writing device, then, is seriously ill- advised’ (p. 397).

There are counter-arguments, of course, but I find it plausible.

One of the authors, Anne Mangen, has similar views on the relative merits of reading by screen and reading something tangible, Hypertext fiction reading: haptics and immersion.

Once upon a time, spoken and written words were actions that committed the body. Such as this, for example.

Now, the head has been separated from the rest of the body, cognition from emotion, and words are just thoughts. Not all thoughts are necessary. So many words are like this. Use no spare words.

The featured image of Sir Thomas Moore’s last letter to King Henry VIII (1534).

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