On the importance of writing well
Some years ago the author and historian David McCullough (“Truman,” “John Adams,” “1776”) gave a lecture called “Why History Matters.” In it, he talked about the importance of teaching American history and recounted the struggles and triumphs of the Founding Fathers.
In the question-and-answer portion a man asked McCullough what he thought about the fact that no one in this day and age writes letters, like Jefferson, Franklin and Adams did, and why no one today bothers with correct spelling and grammar.
McCullough lamented the fact that few people keep a diary, write letters or otherwise express their thoughts on paper. He said, “In the process of writing we come up with the idea we didn’t know we had. The mere act of writing focuses the brain in a way nothing else does.”
And he is right. There is no greater skill than to be able to express oneself effectively. Nothing stirs the creative process, creates new ideas or expands the limits of the mind like putting pen to paper. I, of course, am biased in this matter because I have chosen to write for a living. But it remains true for everyone — the ability to articulate an argument cogently expands well beyond journalism, into every personal and professional endeavor.
Writing is not easy (as Hemingway said, the first draft of anything is crap). The process is tedious and lonesome, and forces you to think critically. It is where big ideas are born.
Writing requires a sustained attention we, or at least people around my age (23), are not accustomed to. There are no shortcuts, and the only way to do it well is to do it all the time. But it is the greatest skill one can possess, and when done well is immensely satisfying.
So I have a proposition. First, that everyone pick up a pen and write something every week. It doesn’t have to be pages and pages of prose. It can be something simple, like a letter to a friend or relative, an entry in a diary, an observation of something you saw, a letter to the editor for the Independent. It might be enjoyable or it might be dull. It might be great, or it might be crap. But you will be a smarter person for it.
Second — and this is mostly directed at younger people — (re)learn cursive. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Van Oort, drilled cursive into us and said we’d need it as adults. My class thought this was silly, and being left handed and writing in pencil, I smudged everything to all hell anyway. It is true, you don’t need to know cursive to function in the world. But you should.
Call me old-fashioned, but there is nothing more beautiful than flowing, dark ink on paper. I’ve long written letters to friends, but only recently did I take up longhand again.
Even with some practice, my longhand is barely manageable — adjoining e’s and r’s become one character, y’s and j’s sink into the line below and all the whole menagerie of letters slant like a palm tree in a hurricane.
Any time I write a letter or an opinion column like this, I always do it by hand. There are several reasons for this. One, I think there are too many distractions on the computer — I get emails, I can listen to music, I can read the news. But more significantly, there is something to the act of writing by hand, curving the letters and sliding your hand across the page, that stimulates the mind.
Penmanship has been a casualty of the personal computer, and the typewriter before it. But it is as unique as a fingerprint. And timeless — when’s the last time you printed an email and kept it? I still have a letter my grandmother gave me on my 10th birthday.
So pick up a pen, brush up on that cursive and write a letter to your grandmother (for the grandmothers reading this — write a letter to your grandson and show them how longhand is done). You’ll be grateful you did.
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