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Heather Sellers talks about requiring her students to turn in handwritten first drafts

April 11, 2012

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Heather Sellers is author of the critically acclaimed memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, which tells the story of her lifelong struggle with face blindness, a neurological condition that prevents her from recognizing faces. She has also published poetry, a collection of short stories, a children’s book, and three books on the craft of writing.

Her memoir brought her into the national spotlight in 2010, including appearances on Good Morning America and NPR, as well as being designated an editor’s choice in the New York Times and a book-of-the-month pick by the Oprah Magazine. With all her celebrity, Heather continues the good work of teaching writing at Hope College, where she has been a professor since 1995.

I became personally acquainted with Heather when she spent several days last fall as an artist-in-residence where I teach writing at the University of Central Arkansas. During a Q & A with a handful of students and teachers, she grabbed my attention as one of those uncommon people who lives in a different rhythm than most of us: she was in no hurry, yet filled with intensity, engaging each questioner with unflinching attention. I thought I can learn something about teaching writing from this woman. And I did.

My interest was heightened when Heather made a passing comment about requiring handwritten first drafts from her students. I’m intrigued by the ongoing conversation in education circles about the value of writing by hand. In October of 2010,  Gwendolen Bounds’ excellent Wall Street Journal article “How Handwriting Trains the Brain” cited multiple studies on the importance of writing by hand. Neurologists at the University of Indiana found more advanced neural activity in children when they wrote by hand as opposed to typing. An educational psychologist at the University of Washington found “handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.” She also found that 2nd, 4th, and 6th graders “expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus the keyboard.” Not limited to children, Bounds quotes a neuroscientist at Duke University who says “as [aging] people lose writing skills and migrate to the computer, retraining people in handwriting skills could be a useful cognitive exercise.”

I’ve only quoted one article here, but multiple studies and subsequent articles have been published on this topic in the last few years (I’ve posted a few links at the end of this article). When I heard of Heather’s practice of requiring handwritten first drafts from her students, I wondered if she was prompted by reading some of the research, or if she was just old-fashioned, or if there was some other reason for her approach. So I wrote her an email and asked if I could interview her about this topic. She gladly complied, stating that she was eager to spell out her thoughts on the matter. Here’s the interview:

Greg: Tell me the story about how you started requiring handwritten first drafts from your students.

Heather: I always ask the students in my advanced course to submit a story in advance of the workshop.  I noticed, when I was reading the advance submissions over break that three were just stunning–prose that read like poetry.  The stories had such a beautiful quality, each of them rife with what Robert Olen Butler calls “yearning.”  They were nearly finished stories–fascinating, original.  There were five stories that were pat, definitely first drafts–they felt, as many of our first efforts do, like they’d been kind of “phoned in.”  You know in “bad acting” how it doesn’t seem like the actor IS that person he is playing–it seems…fakey?  That’s how these felt.  I didn’t believe in the depths of the story.  It didn’t take me to that place.

I went to class, and I asked the first three writers how they worked.  Each student in that top three said, “I write by hand. Always. Always.”  I didn’t single out the weaker authors but I did ask the group, “Do y’all write on the computer?” Each one said yes.  Then, there were these two other stories that had some great parts, and some flat parts. “I wonder if you mind saying a few words about your process,” I asked these two writers.  I still remember their names. Chantelle said, “Well, I started hand-writing. But then I got behind, and it was due, and so I typed–the opening, the scene at the restaurant, and the ending were done by hand.”  Those were the EXACT same sections I’d pegged as thrumming, as memorable, as real.  Charlie said the same thing–parts were done by hand, parts on the computer.  The class was stunned (I think!) when I showed him that I could tell which parts were hand-written and which typed directly.

It was a transforming moment. I tell each class that story. Writing by hand forces one to slow down and stay connected to the sensory and sensual moments that come from the deepest part of one-self. I know this sounds weird, but I have seen the results.

Greg: Okay, I’m sold already. But I can’t help but think about the difficulty I have reading some of my student’s handwritten drafts. At least 20% of them have serious legibility issues. How do you deal with the legibility issue?

Heather: We write in giant all capital letters with markers.  I’m actually not kidding.  We go really, really, really slowly.  You know, I have trouble with “legibility” with computer generated first drafts too–the too-fast thinking, the surfacey glides, typos, hard-to-understand sentences and arguments……

Sometimes, if I am going to use samples of their writing for a lesson, I ask them to type up the handwritten draft, and staple the giant letters pages to the back of the typed copy.  Sometimes they are allowed to make changes, other times not.

But it’s important, too, to notice that this is very much a process of seeing what it is you know, getting your mind on the page, without the interference of the editor, the fake voices, the cleaner-upper, the conformist.  It’s a process step…..so I think we have to be careful in how we talk about the products that result.

Greg: Wow, this is even more counter-cultural than I thought! I’m amazed that your students write in giant all capital letters with markers. You’re taking this idea of slowing down thought seriously! I’m guessing the giant all capital letters with markers meets resistance from your students?

Heather: I don’t know… I think we are all just working so hard to try to put something meaningful together…..it’s easy to get caught up in the energy of that. I know the students comment on how their roommates see all the big letters and get very intrigued and want to try it.

Here’s the thing: You know why we write by hand? Why we keep doing it?  It’s fun. It was fun when we were little kids, and it’s fun now. It’s fun to have markers and pens, and great sheets of paper, and to paint with words. And it is fun to concentrate.  Any athlete knows that.  Readers know that, lovers know that, kids know that.

Greg: I hear you. It is a creative process. In my first-year writing classes, I always start with the personal narrative. I do everything I can to jar my students out of regular “get through school” mode, assuring them that each of them has a story to tell and a voice to tell it in. I tell them I’m going to help them create something powerful, filled with meaning, worth reading.

Heather: Right. In my creative writing classes, whether fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, we draw the scene, actually, and then list all of the sensory details–this takes about fifteen minutes before we ever start writing.  We’re trying to create IMAGES on the page.

I think there was to be a kind of “building” stage BEFORE we get to the “thinking” stage…you are sort of creating containers, in working by hand, where you will eventually do your thinking.  If you are just thinking, on a screen, where you can write so fast and erase so fast, it’s kind of like Frost’s thing of playing tennis without a net.  For some writers, the mind tends towards the obvious, it goes where any mind would go.  To access one’s OWN DEPTH and personal take on things, I believe in the hand!

Greg: That’s exactly what I do with a neighborhood map workshop in my first-year writing class. The students draw a map of their childhood neighborhood and describe a few key spots or events in detail. This provokes some evocative writing.

Heather: YES EXACTLY!

Greg: I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but it seems to me the Holy Grail in Rhetoric Composition today is all things digital. I’m wondering if you meet any resistance from colleagues when you tell them you require handwritten first drafts, not only locally (at your university) but as you talk about these things at your engagements at other universities around the nation.

Heather: Well, yes, people freak. And I’m not sure writing by hand is right for every teacher, every writer, every classroom.  I’m not calling for an end to DH!   I love my Facebook Scrabble!  : )

I just want to make sure we don’t lose methods that really work.  That really help our students retain their individual thinking, get them in touch with their voice, and, also, the hard slow work it is to write.  Writing simply takes an enormous amount of time.  Writing by hand is a REALISTIC pace for making some thing out of words. I’d be lost without my computer, my Pages program, my iPad (well, not really the iPad).  But we have other tools, too, tools that work really well to engage THINKING and WRITING. Typing isn’t thinking–but it can feel that way, especially to beginners.

I teach the sonnet in all my poetry workshops, and the students complain mightily about how much time writing the sonnet takes.  Yes, I say.  This is how much time a poem takes.  This is the right amount.  Then, they produce their best work of the semester, in these sonnets and they realize: it’s worth it.  It’s worth spending this much time on a poem.

I hope that lessons transfers to writing essays, letters, memos.

So, as teachers, we have to help them with what to DO during that time. We have to teach them to SLOW DOWN to catch the wave of your depth.  I’m trying to create a reverence for the process.  I’m looking to be part of a culture of quiet, and contemplation–my students get addicted to our in -class hand writing sessions.  They have to do the handwriting thing for thirty minutes a day for thirty days. For many of them, it’s the only time in the day they are alone.  It’s a form of meditation, right? To sit with oneself and discover what’s in there.  Writing by hand, then, is one way, and I think a great way, of creating a conversation with oneself.  That’s vital for the first year essay writer–maybe the most vital thing.

Greg: Thanks so much Heather, for taking the time to share your thoughts with me on this. It’s been a true pleasure!

Links to articles about the practice of writing by hand:

How Handwriting Boosts the Brain

Handwriting is a 21st Century Skill

Handwriting in the 21st Century? An Educational Summit

Printing, cursive, keyboarding: What’s the difference when it comes to learning?”

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