Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Overcoming Adversity: Breaking Hands and Mending Stories

I didn't always relate typing versus handwriting as a question of code-switching and language learning. Here's a bit about my personal journey from Palmer-Method scribbler to dedicated touch typist.

Early Experience: Pens and Pencils versus Computers
I still remember the first time I ever used a mouse at my dad's office.  I can still count pretty much every computer I ever touched up until maybe my sophomore year of high school.  Growing up, I made rituals of buying the "right" pens for journaling and writing stories.  I have a file box packed with handwritten stories and "story ideas" from grade school.  It wasn't until my sophomore year of college that I began using a separate folder on my computer to save stories - before then, they just ended up saved somewhere in My Documents, or in the folder for whichever class I was writing the story for.

Overcoming Adversity: Breaking Hands and Mending Stories
Naturally, I found it much easier to write longhand for many years, and I gradually began to use the keyboard more out of necessity than anything.  I spent years trying to make the keyboard feel natural for composing short stories and novels - I didn't have the patience to type stories that had already been written out, and I wasn't about to pay someone to transcribe my blotched scrawl.  And this worked well - I've found that I can write much faster and more comfortably at a keyboard than I ever could writing longhand.  With good posture and the right keyboard, I experienced writing cramps far less often at a computer than I did hunched over a piece of paper.

Yet I still faced a problem: my best stories came out longhand.  I could write a better, more interesting story given fifteen minutes and a pencil than I could after a few hours a keyboard.  And this wasn't a conscious thing - it just happened.  I assumed it was the setting, that maybe I was feeling more at-peace with myself during those times I'd sit down in a coffee shop with a few sheets of loose leaf.

But then I hurt my hand.  In Afghanistan, I fell down hard on my palm, putting some good tears into the ligaments around my thumb and wrist.  Eventually, I needed surgery because the thumb joint was too unstable.  I didn't like the idea of having my hand in a cast for six weeks, but what choice was there?  And it ended up being a very hard cast, too - given the shape of the wrist and hand, they had to splint it with my palm up, thumb jutting outward.  My right hand - my writing hand - was pretty much useless for those six weeks.

I tried to be creative.  I scratched out letters left-handed.  I bought a left-handed keyboard - every time you hold down the space bar, it transposes the keys from the right half of the keyboard over to the left.  There was always the possibility that my right hand would never be "right" again, so I was determined to keep writing, to be ready for anything.  The best I got was maybe five or ten words a minute on that keyboard thing - at least every second word had a typo, and every fourth or fifth word I'd hit some other key combination to activate the number pad.  But it was progress.

I didn't realize it at the time, but that experience would significantly improve my typed stories.  Being forced to rely on my left hand to write helped me learn to use both hands as I type.  My overall typing speed was higher after the cast was removed than it had been before - a result I had not at all expected. And with writing, it was as though all the creative energy once reserved for longhand writing was suddenly available for typing at the keyboard.

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