Cursive’s Connection to Creativity

Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino

What do the creative processes of Truman Capote, Joyce Carol Oates, Vladimir Nabokov, JK Rowling, Jackie Collins, and Quentin Tarantino have in common? Each of these brilliant writers prefers, or preferred, the slower process of writing by hand. Truman Capote wrote lying down, très louche. Joyce Carol Oates is never without a pencil and a small pad of paper. Vladimir Nabokov wrote on index cards, and then moved them around to test the flow of scenes — a sort of cut and paste. JK Rowling prefers to write her first drafts by hand, as does Jackie Collins: her last manuscript topping out at a whopping 2000 pages of cursive. And Quentin Tarantino, the uber-talented creative genius, writes his screenplays by hand.

There are two reasons that have brought the usefulness of cursive to my mind. For the first time this past November, I participated in Nanowrimo. I am a methodical writer and I decided to push the envelope. I reached thirty thousand words — when I received a retail job offer that was too good of an opportunity to pass up. The manuscript was put on ice and I didn’t look at it for over a month and a half.

When I finally had the time to read what I had written, I had several moments of anxiety. It wasn’t in the condition I needed to work with while writing a murder mystery. There were lots of good ideas, but the flow was nonexistent. Plotting a murder mystery is crucial. I had to read it several times to figure out how to connect certain scenes, mark areas where I need to expand description and dialogue, and place the murder clues. I’ve decided to print it and hand-write my comments on the white border. And, I will not be writing what needs to be added on my computer. I will hand write the new material and then type it in.

I know this sounds crazy, but this novel is more complicated than the last two murder mysteries. I have a hand-drawn diagram, like Intelius, detailing how my characters are related to each other and how their paths have crossed. Because my murder mysteries are largely character- as opposed to plot-driven I have to be conscious of this, otherwise I will confuse my readers.

As I was planning how to attack the rough material I was working with, another thought rushed to my mind, hence my opening paragraph about some of the most brilliant writers of our time. Is it possible that the work of the profound authors I mentioned above is enhanced by the actual act of creating each letter using cursive? Is it possible that the modern day ability to rush forward without contemplation and to erase our words so easily on a computer is negating a deeper level of creative expression?

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology and embrace any new developments that save me time or money. What I am talking about here is the actual act of forming the words with a pen or a pencil on lined paper. While in elementary school I learned Palmer penmanship. Each letter was slowly copied over and over again until the curls were mastered. I remember enjoying the methodical process of making beautiful letters. My brother has extraordinary handwriting, and he is a lefty.

Am I reaching? Maybe not. Think of what would happen if the publishing process were slowed down. The authors who are so eager to push the publish button would have to consider their manuscript longer. The act of typing the hand-written, already completed, first draft into the computer would cause the authors to reread their work. A sort of forced first edit. I like this idea.

Finally, I wondered what damage is being done to the students of today who are not taught cursive as part of their curriculum? A group of vocal scientists postulate that as long as students can read cursive they have no further need of it, and the classroom time is better spent on math and science. There is new research, however, that points to cursive as critical in developing parts of the brain and addressing certain learning disabilities. Must science, fueled by profit, dictate how we educate our children?

These same arguments are made daily in the media and voiced in our public school system as art and music programs are removed so teachers can spend more time teaching children how to take standardized tests. What bothers me the most is that the malleable minds forming in our schools are being deprived of the beauty of writing in cursive, and that this may leave a literary hole in the world’s future. The value of art, music, and literature is not, in this author’s opinion, quantifiable.

Author: L. A. Lewandowski

Lois Lewandowski graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in Political Science and French Literature. A passion for life lived well is reflected in her novels, Born to Die-The Montauk Murders, A Gourmet Demise, and My Gentleman Vampire, giving readers a glimpse into the world of the beau monde. Lois lives in Tampa, Florida. Learn more at her lifestyle blog, and her Amazon author page.

25 thoughts on “Cursive’s Connection to Creativity”

  1. I think the science behind this suggests that learning cursive is still a good idea. It doesn’t work for me, though. I had too many penmanship teachers, all with different ideas, so my handwriting is illegible even to me most of the time. If I couldn’t use my keyboard I would not be able to write at all.

    1. Lol, Yvonne. I can’t imagine not being able to read my own handwriting. 😉
      Palmer penmanship is very specific and leaves little room for interpretation. I enjoyed the repetition and still love to take my time when writing a note to a friend.
      We all have to do what works for us. You have a process that is successful—your books are wonderful. Don’t change a thing.

    2. Same with me, Yvonne. My penmanship is truly awful, and my hand gets tired very quickly. With a keyboard, however, I can write almost as fast as I can think!

  2. If cursive is in any way linked to creativity, then whatever did we do before it was invented? Cursive being a VERY modern creation, as the history of humanity goes.

    Personally, I think such studies reflect the bias of those being studied rather than some innate human thing. Humans have had cursive writing for a tiny, almost insignificant fraction of our existence as a species – far too short a time for it to have any real connection to our ability to be creative.

    Rather, what’s most likely is that people feel more creative using cursive….because they tend to use cursive when doing creative things. It’s a lot like the studies of retention done in print vs ebook reading – when you are testing a population that has done all its learning on print books, and barely used ebooks, guess which model is going to have better retention?

    Likewise, if you tend to use cursive for your creative work, you’re going to be better at being creative when writing cursive. If you have written fiction on nothing but a keyboard your whole life, the reverse would probably be true – writing longhand would feel clunky and frustrating.

    1. Hello Kevin,
      Let’s explore my hypothesis a bit more…
      The authors I referred to have various other options at their disposal, yet they choose to create using a method that takes more time and effort. The Epic of Gilgamesh was hammered out on stone tablets 1200 B.C., but that method would be unwieldy and prohibitively expensive. What other sensible methods exist for the modern writer to explore?
      The convenience of cursive, for an author, is the speed that the joined letters allow while writing. I have loosely used this term to distinguish from block letters.
      You make a valid point that a change from one’s normal method when writing could feel “clunky.” A drastic change like this requires time, and demands patience and an open mind. Change is good, and often to reap big rewards one must make big changes.
      I began writing this post because I have friends and family who believe that today’s children are being deprived because of the common core curriculum. After researching, I decided that since I am not an educator, and do not have children in the public school system, I needed to approach the subject in an inverted manner. What promising future authors sit in classrooms, memorizing test rules and useless material, rather than following a curriculum that allows their minds to develop freely through subjects that we were taught?
      I am also happy to share with you the studies that appear to bear out the relationship between cursive, brain development, and the creative process.
      Thank you for taking the time to comment. Your thoughtful response is greatly appreciated.

  3. Lois, this is a fabulous post. I always wrote my books in longhand on legal pads until probably right around the year 2000 when the computer became my daylong companion. I used to prowl stationary shops, looking for just the right pen that fit my hand and had the perfectly-slanted tip so the words flowed out of it like honey. I did then and still do get a physical comfort from handwriting, although I do way too little of it. And I firmly believe in the connection between writing and creativity. There is just something much more satisfying about looping the letters on the a blank piece of paper rather than tapping on keys. I think it’s horrible that schools are phasing out cursive. Our children and grandchildren will be the lesser for it.

    1. Hello Melissa,
      I am fascinated with the method you used earlier in your writing career. Have you ever considered using it again?
      If we’re lucky our educators will realize their mistake and add cursive and other subjects back into student’s curriculum.
      Thanks for your comments.

  4. I write everything out first when it comes to books and stories. Like you, I use it as a way to edit my writing. The manuscript doesn’t leave my computer until I’ve gone over it at least three times in three different ways – input, the re-reading of a chapter, and then the re-reading of the entire MS. Even then, there are errors–but at least I know I’ve sent it the best I could. In my first book, I found out – in re-reading the whole thing – that I’d left out an entire day. Oops…

    I like to write because my typing is so error-ridden; I spend too much time fixing typos, and I lose the flow of the story.

    1. Hi Kathy,
      It sounds like you have discovered a process that works for you. A friend told me early on in my writing career not to stop and fix typos as I went along. I found this to be great advice.
      Thank you for sharing your writing process.

  5. Maybe it was different here in New Zealand. We were taught “printing” when we first started school. Just plain printed letters with no linking between them. We learnt upper and lower case. Upper case letters were called “capitals” Once we got to about age 7 -8 they introduced the flowing linked style called cursive and we had to make the switch. I had been learning cursive for only about a year when a new education trend swept through classrooms. It was called “italics”. We all had to unlearn cursive and start again with italics. Italics was just printing but with a slant to the letters and “flicks” on each letter to partially join them to the next letter. The theory was the flicks led the hand on to the next letter but part of the joining loop was completed in the air, the idea being that it was faster for the pen to move through air than on the paper. Italics were also supposed to be more legible than cursive.
    In this country all the teachers who are too useless to actually teach, get promoted out of the classrooms and become “advisors” The government pays them better than the classroom teachers and to keep busy they have to dream up ways to fill their time, and what they do is they re-invent some “new” thing and make all the poor teachers learn some annoying new way of teaching basic stuff. Usually no proper research is done first to ensure the value of any changes. I have seen far worse changes made than this and be tested disastrously in our classrooms with the kids and the teachers being the losers. It gets tested on all the child guinea pigs who prove it useless within a year or two and then the advisors spend more time re-introducing the old way again as though they have just thought of some wonderful new system. So our education trends are constantly going round in stupid circles with both teachers and kids tearing their hair out with the unnecessary stress.
    Now they hardly focus on hand-writing at all. But during my teaching career, I have seen the most damaging educational experimentation being done on our children in the area of mathematics. Looking back on some of the crazy maths regimes that swept our classrooms, it’s no wonder our kids can’t do maths these days. I think the problem was the government would not invest in decent good solid expensive textbooks so instead they used some of the craziest maths teaching methods the advisors could dream up and the kids lost our big time.

      1. Hi Tui,
        Thank you so much for sharing your educational experience. I’m always interested in how children are educated in other parts of the world. The Finnish system is fascinating, and friends of mine who have been educated in Spain have had completely different experiences as well. I’m intrigued by the idea of children lifting their pen from the page and making a looping movement in the air. Reminds me a bit of Hogwarts. 😉
        As I said at the end of my post, I started this article with the idea that I would discuss the possible damage to children’s creativity by removing handwriting, which I refer to throughout as cursive, from the curriculum. Your experience shows that there are even crazier things going on in other countries. So, when you write with a pen which of the methods do you use?

    1. Yes! Spot on Tui. That ‘system’ of half-baked experimentation is the reason I left teaching so many years ago. The Australian education department must be very like yours. :/

  6. I teach a summer workshop in professional writing, and one of the exercises I use to get my participants’ creative juices flowing is a one-hour essay done in cursive – which is graded not only on content, but legibility. Drives them crazy at first, but when they’re done they all admit it helps them think more creatively and clearly. I’m not sure why, other than I know that when I write in cursive, my ideas flow more freely.

    1. Hi Charles,
      You are teaching exactly what I am advocating, a thoughtful, deliberate process designed to encourage deeper contemplation.
      Thanks for sharing your teaching method. 🙂

  7. Re:
    “JK Rowling prefers to write her first drafts by hand, as does Jackie Collins: her last manuscript topping out at a whopping 2000 pages of cursive. And Quentin Tarantino, the uber-talented creative genius, writes his screenplays by hand.”

    I’ve seen the handwritings of all three authors, at some length. NOT ONE of them is cursive, according to criteria commonly employed by those who exalt and recommend cursive handwriting.
    J. K. Rowling’s handwriting consists almost entirely of print-like letters, with only about 25% of them joining other letters.
    Jackie Collins’ handwriting — and signature — consists _entirely_ of print letters, with fewer than 10% of them joining other letters.
    Quentin Tarantino’s handwriting consists emtirely of unjoined print letters.
    Why do you use any — or all — of these print-form handwritings as an argument for cursive?

    1. Of the authors you list as evidence that cursive makes one creative, only ONE — Truman Capote — writes in a way that the exalters of cursive would regard as “cursive” when they saw it.
      Joyce Carol Oates writes in a print-like form, joining only about 15% of her letters — and her signature is entirely in printed form, joining _no_ letters.
      Vladimir’s handwriting, in English or Russian, is likewise printed in letter-form, joining only about 30% of its letters — I have not seen his Russian signature, but his English signature is _entirely_ printed in form, joining _no_ letters.

      Now please explain why you regard these handwritings (printing by creative people) as good examples for an article equating creativity and cursive.

      1. I might be misreading, but I believe Lois mentions those creative individuals as examples of people who write by hand at least for part of the writing process. The type of handwriting is less important than that they’re writing with their hands. I don’t think it’s odd to speculate about the possible benefits of using different mediums, if only to jolt the brain into thinking differently. I once did an exercise whereby I used my right hand to write (I’m a lefty) and the resulting piece sounded very little like my usual stuff.

        1. Hi David,
          Thank you for your erudite comment and for understanding the purpose of the post. I am currently tapping the computer keys with my big toes. It is slower and hell on my pedicure.

  8. What an interesting post. I don’t know whether cursive helps contribute to creativity or not, but I think you’re right in the assessment that it contributes to more deliberate writing.

    Back when I was writing for an ed tech publication, I talked to a researcher who was studying how computers affected essay tests. All students had to be proficient typists to make the comparison. What they learned was that typed essays were longer and more free flowing, and more rambling.

    The kids who wrote by hand wrote much less, but it tended to be more organized. Researchers though the issue was, in part, related to the brain calculating effort. If, on paper, you make a mistake, you’ve got to go through more effort to erase and correct it, so kids spent more time organizing their thoughts and thinking about what they wanted to say, so they could write it, and not have to take time correcting with an eraser, which is more labor intensive than the delete key.

    The computer students wrote more and let the thoughts flow and corrected later for coherency with cut and paste, but when they analyzed the value of the content, the handwritten students tended to have more umph.

    And this is all what I remember of the results. While its entirely possible I’m misremebering some part of the results, it’s definitely not on a Brian Williams level. 🙂

    I think there is more deliberation, but I don’t know if that makes people more creative. I think the visual aspect of being able to create charts, maps and diagrams on paper can help spur creativity.

    1. Hi RJ,
      Thanks for sharing this detailed study. I remember a plaque that sat on my bosses desk.
      Think A

      When I was in college we took our exams in blue books. At the time I never thought that one’s handwriting could be an advantage—or a disadvantage if the teacher couldn’t read it. 😉
      I was always one of the last students done in the class. As I said in my post, I’m methodical and don’t do anything quickly. My son takes his college exams on a computer and emails them.
      Poor Brian. I hope my memory never fails me on that level.

  9. An excellent article, Lois. Although I can’t claim to have beautiful handwriting, I agree with every point you have made. In terms of retention of information, there is certainly sufficient evidence to suggest that a handwritten element has multifaceted gains; the lack of this element is definitely obvious in the results of today’s education.

    My original method of writing was to hand write, read what I’d written onto a dictaphone, and then write on a typewriter. That method has made several changes along the way, not least the handwriting part; I have arthritis in my thumbs (damage from repeated injuries: broken and dislocated thumbs et cetera), making writing anything more than a couple of sentences uncomfortable initially, and then painful.

    1. Hi T.D.
      Thanks for sharing the development of your writing process. I’ve found that when I spend too much time on the keyboard my wrists act up. Hopefully my new experiment won’t reveal any other complications due to age. 😉

  10. An interesting subject, Lois. When I was young and wrote with a fountain pen, my penmanship was good. Once I started to use ballpoint pens, my writing began to deteriorate. Now that I’m much older, my fingers just won’t work the same, and I cannot write for long periods of time without pain or even difficulty holding the pen or pencil. And then I can’t read half of what I write. But I did write by hand when I started writing books because I didn’t have a computer, and it was difficult to correct mistakes on a typewriter . When I first tried to write directly on the computer, I drew a blank as big as the blank screen I was looking at. Now I have no problem just to begin to type. But I always print a copy and make corrections in pencil. Also if I am taking notes for anything, I use a pencil or pen as I don’t have a laptop. It can be a challenge if I use cursive, so often I simply use block print. Actually I am better at calligraphy than regular writing, but that takes longer. The first children’s books I wrote I did all of the actual text by hand to look a little like a child’s printing. None of the finished product was done on a computer before printing.

    1. Hi Diane,
      Thank you so much for sharing your writing process. I can imagine that it would be uncomfortable to write with a pen if you have arthritis, and that is where modern technology helps us. 🙂
      Have a great day and thanks for stopping by.

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