Pens — They’re Good for You

By Guest Blogger   |  13Comments|

Stephen King wrote “Dreamcatcher” in longhand — using a Waterman pen. J. K. Rowling penned “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” — all 157 pages of it — in longhand, and the leather-bound tome sold for an amazing $4 million at Sotheby’s. F. Scott Fitzgerald did it, as did Hemingway, Kafka and countless others, each of whom had access to either a typewriter or, later, a computer. They chose to put pen to paper and see where it took them. And that is perhaps the true magic of a pen: It transports us to unexpected places, on wings that require no more than a timely shot of ink to keep them aloft, destination unknown.

Call it inspiration. Call it creativity. Or just call it fun. But the mere action of writing by hand unleashes something powerful in our brains not easily accessed in any other fashion. And high-tech magnetic resonance imaging has indeed shown that low-tech writing by hand increases neural activity in certain sections of the brain, much like meditation. Writing is also good for keeping one’s gray matter sharp and may even influence how we think, as in “more positively.” Apparently sequential hand movements, like those used in handwriting, activate large regions of the brain responsible for thinking, language, healing and working memory. And if that isn’t enough, another often-overlooked benefit of writing by hand is that it just plain forces us to slow down and enjoy the moment — a novelty in today’s world where immediacy reigns.

Sounds good, right? So why not find a good pen and some perfect paper and get started? Sadly, we often become intimidated by our bad penmanship or our lack of anything “meaningful” to write about. That’s why I prefer the write-just-because-you-like-it mentality that says that whatever you produce need never see the light of day, as long as it makes your spirit soar. Some might consider this journaling, but that can have headier overtones. Maybe it’s better to consider it a no-strings-attached date with yourself. In fact, one stormy day not too long ago, when our electricity had gone out, as had the batteries on my computers, I did just that. I wrote by hand — by candlelight — for hours, about everything and nothing, and I’m not sure I’ve ever even re-read what I wrote. Was I inspired? Possibly. Were my neurons firing madly? I don’t have a clue. But I can tell you that it was a transportive experience, and one that I have often repeated just for the feel-good buzz. I felt like I’d tapped a direct line to my soul, even if just for a short time. And it felt good.

Letter writing, too, has a profound effect on one’s brain and psyche — whether you’re the writer or the recipient. Who can argue the qualities of a handwritten note to bring people together? Consider the love letters of John and Abigail Adams, or Winston and Clementine Churchill, or Robert and Elizabeth Browning, all of which have captured our imaginations for decades. But just as important as these torchy missives are the quotidian letters to and from family and friends. I came across a few of these not so long ago in a box in my attic. One was a chatty letter from my mother to her newly married-and-moved-away daughter (me). I remember how I’d look forward to those weekly letters in my mother’s uninhibited scrawl and the almost palpable affection tucked inside each one. Another note was from a high-school friend, also from a couple of decades ago, catching me up on all her day-to-day goings on, from career to kids to hobbies. It was written in perfect Catholic-girls-school Palmer penmanship. I think Virginia Woolf said it best when she called letter writing “the humane art.”

Writing by hand is a powerful tool for learning, relaxation, creativity and healing, and it’s an integral part of our culture. It offers insights and renewal, whether intended for anyone else’s eyes or not. But I fear it will soon be a lost art, as we succumb to the efficiencies of our computers — handheld or otherwise — or the apps on our iPhone. It’s been said that a pen compels lucidity. And lucidity, I believe, offers a different and often clearer perspective of dreams, goals, challenges and life in general. I’ll raise my pen to that, then quickly put it to paper.

Nancy Olson has been teaching and writing about handwriting and pens for over 20 years. She is currently editor of the Stylus Annual and her popular blog welcomes several thousand visitors per month.

Photo credit: Danielle Civello

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13 responses to Pens — They’re Good for You
  1. I totally agree about writing with a pen versus a computer. For me it is like meditation. I just write with no need to make any sense or even re-read it. Great article :)

  2. Great article, Nancy! I shared it on my FB fan page and on my Twitter feed. Thanks for sharing this insight into the art of writing by hand with us! :-)

  3. What a lovely post. I heartily agree! I find it delightful to write with fountain pens in particular, and wrote about that here: http://thetanglednest.com/2011/03/fountain-pens-for-everyday-join-me-in-a-writing-revolution/ Thanks for helping to keep the essential art of writing-by-hand alive.

  4. Looove the article!! How thought provoking…and perhaps…the act of writing is so compelling because it enables us to become both the speaker and listener…What a great feeling!

  5. My “voice” is totally different when I write longhand. I don’t do my fiction longhand, but with the exception of my dreams the journal is in notebooks scattered around the house.

    I can’t do the fiction longhand because I lose track of what I was thinking before I get a full sentence out. My brain just moves too fast. For pure quantity, the computer. For me-time, notebook.


  6. Great article and so true. I may be ‘old school’ with an emphasis on the ‘old’, but there is nothing like using a writing implement to put your thoughts on paper. Back in the day I used to get awards for my penmanship. In fact in elementary school, I remember the little porcelain ink pot and pen. Working in schools as I do, it is obvious to me that those days of beautiful handwriting are gone. It is such a shame. Maybe Nancy can start a revolution.

    Of course I am also one of those who loves to curl up with a real book, not a Kindle, and I print out anything of any length that I need to read rather than try to make sense of it on a screen. Lets all chant… “Bring back the pens! Bring back the pens!”

  7. Thanks for the kind words, fellow writing lovers! I apologize that the link to my site is not working at the moment…please use nancyolsonink.blogspot.com in the interim.

  8. Great post! I recently began writing in a journal and I completely agree with what you have said! I definitely experience the “feel-good buzz” you mentioned everytime i sit down to write :)

  9. Writing letters and keeping a diary is almost a lost art but there is hope on the horizon. People are once again understanding the value of writing and enjoying the writing experience. Great essay.

  10. Writing letters and keeping a diary is almost a lost art but there is hope on the horizon. People are once again understanding the value of writing and enjoying the writing experience. Great essay.

  11. Yes! A beautiful article. I use writing in the morning to “empty me out” before I begin my day.I plop down my concerns, hopes, and reminders. It’s like taking dictation from my inner spirit. It takes me to a higher, calmer place. It keeps me feeling steady all day. I also journal quickly before bed, to remind myself how grateful I am for another day to love, and be loved. It’s such an easy practice, and keeps me grounded connected to that quiet, rich inner life. I also write weekly letters to one close friend who doesn’t use a compter. (She could be the last one…but it’s one reason I adore her!) Oh, the joy of finding lovely, quality paper and pens to express myself, Write On, people!

  12. Wonderful!

  13. Couldn’t agree more. Handwriting has “tangible” energy. Physically impossible to handwrite the same words, the same way due to the energy…the connection to the brain. Great blog.