Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Left and Right

I am a strong lefty, with a very large writer’s bump on my middle finger and a bend in my nail. Yet I type – very fast – one-handedly with my right hand, with only the very occasional aid of my left hand, usually not necessary but rather a concession to the idea that both hands should be employed at the keyboard. My typing practice without fail freaks people out when they see it for the first time, even when I explain how useful it can be: I can use my left hand to hold the phone, sift through papers and even once, on a dare from a colleague, eat lunch while continuing to take notes at a meeting. Taking notes is a much larger subject that I should revisit in a later post. Yes, I have been typing all of my blog entries in the way just described.
How did I come to do this? The evolution of my technique was doubtlessly aided by the fact that I am a pianist, so the idea of having each hand do something different was not foreign to me. Most importantly I came of age at the dawn of the computers’ wide-spread adoption in educational realms. All through elementary school I hand-wrote (and occasionally watched my father type on his Yiddish type-writer, though at home he much preferred to write by hand. This seems the appropriate place to mention that his hand-writing was incredibly tiny and neat, just as mine is – shockingly so in both English and Hebrew - see photo above) my work. In high school I did acquire a type-writer; my school realized almost at the last minute that my class could not graduate without a basic course in computer skills so they required us to take it during our free time; the classes below mine already had it embedded in their regular curriculum schedule and requirements. While sitting at the type-writer I developed the habit of flipping through my notes and drafts with my left hand so that I could write to myself additional notes as needed. As I did this I typed up my final versions with my right hand and thus the process was born. It continued when I went to college and went to the computer rooms to produce my papers for submission. I was not a great fan of the computer room and did much of my creative work elsewhere; this meant that I came to the machine with written papers in hand. I resisted buying a computer of my own until my senior year. By that time my habits were set and worked well enough that I saw no need to change them.
While I am perfectly comfortable with these habits and their mechanical ease I often wonder about the repercussions of my system in terms of how my brain works: if my right brain is dominant but not involved in the production of that which I type what does that say about my computer output? What of the general understanding that the left brain is logical and the right creative? Should I be engaging in creative writing by hand and only typing when I am producing copy for consumption by others? All of this musing is working on the assumption that my brain is wired typically; there are lefties who are left-brain dominant. I often write out notes at early points in projects. I also still keep a hand-written journal, as I have since I was twelve, and generally use it to process random thoughts and impressions of the day, something akin to the Morning Pages that Julia Cameron describes in her book The Writer’s Way, which I finally read only a short while ago. If attending a lecture I prefer to take hand-written notes as I listen; it helps me both process and stay focused. I can also write about other things if I am not sufficiently engaged by the presentation. If I am going to be preparing official notes from a meeting then I prefer to type and not have to re-do them later. Writing by hand is also appealing because of its sensual nature: the feel, texture and color of the materials and the movement entailed, much more elegant and languorous then typing. The sound always makes me think of the somber clicking of an old-fashioned machine that used to serve as theme music for 1010WINS, the main news radio station in New York, in the days when serious reporting would not employ any bells or whistles. I confess that until recently creative thinking did not come as naturally to me when I typed, but there are so many possible contributing factors that I could not be sure if it meant anything beyond an unconscious connection between typing and work as opposed to pleasure or expression. That dichotomy is also somewhat forced or false. Is my voice different in the two media? I think not really at this point, but it would be interesting to devise experiments to explore the question.
I always note lefties in my orbit; at Interlochen nine of my sixteen cabin mates were lefties, a shock but perhaps not a surprise at an arts camp. I mused that if I had returned I would have asked the camp if it were possible to poll the entire student body to see what the overall percentage was. Our current and a disproportionate number of recent presidents all share the trait. Life for lefties is difficult as many of the design details of our lives are fashioned for lefties: keys, doorknobs, etc. It is easier sometimes to learn to use one’s right hand, as my father was forced to do when he was a child. He ended up being ambidextrous, which may account at least in part for how unbelievably prolific he was. I did wonder this about him as well – was he in some way different when writing with each hand? He did type with both hands, but he never learned to use a computer.
Photo courtesy of Lucy Raubertas,
©2009 Leah Strigler


Lucy said...

I like the very quiet typing sounds that a computer keyboard makes. It sounds like the thoughts marching out of your head one after the other, a little like miniature footsteps/fingersteps.

Flora said...

Impressive handwriting - I should take lessons from you! Mine used to be a nice smooth cursive, but years of taking hurried notes in lecture halls turned it into a scrawl that looks like the ominous messages written on walls and mirrors in horror movies - obviously the work of a deeply disturbed person. I am a strong lefty too, although I do some things mainly with my right hand - or leg - as the task calls for.

I don't type in the conventional way either, so the computer keyboard was the best thing that ever happened to my writing!

illadvisedhammer said...

My dad's lefty, I'm righty, with a dull backstory, but the genetics of handedness was recently worked out by Amar Klar, with inheritance that is simple, but not obvious. Apparently handedness, and hair-whorl direction are controlled by the same single locus, using a variation on recessive inheritance; random recessive inheritance. If one is homozygous lefty, it is random what handedness and hair whorl direction one will have. Heterozygotes and homozygote righties will be righty.

Ask Leah said...

I remember the sound of WINS - 1010 AM news station when I was a child. It was that typewriting tapping; no dramatic music then.
Flora - thanks! But it really is too small. It is/was not always so neat either - depends on the pen, paper, angle, my speed, etc. I seem to use my right leg more, which is odd.
Mr. Hammer - thanks for the scientific update! how weird that it is connected to hair whorl. I wonder about the pairing of brain dominance with handedness and if that is also inherited. I would guess yes.