Writing Pains

By Jonathan Heywood

May, 2011

Written language is something quintessentially human, a unique trait that separates us from most every other species on the planet. It allows us to communicate with others, find reverence in poetic beauty and, ultimately, is the basis for much of our conscious thought. But what happens when the physical act of writing becomes an excruciating experience in the expectations of society, rather than a joyous reflection on society’s advancement? What happens when one feels pain in a simple act of manual dexterity? What happens when one cannot write?

 For as long as I can remember, writing by hand has been a struggle. From penning simple words to weaving complex phrases, the use of pencil and paper is something I generally try to avoid. This is not due to a simple preference, but to dysgraphia, an inability or inefficiency in writing legibly and/or coherently. While I am capable of writing by hand, inefficiency is the perfect descriptor of my penmanship.

The Early Years

As I believe would be true for most individuals, my memories of years prior to age ten are few and far between. This might seem odd coming from me, as I am only 17 years of age; however, the lack of memories before the attainment of a decade still seems to hold true. When thinking about dysgraphia, the oldest of my memories to surface are most often those surrounding my transition from the often isolated world of homeschooling into the more social situations of a private school. This transition occurred upon my entry into the sixth grade.

During my time homeschooling, I very rarely, if ever, thought about my writing. The demands of a normal school changed all that. I realized that the difficulty I saw and experienced in writing was not universal throughout my peers; indeed I was the only one who appeared to find discomfort in the penning of a sentence. For the first time, I was experiencing the social implications of my manual illiteracy. These social implications were most often not brought on by others, but by my own feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment. I would try at all costs to avoid having to write in the presence of others, simply because I thought that my writing, or at least its legibility, was shameful.      

The Help of Technology

Had it not been for a handy piece of technology called an Alphasmart, I would likely never have broadened beyond the world of homeschooling. With the aid of this dedicated word processor, effectively a keyboard with a small screen, I was able to expand beyond the bounds that I found came hand-in-hand with my penmanship. The Alphasmart enabled me to express ideas in words and sentences at the rate at which they came to mind, something I had previously not experienced. When writing by hand, I would often forget the latter portions of a thought before writing them down. With the Alphasmart, ideas flowed freely from mind to keyboard. Where I had previously dreaded writing, I now found myself looking forward to it. My eyes had been opened to a whole new way of expressing creativity — through words. While the Alphasmart was certainly an abundantly useful device, I soon progressed to a higher level of technology.

To me, a laptop computer had seemed the obvious choice since the beginning of my time in private school; however, the Alphasmart was for some reason a mandatory intermediate step. In truth, a laptop is little different than an Alphasmart. Sure, a laptop can access the Internet and run a few more programs, but for the purpose of composing ideas with words there is little difference. The laptop allowed for a continuance of my ever-growing passion for words and inspired me to learn more about how to weave them together in original and effective ways. For a variety of reasons, I returned to homeschooling midway through seventh grade.  

New Opportunities

The return to the homeschooling life eased many of my worries about my writing. I no longer had to contend with feelings of embarrassment about the illegibility of my hand-written words. This was primarily due to the fact that I never had to write by hand, but also in part to the lack of potential for peer-born criticism. Life more or less continued with ease for several years, I had few worries about the implications of my dysgraphia, and very rarely wrote with pen and paper. These years were, however, not devoid of writing within the realm of a keyboard. In addition to what writing might be expected of schooling, I wrote a column for our local Audubon Society chapter for a little over a year, which generated further development of my creative use of the English language. Afterwards, I found myself seeking new opportunities for mental enrichment. I discovered them at the local university; but universities require standardized test scores for admittance, tests which often require a great deal of writing.

My first thoughts of standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, were those of fear. I didn’t know how much my dysgraphia would affect my scores. Would I find it impossible to get acceptable scores due to my difficulty with the written word? Would I break down entirely? The answer to those questions would be a resounding no! The first time I took the ACT I was most grateful that the essay section is optional. Though the information (e.g. address, name, etc.) that needed to be filled in at the beginning of the test was surely difficult, I managed to get through it without too much heartache. Filling in the answer bubbles caused a slight soreness of the hand, but I managed a respectable score. The result was admittance to the local university.

University classes, I found, leave more room for personal preference in the area of manually writing ideas down. If you don’t want to take notes, you don’t have to. But what about classes that require you to write something down on paper for an in-class assignment? While I am speaking from limited experience — I have only been attending the university for a few semesters — I find that the need for in-class writing is minimal. When the writing becomes too much, most teachers seem quite understanding. However, I now find myself taking more notes in class than I would have ever imagined, due in large part to the difficulty of taking math notes with a computer. If you haven’t tried it, it’s beyond cumbersome to the point of nearly impossible. There have been occasional instances in which I find embarrassment with the illegibility of my writing in university classes, for example when it is necessary for someone else to be able to read my notes; but I believe I have matured enough that it no longer effects me. (This ever-growing maturity also tells me to avoid a pent-up rant on the terminally ill system of standardized testing.)

You might think that taking the ACT once and getting admitted to a university would be enough; but the local university, while an excellent institution, isn’t where I ultimately see myself going. Thus, I attend as a non-degree-seeking student. This means that I will apply as a freshman elsewhere, which requires more comprehensive, optimally higher, standardized test scores. It also requires facing the intimidating essay portions of the ACT and SAT. After learning that most colleges don’t care about the essay portion anyway, I managed to make it through the essays of both the SAT and ACT. Undoubtedly, the scorers had to expend three to four times more effort than normal to grade my essays simply to decipher my writing, but perhaps that’s why I scored above average on both tests. I also managed to raise my composite ACT score by leaps and bounds, something highly gratifying.  

Some Final Thoughts on Dysgraphia

In the end, the continuing pervasiveness of technology in all areas of society will likely continue to decrease the everyday necessity of penmanship. It’s probably a safe guess that it will take a while for signatures to phase out, if they ever do, but this is a little detail of writing that can easily be dealt with.

Will I ever be able to write normally? I doubt it, but I really don’t care. If it hadn’t been for dysgraphia, I would have missed out on countless opportunities for personal growth and maturity. If it hadn’t been for dysgraphia, I might not understand others the way I do. If it hadn’t been for dysgraphia, I wouldn’t be who I am.


Jonathan Heywood

Jonathan is currently 17 and attending classes at the University of Nevada, Reno. He was approved to “sit in” on a math class there at 15, and was admitted as a non-degree-seeking student at 16. Besides writing, Jonathan’s primary passions are ornithology, photography, and medical research. Other interests include violin, piano, biking, hiking, and gardening.

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