Pens are designed to be pulled along paper, allowing the ink to dry as the nib moves forward and away. For the left-handed writer this is no easy task. We push the pen along. It snags and judders. Pressure cannot be applied. Ink sputters from the end of the nib as it fights to stay together. The slim metal halves opening slightly as it forges its path, it will not know the comfort of the effortless pull and glide.
Studies on left handers have shown they are more susceptible to lifelong psychological problems, depression, schizophrenia, ADHD and autism. Left handed girls are rarer than left handed boys. My sister and I are the only left-handed members of the family. We were united in our oddity.
Aged thirty-four I was recommended to have tests for ADD and autism. Initial results indicated I have both conditions. I decided that I have overcome so much without these labels I would remain with the one I preferred to own … weird.
Health visitors explained my mind was too busy. Over stimulated. That’s why my imagination terrified me in my dreams. It ran riot. It still does. I obsess over things, always have. Most obsessions ended quickly. A flurry of intense interest that flat lined at its peak. I could read secondary level prior to starting primary school. I didn’t realise this wasn’t normal. Words led to worlds where I fitted, or I could disappear into realms that I could never otherwise imagine. When my imagination was fed, my anxieties were lessened. I was absorbed into literature.
My love for animals and nature, history, learning and creativity has never waned. Music classes came and went as most instruments catered for the right handed. Roller skates caused too much blood, Brownies and Drama Club were abandoned as my clumsiness became a focus of ridicule. I became frustrated, withdrawn, aware of my ineptitude. Why couldn’t I do simple things? I had to ask for help with buttons, with unscrewing bottles, whilst those around me flaunted their dexterity. I struggled with words. Lines disappeared in my hands. I couldn’t see what was happening. Words became lost, smudged away by the side of my hand and smeared across my pages. A darken oval proof if the pencils movement onto my skin. The joy books and words brought me created further anxieties. Would I ever be understood? My marks are ineligible. Illegible. I relied on speech.
I’ve never been elegant, delicate, lacking in grace from birth. Words came easily. I spoke at seven months, not the generic Mum and Dad nonsense. Instead, my first word was ‘pretty’. Christmas was punctuated by my words. I didn’t try them unless I had formed them fully in my jellylike infantile brain. Highly intelligent, advanced, but I didn’t fit. My brain too busy for its body, for the developmental stages, graphically plotted by the health visitor and educators. My parents didn’t sleep, neither did I know the full eight hours until at least seven years old. Overactive imagination causes heightened anxiety and nightmares. Terrors I couldn’t articulate. A world that didn’t make sense. I was considered unusual. I had an imaginary friend. Joey. He was my playmate, equal, co-conspirator and confidante. He was obviously invisible because he had been cursed by an evil witch in another land. But he was included and had a seat in our treehouse and at the table.
Clumsy, awkward, cack-handed. The only left-handed pupil in my class. Simple tasks required the capabilities of a contortionist. Scissors with metal blades were out of bounds. Reading a ruler correctly was impossible, I became expert at subtraction. I could not write as I could not see what I had written. At school my paper was taped to the desk to stop me turning it like I did at home. The desire of my teacher was that I was to conform. I was not special. At home I created. I made marks that made sense in a convoluted twisted fashion. Curling wrist and paper I could see the marks I was making. And I was understood. I filled pads with words and pictures that eluded me at school. There was magic in my scrawl as it became rounded and smooth, so unlike the angular squashed scratchings rendered between nine and three thirty. Rushed and panicked to get down a phrase whilst it was fresh in my mind.
I was not allowed pens because of the mess I made. Years spent wielding a black and yellow striped HB. This is still the only pencil I consent to use.
Pencils are more forgiving than ink. They are erasable. But I never use them sharp. Always slightly blunt the newly sharpened point, gently round it. Now it can move with much less risk. Grey, pale grey marks snake cautiously across a carefully ruled line. Crisp, black and three centimetres apart they run parallel across the page. In between these lines my words are meant to fit. With the paper taped immobile to the desk top I could not see them beneath my fingers clenched around that pencil.
Pencil smudges. I would lightly touch it to the paper to try and stop this. To stop the smear of my awkward left-hand ruining what I had painstakingly written so light it was barely visible. The grey patch on the side of my hand grew darker. Evidence of the words illegible on the page. My letters would trespass over their predetermined perimeters. My handwriting never improved.
As others were presented with a Berol Handwriting pen I stayed stoically with my black and yellow pencil. A baton of shame amongst the plastic-lidded tools of my classmates. I coveted that pen. That plastic cylinder with its blue pointed tip and a lid that snicked on and off. I agonised over it. I practised with any pen I could get my hands on. Ink smears and is not erasable. The side of my hand became a mottled collage of black and blue smudges which I would rub onto my clothes to hide my failure.
Mrs Cousins was a woman you tried to obey. The evil stepmother in all the fairy tales. She was the ultimate harridan. The villain in my story. The inspiration for Miss Trunchbull, Professor Umbridge with a dash of the Witch of the Waste thrown in. She was contained in a uniform of tweed and jumpers knitted by goblins with roughly spun wool with a bit of barbed wire and camels hair thrown in for good measure. I weaved her tale as Rumpelstiltskin spun straw. Here was a woman with an iron heart to match her rivet-welded underwear. She creaked when she walked, breathed heavily and analysed her subjects through steel-framed glasses which homed in on every insecurity and eccentricity dwelling within these small malleable children. I was doomed.
My accidental misdemeanours hung like a neon sign above my head, a huge pulsating arrow singling me out for special attention. Systematically I was broken down. My quirks and inabilities highlighted and used as an example. A day without being allowed to write with my left hand on Victorian day culminated in a dunce’s hat, but at least being in the corner meant I was out of the way. My imagination was quelled, enthusiasm boxed and shelved. I knew I was a ‘weird child’, and already a perfect target for bullies without the authority figure signalling oddities to taunt. My inability to grasp the concept of left and right, my prodigious grasp of language and empathy and fascination with any little living thing was openly mocked. I was clumsy, lefthanded awkwardness meant I was either a goal post or stop watch monitor rather than active participant. I lost myself in books, in sentient creatures both dead and alive, art and David Attenborough documentaries.
Children are cruel, adults more so. Adults in a position of power can be tyrannical. Mrs Cousins was the cause of many sleepless nights. Her reprimands and disapproval echoed in the ears of those around.
Do you want everyone to think you’re stupid? Everyone else can do it. I thought you would have learnt by now.
I was not stupid. I was advanced, I could articulate, reason, expand upon answers. I just struggled to write. I hoped she would one day be taken away and get her comeuppance. A demise fitting for a wicked witch or evil stepmother. I believe she retired. A carriage clock with engraved dates ticks away upon a mantle.
I painted and drew prolifically. Colours, textures and shapes were a language I could master. The only perimeters being the edge of that page.
My grandfather was an artist, musician, craftsman. He spent hours trying to teach my backward fingers to make sounds as well as shapes. Music was a language I loved but could not create. A variety of lessons were booked and abandoned. Instruments gathered dust.
One day, he presented me with a small box. Elongated. Simple. It was the start of summer. I had graduated to metal scissors, sewing needles and biro. This is new, he told me, and this will be difficult, harder than anything else so far. Because this will make you think because you will want to succeed at this. This tiny thing is the best weapon against everyone who doesn’t believe you can. Inside on a soft fabric board, held with black elastic was a pen. It was the length of my hand, wrist to fingertip. The girth of my fourth finger. Sleek, silver in colour, tapered at the end. Cold to the touch but filled with energy and promise.
My grandad handed me belief that I was capable and worthy of beautiful writing. He handed me the tool that made me want to prove those who had kept me at pencil level wrong. I was ten.
A cartridge pen poses difficulties when you’re not able to unscrew things easily. Let alone insert and apply correct pressure to said cartridge. I spent my summer ink spattered, smudged. Mechanics’ blackened fingernails had nothing on mine as I toiled away and retaught myself writing. Free expression where before there was struggle is a wonderful thing. Overcoming inability, problem solving, alternative thinking. Apparently, the traits of the lefthanded population. Necessity is the mother of invention. Turning the page means that I can see what I’m doing. I write completely horizontally. I also turn the page, so the lines track uphill. A 45-degree angle which allows my writing to elongate and slant. A spider dipped in ink saunters across the page.
I returned to school, and to a different class. There were no pencils. There were no taped down pages.
I am invariably ink stained, be it from pen, tattoo machine or brush stroke.
My pen is central to my writing. It is still present in each notebook, letter, diary. It has travelled with me and recorded my world. These clumsy hands have glided thousands of miles on a puddle of ink over paper.
Words still haunt my dreams. I wake with sentences emblazoned across my psyche. They are momentous, exciting and I forget them by morning. Notebooks litter my spaces. I am a stationery hoarder. In the darkness I reach for a prepositioned notebook and pen. Find a page and hope it will be legible. Pages with layers of letters as ideas have stacked up. A lattice of words I muster and keep. I no longer dwell in childhood make believes. The lines between hero and villain are layers like my three am pages. The devils sits upon my left shoulder. Ink gathers on the side of my left hand. I am powerful with it. The pen is mightier than the sword. I am fully armed.
Delia Pring enjoys experimentation, toying with the malleable form of the essay to produce work that cannot comfortably reside within a specific category. She contributes regularly to The Write Life and The Blue Nib. She completed her MA in 2019 and lives in Devon.