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  • Writer's pictureDiane deGroat

Becoming Ambidextrous



I am weirdly fascinated by handwriting. It amazes me how differently each person writes, while no one even thinks about how unique they are. When I was a kid, I was convinced that I was the only one in the world without a distinct writing style. My friend next door wrote with a back slant. My grandmother's writing had a bit of a flourish on the caps. My father never used cursive, but printed his letters. I sometimes imitated their writing, just for fun. I even tried to learn shorthand when I discovered a couple of stenographer's notebooks that my mother once used, and I wanted to explore this alien way of writing.


Of course It was a bit too much for a kid to absorb, and I quickly gave up trying, but you can guess why I would think that shorthand was a really cool thing to learn. If you've never seen Gregg shorthand, see the sample below. I have no idea what it says, but I hope it's not offensive...



I was born right-handed, like everyone else in my family, but once I started school, I was shocked to learn that left-handers existed. I was completely fascinated by them. They were special. They could easily do something I couldn’t do, and it wasn’t fair. So I started to write with my left hand. It took a lot of practice to do something that did not come naturally, but for reasons unknown, I was very motivated to do so.


I started by copying the cursive handwriting of the lefties in my class. I studied the way Kenneth P. wrote— sloooowly with a big fat pencil. Frank T. wrote with very tall ascenders. So I did too. I can still picture their elementary school handwriting on the lined newsprint paper. Not exactly a useful skill to have, but it seemed like a good way to spend my free time. I wasn't a reader. And we had only four channels on the TV set.


Coincidently, one of my first freelance jobs back in the 1970's was designing handwriting workbooks for the Zaner-Bloser company. It all came back to me—the perfect manuscript and cursive samples that would haunt kids for decades.




It's sad that some schools are thinking about eliminating cursive writing from their curriculum. Instead, many lower grade students are learning to touch-type on the computer.


I hunt and peck. Embarrassing for an author, I know, but somehow I get by.


At one point I tried to copy the way left-handed kids did their artwork, too. I was already recognized as a pretty good artist in my class, so my teacher was puzzled when the quality of my art took a sudden downturn. What was her problem? I was practicing being left-handed. OK—maybe Kenneth and Frank didn't draw as well as I could with my right hand, but I wanted to be special and different. Like the lefties. My teacher knew exactly what I was doing and gave me the stink eye. When I think about it now, It makes no sense that I would even go that route; my own art skills had made me special already.


Fortunately, I stopped copying the other kids and concentrated on developing my own art skills. But writing? I still occasionally write with my left hand, just for fun. Or maybe because I'm leaning on my right elbow doing the crossword puzzle and I'm too lazy to switch. Today, out of habit, I eat with my left hand, even when using chopsticks.


As a grownup, being ambidextrous became a parlor trick when I did author visits in schools and wanted to entertain the students during free time. If anyone asked, I joked that I learned how to write with my left hand, because if anything happened to my right one, I could still function as a writer and an artist, and that was really important to me. Actually, I wasn't joking. Keep reading.


A few years ago, arthritis in my thumbs made it painful for me to do some everyday activities, including drawing and writing. The end result was joint reconstruction. In both hands. (CMC arthroplasty. Look it up)



I had surgery on my right hand first, the dominant one, and suddenly I was left-handed for 8 weeks. Loss of my right hand was worse than anticipated. I wasn’t just left-handed, but one handed. I couldn’t use my right thumb at all with the splint on. Buttons and zippers were impossible to wear, and some necessities (like using a corkscrew!) required new methods of getting through the day with elbows and knees substituting for hands. I live alone and like to be independent, so I learned to drive with one hand (probably illegal), wear sports bras (no hooks), and open yogurt containers with my teeth.


But the real trial was drawing and painting lefty. I attend life drawing sessions a couple times a week, and didn’t want to miss them. I hadn't really used my left hand to make art since I was in third grade and got stink-eyed by the teacher, but now I had no choice. It was slow-going at first, and it hurt my brain, but after a week or two I was able to draw adequately, if not perfectly. Here's a lefty drawing:


If you haven't known this already, you can sometimes tell if a drawing was done by a lefty or righty. Notice that the shading lines on the above figure go from NW to SE, as that's the natural motion for a lefty to move on the paper.


Here's one of my righty drawings. You can see that the lines go naturally from NE to SW:


And here's a Da Vinci sketch. Yep, he was left handed.


Not all drawings are this clear at revealing handedness, but the next time you're looking at drawings, try to guess which hand was used. Note that some artists follow the contours with lines, or just use tones without lines, which will make it more difficult to guess:


Once I became comfortable drawing lefty with charcoal, I got back to oil painting—my other medium of choice. I wanted to get started on this portrait (below), but didn't want to wait 8 weeks for my right hand to heal. I found that painting lefty was easier than drawing lefty, as I had more control with a brush than with a charcoal pencil. Here's my lefty work in progress:


I'll finish this portrait with my new and improved right hand, now that the splint is off and I have pretty good range of motion. And no arthritis pain.


By the time you read this, I'll be two handed again, amazed that I got through this winter at all. But I'm grateful for the blessings. Grateful for sweatpants with elastic waistbands. Grateful for covid masks that hide faces without makeup. Grateful I've managed to stay independent. (Sort of.) Grateful I only have two hands, because I never learned to draw with my feet.


PS.:

In case being ambidextrous didn't make me special enough, I also learned how to write in mirror image. I taught my brain and hand to think in reverse and write so that it could only be read if held up to a mirror. I got the idea from reading about da Vinci. He used reverse writing in his sketchbooks. But don't bother trying to read it, unless you know 16th century Italian:

There is a theory he did it this way in order to prevent others from stealing his ideas. But if Leonardo was really concerned about that, he could have easily invented a secret code known only to him. It’s more likely that Leonardo was writing backwards because he was left-handed, and it was better to move from right to left to avoid smearing the wet ink with the hand that was writing.


I did it so I could show off.









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5 Comments


bruce.coville
Apr 13, 2023

This was fascinating - and fairly daunting, as I am pathetically right-handed. I am astonished at the transition you were able to make!

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Diane deGroat
Diane deGroat
Apr 13, 2023
Replying to

Thanks, Bruce. In my case it helps to teach the young dog the new tricks. Don't try this at 70...

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Barbara Verdon Conklin
Barbara Verdon Conklin
Apr 13, 2023

Diane, your talent has always shone bright ever since I knew you in grammar school And it still does. Thanks for a most informative and interesting read. So glad your surgery was successful!

p.s. remember the Dorset Inn?

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Diane deGroat
Diane deGroat
Apr 13, 2023
Replying to

Grammar School! What doesn't kill you makes you stronger...

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ingraha4
ingraha4
Apr 12, 2023

Wow, what an ordeal! I'm impressed with your ambidextrousness and I enjoyed your writing about it.

Erick

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