Left/Write: On being a Southpaw

It’s not always easy being left-handed in a right-handed world.

leopard-84080_1280I’ve never mentioned it before on my blog, but, in common with only around 10-12% of people, I’m left-handed.

At school, I was tormented for my left-handedness – but never by fellow pupils. My junior school was overseen by a psychotic headmaster with Victorian attitudes and a bullying streak that would have seen him shamed in today’s education system. In the 1960’s, the fact that he would, scarlet-faced with explosive rage, blood-vessels bursting from his neck, physically terrorise pupils who fell short of his most exacting standards, was considered acceptable. Parents did not feel burdened to look beyond the high academic standards the school achieved.

The curse of cursive

This terrifying man would teach Penmanship to classes of 8-11 year olds.

My problems arrived as we graduated from pencils to an antiquated pen-and-inkwell combination – his view being that everyone should be able to master the skill of writing in traditional cursive style, using a pen and ink. We were each allocated a wooden pen holder and a single pen nib. Our desks held inkwells in the top right-hand corner. We would all dread our Penmanship lessons – they were terrifying for anyone with even slightly ham-fisted handwriting.

blackboard-209152_1280As a left-hander, my fear was intensified by the helplessness of my situation. For a left-hander, it’s all but impossible to use a pen-and-ink without smudging every line and spattering your paper with ink. As a right-hander working from left to right across the page, you’re pulling your pen along, and the ink flows smoothly out from the tip of the nib. With a left hander, the pen is pushed. It catches the paper, it pings and splashes. And, as your writing hand follows immediately in the wake of wet ink, you bear the added trial of having to avoid smudging every word as you write it across the page. I failed, time and again, to produce work of the required standard and was repeatedly pilloried for my shortcomings. I was made to feel there was something deficient about me, because I’d been born left-handed.

We’re a sinister bunch

My old headmaster’s persecution of lefties isn’t without precedent. At various times in history, left-handedness has been seen as some pretty dreadful things: the mark of the devil and a sign of neurosis or criminality for example. The word sinister, as in… creepy, disturbing, evil, menacing… is the Latin word for left. And in olde English, the word left arises from the Anglo-Saxon word lyft, which means weak or broken. Even in modern language the bias lingers; a left-handed compliment is actually a criticism or insult.

Ambi… ambi… what?

Like many left-handers, I have some right-handed and some ambidextrous behaviours (no smirking in the back row please).

guitar-170066_1280-2As a child, sport worked mostly in my favour. I played hockey right-handed, due to the lack of left-handed hockey sticks back in the 1970’s. I played tennis with a racket in my left hand but could do a quick swap to my right hand when a left-handed backhand was out of reach.

Then there was the learning of musical instruments. I could cope with the piano but when it came to the clarinet I had to sit and grip it between my knees, as my stronger arm, my left, was at the top of the instrument, not the bottom, making it feel too unstable to hold. But I was okay with the guitar. I know some left-handed guitar players invert their strings and play with the neck of their guitar to the right, but I learned right-handed (the ‘normal’ way) and that seemed to work for me.

My mother once tried to teach me knitting, and when I couldn’t naturally grasp the required motions, she found a left-handed friend to teach me. I went from working left-to-right (or perhaps it was the other way around) to swapping entirely but neither approach felt right. I would start in one direction, then put down my needles, and pick them up again and set off in the other direction. The results were confusing and to this day, I’ve never managed to get to grips with knitting.

artwork-216479_1280Whilst I use a knife and fork combo in the traditional way (fork to the left, knife to the right), I use a spoon in my left hand. I try to avoid desserts which require two utensils because using a spoon in my right hand makes me look like a toddler shovelling mush into my mouth – not pretty at all.

I used to wear a watch on my left wrist, because that’s what everyone does, but it gets in the way as I write, catching on the edge of the desk and being generally uncomfortable, so nowadays, I hardly ever wear a watch at all.

Puzzlingly for some, I use a computer mouse in my right hand. But I have a tendency to put cards in envelopes in such a way that when a right-handed person pulls them out, they’re upside-down.

What about the… who?

We left-handers have never mobilised like other minorities. We don’t have pressure groups and alliances, annual marches or colourful branding. We haven’t bemoaned the unfairness or bias we encounter. We just get on with it.

But the truth is, when it comes to industrial design, the southpaws of this world are frequently forgotten, with handles, buttons, switches and levers favouring the right-handed community.

Many smaller tools are designed for right-handers – scissors, can openers, vegetable peelers, serrated kitchen knives for example. It’s thanks to shops like Anything Left Handed that those left-handers who struggle more than I do with right-handed cutting implements have somewhere to go to find tools that work for them. Many left-handers just make do with the right-handed versions and adapt their techniques – as do I. As a paper crafter, it’s tricky to cut stuff out neatly with my set of precision right-handed scissors, because I can’t actually see the line I’m cutting. But I’ve got used to how right-handed scissors work in my hands, and where I need to line up to cut and I wonder, if I ever took hold of a pair of left-handed scissors, whether I would be able to adapt.

I saw an article today in the news about some new open-plan office ‘pods’ designed to give people privacy and a sense of insulation as they worked in open-plan environments. You can see them here. I thought they were a fascinating concept, but it was immediately obvious that these pods are designed for right-handers. I scanned the promotional material but I couldn’t see any reference to a reversed version for left-handers.

But it’s not all bad

Although this is disputed (ahem… perhaps by all those right-handers), left-handers are supposed to be more introverted, intelligent and creative. Far be it for me to disagree. Apparently in left-handed people the connections between right and left brain are faster, meaning – apparently – that we can deal more effectively with multiple stimuli. That sounds nice, whatever it means.

moon-landing-60582_1280The worlds of art, music, drama and literature are filled with left-handers. There’s a great list of 1000 left-handers here including all manner of famous names, and a few infamous ones too.

The list of left-handed presidents of the USA is disproportionate (eight out of 44) and includes Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H W Bush, Bill Clinton and, latest to join the list, Barack Obama. And space is disproportionately southpaw too – one in four Apollo astronauts were left-handed.

But because this is (mostly) a blog about writing, I’m giving special mention to a few left-handed authors: Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, Franz Kafka, Mark Twain and H G Wells.

Are you a Southpaw?

I’m curious. Statistically, 10-12% of the readers of this blog will also be left-handed. Are your experiences the same as mine? Have you grappled with anything in this right-handed world – implements, skills or activities? Have you found ways around those challenges?

If you’re an author (right or left-handed), have you ever written a character to be specifically left-handed? And if so, why?

I’d love to open up the comments section for all things left-handed and have a lively debate, so please, do share.

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Author: Jools

Abundant, Bold, Confident, Determined, Empathetic, Forthright, Grumpy, Healthier, Individual, Just me, Kind, Loving, Mellifluous, Natural, Optimistic, imPatient, Quirky, Real-world, Single-minded, unTreatable, Unwound, Verbal, Wilful, eXtraordinary, Young and old, Zero-tolerance.

35 thoughts on “Left/Write: On being a Southpaw”

    1. You’ll notice some left-handlers hold their pens strangely, or curl their hands over and around their writing – both to overcome the basic problem of writing left to right, not right to left. I just abandoned implements based around wet ink as soon as I was able.

  1. Thanks for letting us know what it’s like to be a leftie. We all need to be aware of it, because those of us who are righties take so many of these things for granted. I never thought about having to struggle with a can-opener or other kitchen appliances. How frustrating that must be. My mother-in-law was a leftie, but she was the only one in our family who was. It strikes me as funny that so many foods are shifting their recipes to be ‘glutten-free’ when only a small percentage of the population is truly intolerant to gluten (even though many more people than need to shun the grains from their diet), and yet few companies modify their products for lefties, who are a much greater proportion of the population. Definitely gives me some food (gluten or gluten-free…) for thought.

    1. Like I said, we lefties have never mobilised nor campaigned, nor effectively pled our case for ‘equal rights’. We can’t really expect the right-handed majority to adapt whilst we silently bear the inconveniences and impositions of our sinister state, can we? 😉

  2. I am also left-handed! Lefties unite!! I inherited it from my grandfather. It’s affected my handwriting and a few other things, but for the most part I am proud of being left-handed, a trait I know we share with many comedians and U.S. presidents.

  3. How long did it take you to get over the trauma imposed by that horrible, sadistic headmaster? Thank goodness there is more tolerance in the world of education these days. I have two friends who are lefties, and they are not introverted at all!

    1. Sometimes I wonder if I ever got over it. I have – I think, as a result of those experiences – an over-acute awareness, even fear, of authority. It’s a ‘child’ response that surfaces in the ‘adult’ me. This was the first man I ever truly feared in my life – not the best experience for an 8 or 9 year old. I’m glad that things in education are so different today.

      1. Agreed. It takes deep work to reprogram fear, if at all possible. I have a similar response whenever I make a ‘mistake’ – knee jerk reaction is I will be ‘punished.’ Even though I have awareness and can assure myself all is well, that initial reaction still pops up. All we can do is ‘work’ on it gently and lovingly. I think your post is good for raising that awareness. 🙂

        1. Thank you. It’s made me think again about it too – and whilst these are uncomfortable thoughts, it’s helpful to better understand what happened and the effects is had.

  4. My mother was left-handed (I’m very right handed) so now I can only use scissors left handed as hers were left-handed for cutting material and she taught me with them. When I started getting back ache at my computer the physio said use the mouse n my left hand which I taught myself to do. It worked really well.

    1. I’ve tried to use a left-handed mouse – once when I suffered a period of RSI. But having used a right-handed one ever since they were invented, it was too much of a struggle. I resorted to a right-handed vertical mouse for a while but luckily my RSI cleared up.

      Scissors are quite a thing. I didn’t realise for ages that right-handed people could actually see where they were cutting! I’m used to judging roughly where the line might be – probably much the same as your experience using left-handed scissors!

      Thanks for joining the conversation and welcome to my blog. 🙂

  5. As a child, I had read that handedness related to the opposing side of the brain, and I thought, that if only I learned to write better with my left hand, then my math skills might improve. So I practiced and practiced to no avail. (You can see it did nothing for my logic center either.) It wasn’t until I broke my right thumb while taking an intensive dictation/language course that I was moderately successful in taking the most laborious and badly scribbled left-handed writing imaginable. So, my hat goes off and my heart goes out to those poor corrie-fisted amongst us who were forced to fake their way through school in the days when right-handed writing was compulsory.

    1. Wow, interesting that you tried so hard to be left-handed. As a child I’d have done anything to be right-handed. As it is today, I am vaguely legible with my right hand, but I have to think so hard about how to form the letters, and many will come out back-to-front. But I’m safe today. In days gone by, I might have been burned at the stake for my ‘sinister’ leaning!

  6. By the way, I just read a related article in Alternative Health (not entirely positive, I’ll warn you) about being left-handed. The uptick I found was that there is a holiday that celebrates left-handedness–August 13th. You’ll have to fly to England to celebrate, but that seems a small price to pay for a day of your very own. Let’s just hope it doesn’t fall on a Friday.

    http://www.everydayhealth.com/healthy-living-pictures/little-known-facts-about-lefthanders.aspx#13

    1. Well, that’s fascinating! I didn’t know about Left Handers Day, and I already live in England, so that’s pretty cool! I agree with some of those 12 little-known-facts, but can’t say that most apply to me. True, I may be more fearful and easily embarrassed, but I trust I’m neither psychotic nor prone to negativity. I hardly drink, so the booze fact doesn’t relate to me either. But I’m definitely going to investigate Left Handers Day! Thanks for putting me on to that 🙂

  7. I’m left handed and have to treat right handed people as if they are a mirror when I learn from them! Did you know that the only left handed people in Thailand are the ones that don’t go to school– because the others are forced to use their right hand. When I first met my wife, who is Thai, she thought I was oh so odd– and I’m pretty sure she’s right!

    1. I didn’t know about Thailand – perhaps my old headmaster would have felt at home there. And it’s interesting what you say about mirroring right-handed people. I might have had better luck learning knitting if I’d taken that approach!

  8. You have my sympathies, but I want some too. You don’t know what it’s like to be right-handed and sit next to a left-handed person at dinner. I have left-handers in my family and the scars to prove it. Oh, the utter trauma…

    1. Oh… But I’m a left-handed person who almost always ends up sitting next to a right-handed one! I try to sit on the left, that makes it easier. It gets really interesting in airline seats, and there’s always a fumble for the inter-seat cup-holder at the cinema!

      One thing if you’re a right-hander, keep an eye on your glass of wine. An absent-minded leftie is likely to snatch a slurp from it if you let go 😉

  9. I’m very left-brained but also so totally right-handed that I’d hate to even imagine what it would feel like to be forced to use my left! I’m sure the opposite of that still haunts a lot of lefties who were forced into attempting to change over!

    My best friend in high school was a leftie. She always sat on the left and I, on the right. I found it had a very comforting quality as we’d be angled towards each other while we did our work; her left arm and my right forming a barrier against the world!

    1. It’s a lot easier if us lefties can sit on the left – avoids clashes of writing implements and elbows, and the accidental imbibing of drinks that aren’t ours!

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