Andres O'Hara-Plotnik



I write first drafts longhand, often on legal pads. It turns out I’m not alone on my choice of medium. In an article in Legal Affairs in 2005, Suzanne Snider wrote

Jeff Tweedy, front man for the rock band Wilco, writes his songs on a legal pad. Jim Harrison, the laureate of the untamed heart, wrote Legends of the Fall on legal pads; Elmore Leonard writes his crime novels on them. Nonfiction criminals, it appears, are fond of them, too.

The legal pad was invented by Thomas W. Holley in 1888

Sortings were anything trimmed away as scrap or considered of lesser quality than the writing paper eventually packaged and sold. Holley’s notion was to bind the scraps into pads that could be sold at a cut rate. Convinced he had a winning idea, he founded his own company to collect the sortings from local mills (Holyoke was then the papermaking capital of the world) and began churning out bargain-price pads.

It’s fascinating the way some tools can free up writing.

“End career as a fighter,” President Richard Nixon wrote on a legal pad in August 1974. Five days later, on the top of another one, he scratched, “Resignation Speech.”

I doubt Nixon would have written that in a hardbound logbook stamped “President of the United States.”

I thought that I wrote longhand to free myself from the distraction of typing a first draft on a computer. And that certainly is part of it. I’m sure I make spelling mistakes writing, but I’ll never get a squiggly red line underneath a word indicating a typo. More broadly, my first draft doesn’t involve working on a program that reacts. But writing can be difficult and frustration, and intrusion can come from strange places. Snider reports that

Legal pad enthusiasts do seem to have a psychological connection to their writing tablets. Philip Moustakis, a mid-level associate at the New York firm of Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle, uses one legal pad per case, and prefers yellow over white pads and a faint, as opposed to a dark, rule. “The darker lines intrude upon my thinking—they’re yelling back at you,” he explained. “You want a more subtle line.”

The idea that my writing tools affects my writing extends far beyond the legal pad. Handwriting offered a space beyond distraction, but also a type of protection for my drafts, since I can admire all the work I’ve done, the unique etchings line after line and page after page. It looks like work, not like any other text. But keeping my text hand written allows me to avert digging into the language.

Sometimes I write in the margins, taking a whole page for three sentences. The less accessible, the less accountable I am to my words. Typing is way too readable for my comfort.

Sometimes I write with my left palm pressed against my left eyelid, so my sight becomes a little watery, and I can barely stay in the lines when I write.

The pencil softens to one side, making my lines wider. I make my letters loopier, they hook and connect more. With a quick flick, I turn the pencil, the point turns sharp and crisp, and I straighten up my penmanship, writing in quick and decisive jabs. With soft lead I write about when the hazy sunset comes out, where the drunk staggers. The fine point lead is where he meets the killer, when she slams on the brakes, when he finally admits it, when what’s done is done.

I write best when I decide to do something else. My best sentences are in the middle of grocery lists, that I later can’t bear to throw out. Ten minutes to 9:00, when I need to be at the 9:00am meeting, my writing surges as I calculate how long it will take me to walk to work. I listen to drink orders at Starbucks as my character finds the object of her desire. When he gets what’s coming to him.

But to sit down to write, to say: I’m not getting up for an hour. I’ve blocked off this time. Forget it. That never works.


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This entry was posted on August 22, 2012 by in On Writing and tagged , , , , , .
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