Writing by Hand — like Jim Harrison

For the third writer in this writing-by-hand series, I’m taking a look at another legal pad legend, Jim Harrison.

Like Matthiessen and Hemingway, Harrison was as well known for his off-the-page adventures as for his work. His appetite for French food and game birds was a frequent subject.

He hunted, he fly-fished, he showed Anthony Bourdain around Montana and was pals with Jack Nicholson. He chose screenwriting as a day job over teaching and lived in Montana, Michigan, and Arizona instead of New York. He was the kind of novelist we desperately need more of.

Harrison’s work earned him the ultimate back-handed compliment for an American writer: to be more popular in France than he is in the States. I once visited a suburban bookstore in Alsace where they have a huge black and white photo of Jim Harrison behind the counter, smoking a cigarette and regarding the camera with the permanent wink of his missing eye.

Jim Harrison wrote for the senses. Whether he’s describing a meal or a bottle of red wine or a strip club or a vast horizon or a lost love, to read him is to have your appetites aroused.

Naturally, Harrison wrote in a tactile and direct, unpretentious way that suited his style: by hand, on legal pads, with intensity.

In some cases, the legal pad draft was the only draft. Harrison rarely rewrote. He jotted the draft of Legends of the Fall in just 9 days, but he claims to have worked on the story in his head for a decade.

A feature in Esquire describes his process, which he practiced into his last days.

On the wall behind Harrison is a giant bulletin board with Buddhist and Taoist maxims. On his desk sits two boxes of American Spirits, one empty and the other unopened. Stacks of yellow legal pads sit in front of him. Nothing is on the wall in front of his desk. When he writes, he stares into the void.

Jim Harrison archive legal pad pages
Jim Harrison’s papers. Image: Brick, a Literary Journal