Writing by Hand – like Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen is my favorite kind of writer–the kind who wrote as he lived, prolifically.

He worked as a commercial fisherman, a conservationist, a CIA officer, a Zen teacher, an advocate for fist-peoples, and co-founder of The Paris Review.

He authored more than 30 works of fiction and nonfiction and hundreds of articles.

He wrote by hand, carrying legal pads with him into the field.

In a comment on his obituary in Audobon, one reader describes his writing and notetaking process, which he revealed to her at a chance encounter on a trip to Kenya.

We crossed paths in Nairobi in 1986. I studied his face, with lines like a map, rich in river tributaries and dirt roads. His blue eyes arrested my journey. Over lunch, I asked how he gathered research in the field.

“I’ll share this with you,” he began. “ I take two yellow legal pads, side by side, in a large notebook. ” He holds his hands open as if releasing a rescued bird. “On the right hand side, I make notes by day. Quick, abbreviated, except for the quotes. All in long hand. At night I flesh out my impressions on the left hand side, adding things I learn elsewhere. When the research in the field is done, I type from the left hand side, adding more.”

Legal pads give you a place to be all over the place

When I’m doing research for client work, I draw a vertical line down the length of the legal pad page, making a gutter on the right-hand third of the page. This is where I put “to-do” items and notes for the outline that will come out of my notes.

This gutter is a catch-all. It allows me to capture random, unrelated thoughts that might be useful for what I’m writing but have nothing to do with the notes on the lefthand side of the page.

A legal pad, divided this way, gives me a place to be all over the place. Like Matthiessen’s “rescued bird,” this method gives me the spontaneity of a mindmap with the order of a bulleted outline.

There’s something about yellow paper

The whole point of yellow legal pads is to be mentally stimulating, that’s why they’re yellow. But there’s more to it than the color. The tear-off pages, the cardboard back strike the perfect balance between sturdiness and expandability.

A legal pad is pleasant to write on, but it’s less precious than a leather-bound notebook.

I find they help me get bad ideas out of my system without having to think about the cost of the page itself. There’s no pressure to have the quality of your ideas match the quality of the medium because it’s the same junk paper you’d use for to-do lists and notes.

Legal pads are unassuming. Students use them, so do accountants and lawyers and scientists.

A yellow pad doesn’t scream “serious writer at work.” I would imagine this worked to Matthiessen’s advantage as a world traveler whose ability to observe and document depended on blending in.

Legal pads are cheap and abundant

I bet if Peter Matthiessen needed to find a fresh legal pad in the Congo or Nepal, he probably could have. Legal pads are everywhere and are the same everywhere.

I write on Rhodia Nº19 Bloc notes. They have smooth paper. They’re made in France. At €‌6.10 for 80 sheets, they’re expensive as legal pads go. But seven bucks is a bargain, considering I’m buying the space to have ideas and hone my work before I type it up. And the return on investment over 80 pages is substantial. Plus, there’s an emotional appeal. Like a nice watch… your phone has the time, but that’s not the point.

But if you’re happy with paper that isn’t French, legal pads are crazy cheap. At Staples, a 12-pack of 50-sheet pads will set you back $23.

When I lived in Korea, I bought my pads at their equivalent of the Dollar Store for like $1 each.

Peter Matthiessen’s workshop had an Analog Desk

From what I was able to find, it looks like Matthiessen was also a believer in separate desks for typing and writing. His “workshop” consisted of an L-shaped desk with a word processor on the short end and legal pads spread out on the long end with notes stuck to the wall. As seen in this 1989 Esquire feature.

Not everyone has room for a setup like this. But even if you work at a tray table, it can help to partition writing and typing as distinct phases of the writing process.


Need something written for your business? You can hire me and my legal pad. My waiting list is now open.