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.

Writing Rough Drafts by Hand – like Hemingway

I write the rough draft of almost everything by hand: fiction, client work, this post, all my notes.

This week, after watching the first episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Hemingway, I reread some of Hemingway on WritingIn it, he says that writing by hand makes it easier to improve your writing.

He writes:

When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is that much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so you can better it easier. (Source).

Writing by hand slows you down (in a good way)

Hemingway’s style was a product of endless rewriting and revision.* He found that the process of typing what he had written by hand gave him a chance to improve it.

He worked on a typewriter, but his advice is maybe even more relevant in the laptop age.  Rewriting, content editing and line editing are three distinct steps in the writing process. Writing by hand forces you to go one step at a time. A computer lets you skip to the line edit and convince yourself that whatever you’re working on is ready to show the world.

Even if you take the time to make substantial changes to the content and structure of your draft, that’s not the same as having to re-type the entire thing and make improvements as you go.

Rewriting is effective because it sucks. When I have a stack of legal pad pages to type up, I’m interested in getting through them as quickly as possible. That means not wasting time typing up lines that should be cut. The act of typing works as a b.s filter.

*Epic sidenote: I once got to read the original manuscript pages for his 47 endings of A Farewell to Arms. 

Writing by hand gives you a break from digital distraction

If you work at a computer all day, writing by hand is a way to change it up. Pen and paper pair well with working outdoors or in a reading chair or any place other than your desk.

Sometimes a venue change is all you need to burn through the brain fog.

Austin Kleon works at two desks: one is for analog work,  the other is digital.

Writing by hand just feels good

Handwriting is tactile. You form a bond with the writing instrument and the page as you shape every letter, every word.

You’ll end up working on your later drafts on a screen anyway.

Writing by hand gives you time alone with your words and your thoughts.

I’m convinced that this intimacy somehow translates to the reader in a way that a digitally-native text doesn’t. There’s a reason we write “thank you” notes and love letters by hand.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Love Letter

Official music video for ‘Love Letter’ by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.Download or Stream https://ncandtbs.lnk.to/nomoreshallIDWatch Bad Seed TeeVee https://www…

Need something written for your business?

You can hire me, my pen, and my yellow legal pad. 


Re: Net 30

No problem, I’ll just pay for my groceries a month late too.

30 days from when?

Fine, but with a 50% deposit.

Sorry, I’m not a bank.

If I was a bank, I wouldn’t give out zer0-interest loans. 

Let’s call this what it is. You’re asking for a line of credit.

Is that how your clients pay you?

“Will you be paying me before or after you bill your client?”

No thanks. 

Well, that’s one way to do business…

F*ck you, pay me. 



Writing Tips from Sex and the City

This is where I call bullshit. CARRIE NEVER READS!

Fresh out of shows to binge, my girlfriend and I are watching Sex and the City all the way through.

It’s my first time watching the whole thing (okay, maybe second) and her chance to brush up on the one or two lines she doesn’t know by heart.

She’s a writer too. So as we watch, we’ve had a running commentary going about the show’s writing (way better in seasons 1–4) and how writing is depicted in the show.

We’ve put together a list of writing Dos and Don’ts based on our observations of Carrie Bradshaw’s process and writing style.

Have a theme and stick to it

Every episode revolves around a central question which Carrie explores in her column.

“Are relationships the religion of the 90s?”

“Twenty-something girls: friends… or foe?”

“Can you be friends with an ex?”

“Are men just women with balls?” (Carrie’s words)

All the action in the episode and, we can assume, Carrie’s column for that week focus on that central theme. It’s the perfect premise for an ensemble show where four characters can depict four different ways of looking at the main theme.

Whether you’re writing a tweet or a novel, you really only get to say one thing.

Nocturnal Animals is about what happens when we throw someone away.

Infinite Jest is about what entertainment is doing to us.

Get Out is about the horrors of everyday, middle-class racism.

The success of these stories and of SATC is in that singular focus.

By giving each episode just one thing to say, the show’s creators were able to cover the broad subject of single life in your 30s and lay the groundwork for shows like Girls and Broad City that had other things to say about it. But they didn’t try to eat the whole elephant in one bite and say everything in each episode.

The Lesson: If you have lots of things to say, write lots of things. You get one theme per piece of writing.

Carrie Bradshaw writing on her laptop in Sex and the City

Image: HBO

Have a niche and know your reader

Carrie writes about dating for single women in their 30s in New York. Her column is for women like her. Her appeal is broader than that — you may remember the cringe-inducing virgin 20-something who wants to be Carrie— but she gains that broad readership by aiming small.

In On Writing, Stephen Kings says to picture your ideal reader,

I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what she will think when she reads this part?”

For whatever reason, this is controversial advice. There’s another school out there that will tell you to write like nobody’s watching. Write for yourself.

But if you’re writing for yourself, you are your ideal reader.

The lesson: Have a niche and be as specific as possible. “Single 30-something women in Manhattan” is a better niche than “New Yorkers” or “singles” or “women.”

Deadlines are magic. Be consistent.

You hear Carrie talk about deadlines a lot. Usually, she’s using them as an excuse to get out of a commitment or to cover for a lie. But as far as I can tell, she seems to make her deadline every time.

A deadline makes your work real and forces you to sit down, spark a Marlboro Light if you must, and get the words on the page.

Deadlines help you think too. Once you have your theme, a due date will force you to have something to say about it by a date certain.

Like Carrie, you’ll find yourself thinking about what you’re writing in your free time, which is usually when your “Ah-ha” moment will strike.

The lesson: A deadline helps you write faster and better.

And then I realized…

The fun of Sex and the City isn’t watching Carrie work diligently and craft effortless, clean prose. It’s watching her lead a life that’s a dumpster-fire and aspirational at the same time.

The show features plenty of lessons for writers in what not to do.

Living beyond your means

Ellen Litman has three pieces of advice for writers,

“Don’t go into debt.
Don’t go into debt.
Don’t go into debt.”

Aspiring Carrie Bradshaws might want to embrace a minimalist wardrobe or write about dating in a more affordable city.

Brunching when you should be reading

This is where I call bullshit. CARRIE NEVER READS!* Neither does Mr. Big or any of the other characters whose real-life versions would have gotten where they are through lots and lots of reading. (Except for Miranda).

Stephen King again,

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

*Except when she’s dating the writer in season 5…and gets called out for being a slow reader.

Living for drama.

There’s a fine line between stirring the pot for material and using dysfunctional relationships as procrastination.

Writing is a solitary pursuit. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder how Carrie does it, considering she’s allergic to being alone and is pathologically avoidant of the kind of supportive relationships that nurture creative work.

As Ryan holiday put it, “the perfect spouse is the life hack no one told you about.”

Aidan you broke my heart sex and the city gif

Image: HBO

The Lesson: Leave your crazy at home. Make writing a priority…even if that doesn’t make for good TV.


VIDEO: The Making of Make Peace or Die

I couldn’t watch this with dry eyes…

While I was home for the book launch, dad and I sat down for a short video interview discussing the project and what it was like writing a book together.

Veteran Gets Emotional After Writing Book with His Son

Meet Charles Daly, the 93-year-old veteran who wrote a book with his son, Charlie. In this short film by Persistent Productions and Charlie Hoehn, see how th…

Special Thanks to Scribe Media, Persistent Productions, Charlie Hoehn, Adam Hacker,  Meghan Shea, and Mike Rogers.

Chuck Daly and his son charlie raise the American and Marine Corps flags
Photo by Adam S. Hacker

Make Peace or Die: A life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares is available through Amazon and Indiebound, or you can ask your local bookstore to order it. 

An early draft was featured on Jocko Podcast episode 196