Thursday, October 22, 2009

'The Write Tools' #3 - David Lebedoff

Welcome to another edition of ‘The Write Tools’: a blog series featuring authors, artists and their favourite tools.

Today’s guest is American attorney and author David Lebedoff, whose latest book is The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War.

David, your favourite writing tool is a legal pad. For all the non-lawyers, what exactly does this look like?

A legal pad is not a lawyer's apartment. It is a tablet whose pages are gummed together at the top and easily detachable. The very back of the tablet is stiff cardboard. There are faint blue horizontal lines on which one writes, and a vertical line running down the left side of the pad, always one and a half inches from the edge. In the marginal space notes may be written.

The most distinctive feature of the legal pad is that its pages are yellow. And always have been, since the product was developed more than one hundred years ago.

Now, I'm glad you asked "exactly" what the pad looks like. It is 8 and a half inches wide, and traditionally was fourteen inches long. About twenty five years ago no less a figure than the Chief Justice of the United States decreed that legal paper could be no more than eleven inches long. (This was to save money on storage space.) You can still buy the fourteen inch version, but almost everyone, including me, now uses the eleven inch version.

The shorter page has proved a godsend. A blank yellow page of fourteen inches presented the writer with a formidable task. There was such a long page to fill. The sense of accomplishment that comes from writing an eleven inch page is more readily attained. It makes all the difference, especially when starting out.

Also, the shorter legal pad is more portable, i.e., you don't have to use it at a desk. You can carry it about and write on a sofa at home, or even standing up. The cardboard on the longer version would occasionally bend during such usage.

When did you start using the pads? And was it love at first write?

I started using them when I was a law student, about the time Captain Cook reached Australia. At first, love had nothing to do with it, as any law student can tell you. I used the pads to take notes in class, and when I was doing research in the library. But the handiness of the pad, the portability as I've already suggested, and that lovely buttery yellow, were somehow seductive. Even as a law student, I sometimes wrote poems, and an occasional story. I always used my legal pad. You can write on a bus or a bed or a lounge chair. You can take it with you when you go out, and so no longer fear unrecorded inspiration.

From the time I was introduced to them, every book I've written (six so far) and every article, has been scrawled first on a legal pad. Love of a sort did come--not passion, but indispensability. Maybe that is love: I could not live, at least I could not write, without my legal pads.

Do you write with notes , or drafts, or...?

There are basically two kinds of writers: those who go through many drafts, and those who try to get it right the first time. I am in the plucky latter group. It stems from lack of patience for multiple drafts. Of course my approach takes more first. I agonize over each paragraph, often crossing out a word or even a sentence. But when that paragraph is done, basically that's it. (except when later transposed to print.)

This is a horrible confession, but I seldom use outlines, either. When I start a book I pick up the first virgin legal pad, and deface its surface with "Chapter One." Then follows a lot of agony. Finally I write the first sentence. Then the next. Whether fiction or (more often) non-fiction, I try to write as if I'm telling a story. So the point of each sentence is to make you want to go on the next. I don't think about it when I'm doing it, I just write. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that all good writing is like swimming under water, while holding your breath. I know exactly what he meant. In a sense the process is automatic.

Of course, swimmers have to do a lot of practicing before they can "automatically" glide beneath the waters, and it's the same with writers. (Perhaps the legal pad is my Yellow Submarine.) And I do come up for air, often pacing the floor while the next paragraph enters my mind, though mercifully with not much prodding on my part.

I try to write one chapter per pad. When I'm through with chapter one, I then leave blank the remaining pages, and pick up the next pad and write Chapter Two at the top. When I'm all through writing the book there's a pile of pads. And I look at this little yellow tower with wistfulness, which most authors on completing a book know is the real reaction, rather than relief.

And is this just a quaint legal tradition? Why not just write on a computer?

It just happened that I discovered legal pads in law school. They're seductive and addictive. But many Americans other than lawyers use legal pads for writing. I know the writer Elmore Leonard does. I'm sure there are many others. Of course lawyers themselves comprise quite a sizable group of users--I think America has more lawyers than some countries have trees. One sees legal pads everywhere in America.

I am answering your questions directly on a computer, lest you think that I'm a Luddite. I should also note that as soon as I'm through with a chapter/pad I type it into my computer. In doing so I do make some helps enormously to see what one's words look like, so to speak, in print. And of course when editors suggest additions or whatever, computers are enormously useful in moving material around.

But I don't write my books, or even articles, directly on the computer. I suppose the simplest reason for sticking with those yellow pads is that I've always written on them (with a ball point pen), and I'm used to it. When I start in on a legal pad I am able to write. There's an old and quintessentially American saying: "If something's not broken, don't fix it."

Also, I'm haunted by the notion that I'll hit some mysterious wrong button on my computer and erase everything.

So you’ve never written on anything else? Are you…fussy, David?

I prefer to think of it as "loyal". Oh, I've had my dalliances...sometimes I find myself without a legal pad, and have the need to add or change something in the book I'm writing. So I scrawl on envelopes, or the margin of newspapers, or on post-it pads, or index cards, or whatever is at hand--even, one really desperate moment, on my hand itself (it took almost an hour to get the ink washed off.)

But a dalliance is not an affair. I always return to my legal pads. As soon as I get home I transfer my temporary jottings to their proper yellow home.

And only then of course do the new words truly join their family.


Gondal-girl said...

I used to use those sort of notepads to hand write my uni essays on, the good draft, with a fountain pen, with printed handwriting. Sometimes I would ditch the yellow paper for green. Oh dear, those poor markers of my essays...

Love the answer to the last question - especially the bit about words joining the family.

LiteraryMinded said...

Love it.

Damon Young said...

GG: Yes, David's inspired me to go back to A4 format (Clairefontaine ringbound notebooks).

LM: Glad to hear you feel the same way! (And looking forward to your post.)