Monday, November 26, 2007

Finding your Legal Pad

About a year ago I was lucky enough to end up with a new laptop. Not that there’s anything wrong with my loyal desktop, but I was heading off on a four week business trip to the frozen north and I needed something more portable with wireless capability. It’s far from the most stunning or powerful model on the market, and the battery only lasts about two hours a shot (less with music), but I can easily say it’s almost tripled my productivity. I write these columns on it, I pounded out the majority of a screenplay to meet a contest deadline, and started poking at my second novel for the first time (in all honesty) in about a year.

In fact, I barely do any creative writing at all on my desktop these days. Sure it gets second drafts and polishes, but it’s become much more of a “social” machine now. A place for e’mail, Dawn of War, and Cities of M’Dhoria. Although it’s been only a dozen months or so since I got the laptop, this small evolutionary step only really stood out when I was thinking about this month’s column, where I really wanted to talk about legal pads.

No, trust me. This is all going somewhere.

One of the biggest causes of writer’s block for all of us, in my mind, is simple fear. Fear that the words that are about to flow down and out through our fingertips, dance across the keyboard, and appear on that screen are going to be anything less than Oscar/ Emmy/ Nobel-prize-winning gold. That they are not going to be worth writing down. So we pause, we stall, we overthink, and eventually, whether consciously or not, we’ve put off writing for another day.

Thus, the legal pad.

Many years back, when I was in college and mammoths were crossing the land bridge into North America, there was a sidebar article in Writer’s Digest defending the use of blue ink and legal pads as a valid “method” of writing because it frees the writer up creatively. It was so ridiculously simple and true, it’s stuck with me for almost twenty years, and now I’m sharing it with you.

A legal pad is about the lowest form of paper there is. Seriously. That’s why lawyers use them (zing!). They’re cheap, disposable, bright yellow, and absolutely no one is ever going to accept a screenplay written on one. Absolutely. No. One.

What a relief.

That means whatever we do on that legal pad is not going to be seen. We can rest assured going in that it doesn’t need to be gold. In fact, it can be crap. Complete crap. No need to worry about spelling or grammar or fact-checking. We are off the hook and utterly free to scribble out three or four nonsensical, utterly inaccurate pages of crap every day in that horrible handwriting that baffles our parents, friends, and loved ones. A legal pad is a safe place. We can scrawl out anything at all without care or concern. Most importantly, without fear.

Write down that new screenplay. Write out Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon or The Princess Bride from memory. Write a list of college friends or family pets or people you’ve slept with or people you want to sleep with. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing as long as you are writing. All you need to do is put pen to paper and write.

Because that’s what it’s all about. Getting the words flowing down and out into the world. Any words. Once you’ve got momentum, it’s easy enough to slip off onto that new script, and before you know it you’re two or three pages closer to another Oscar statue on your mantle. Or at least a few more bucks in your bank account.

This is what all of us, as writers, need to do. Find a place or a format where, bizarre as it sounds, the content doesn’t matter. A legal pad. A laptop. A placemat. A PDA. A way that we can just write, just put out anything we can that fills up that bright yellow page. Without worry of censure or criticism of any type.

This little Gateway laptop has become my legal pad. I can sit here and stab away at this odd-shaped, compacted keyboard and not worry about the quality of my output. I know absolutely no one’s ever going to see what’s on it (except maybe my girlfriend leaning over the couch to peek, or my cat sprawled across the keyboard). So I can whip out the first draft of this column while watching The Batman/Superman Movie (Kevin Conroy is the one, true animated Batman) and not feel at all guilty about some of the references and examples I toss out, since I know they will never, ever see print. They probably won’t even make it to an editor’s desk to be red-lined.

Find your legal pad. Write on it every single day. Anything at all, because the important thing is to write.

And to read next month’s column.

1 comment:

Nathan E. Harvey said...

I couldn't agree more! The one thing that has gotten me past writer's block, and fear of sucking has been my notes and ideas jotted down on that yellow paper. If the only writing I did were formal and digital, I wouldn't be writing.