After three years writing and revising my book, I’ve finally exhausted that vein and am ready to work on new material. (Motivation helps: I’m reading as part of Minneapolis’s Cracked Walnut literature festival.) So I sit down at my writing desk … and I stare.
I have nothing to say.
The above quote, about writing being easy – all you have to do is open a vein and start bleeding, has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, and Red Smith*, and in fact it can even be seen having emerged from an 1855 quote about writing poetry “drop by drop;” the drops being blood, of course. (Read the full history of the quote here: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/09/14/writing-bleed/). Regardless of where it came from, I whole-heartedly say this quote is nothing but a pompous waste of time.
I get its point. Open yourself up; let everything pour out. It’s still just not practical. Ideas don’t flow like blood; they randomly spasm, tumble, and kerplunk like change from a slot machine. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little, sometimes not at all.
Open a vein and start to bleed. Well, I’ve had inklings of writing about my son’s autism, about calendars, about pop culture, about religion … all of those are far too broad for starting places. I consistently hound my writing students to begin with a narrow topic, and I’m now reassuring myself that’s good advice.
So, since I have apparently forgotten how to write (even though I call myself “writer”), I return to better, more specific advice: Begin with a central image. This comes from many sources, but the last place I encountered it was from Barrie Jean Borich’s essay “Dogged” in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction (which I love except for the fact that its title is the exact opposite of “flash” anything). Borich begins with the image of a dog sprinting down an expressway and writes herself into a lovely meditation on the south side of Chicago, her Little Grandma, and the “breathless female strain to keep on living.”
Where can I write from? Let’s choose a vein. Religion. Growing up Catholic. The older gentleman who sat in the pew ahead of us every single Sunday. His crutches, which he walked in on every week for years, until I graduated high school and moved away. I never saw him again.
And now I can begin to write. Or bleed.
*Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith was a famous American sportswriter who also happens to be the source of another of my favorite writing sayings: “Myself” is what idiots use because they were taught that “me” is a dirty word.