Bleeding on paper (or screen)

Typewriter“Writing is easy.  You just open a vein and bleed.”

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:  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.

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