“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” So said Ernest Hemmingway.
Actually, there’s some doubt that Hemingway actually said this. Variations on this statement have been attributed to a wide variety of people for a far longer time than you might imagine. These include sports writer Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith, poet Reverend Sydney Smith, philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and writer Paul Gallico (to provide a not at all conclusive list).
If you’re interested in variations on the quotation and where it might have originated, you might like to look here.
What I want to talk about is not the source or who said it first. I’m more interested in the concept. Do you need to be seated in front of a typewriter – or at least have some writing implement (computer, tablet, pen and paper) at hand? Do you need to bleed to write? If you do need to bleed, how much blood do you need to shed?
As with most statements like this, I both agree and disagree – but more importantly, I think that many people misunderstand what Hemmingway and the others who have made variations on this statement mean.
Let’s start with the simple part. Do you need to be parked in front of your writing device of choice to write? Yes and no. I’ve done a tremendous amount of writing far away from any writing device. Maybe “writing” is stretching the point. “Composing” might be more appropriate – and that gets to the heart of what’s meant by “bleeding.”
The Hemmingway quote above apparently appeared first in a book published in 1973. (Hemmingway died in 1961.) It – and many unattributed variations of the same – link the physical act of writing (on typewriter, computer, or whatever) and the “bleeding” of composition so tightly that I believe the meaning of “bleeding” has become distorted.
An earlier version of the same quotation – quite possibly material Hemingway may have unwittingly paraphrased – came from then-famous writer Paul Gallico. In his 1946 book Confessions of a Story Writer, Gallico wrote:
“It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.”
Note that although Gallico mentions “the page” and “good white paper,” his emphasis is not on the physical act of writing but on the emotional investment. The really important statement is the first part of the second sentence. This is so important that I’m going to repeat it:
“If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells…”
Here it’s made clear that by “bleeding” these writers didn’t mean putting oneself through some sort of endurance trial. They’re not talking about staying locked in place until you write your quota or do your homework or whatever metaphor you prefer. Yet lately, on panels, on social media, I keep encountering the idea that what defines “real” writers is that they produce quantities of words on a page (or a computer file or whatever). The question as to whether these words mean anything, whether they have any heart, gets lost in an emphasis on production.
I have several works in progress right now. One of these is beginning to look as if it may be a new novel. I’m in the exploratory stages now and so I’m not putting as many words down on the page as might be expected. Instead, I’m busy bleeding…
This weekend I landscaped a portion of my yard. (Go look at the photo. Doesn’t it look pretty?) While I was weeding, raking, prying up the roots of bunch grass with the tip of a shovel, I was also composing. I was thinking about the six characters around whom the story appears to be taking shape. Each of them have different goals. Many of them have secrets.
But I’ve been thinking about little things, too. The things that make me believe in the characters. What will the chain smoker do when her cigarettes run out? What will the knitter bring with her? How do the three characters who didn’t plan on this turn in their lives feel about it? How do those who did plan deal with disappointment?
When I think about these things, I’m not chalking up any word count or page count, but I am bleeding. I’m also getting excited, looking forward to the time when I’ll get back to the keyboard and see how the words fit around the idea.
Meantime, I can enjoy the landscaping, rather than having frustrated myself by trying to come up with words for no other reason than I’m “supposed” to do so to be a “real” writer.