Bleeding Onto the Page

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

–Ernest Hemingway

There is a deep excavation process that goes on when a writer is trying to write from the deep places that real, true writing come from. This is true regardless of genre—whether the writer is composing fiction, non-fiction, or memoir. Getting to the core of an difficult issue, tapping real emotion, a painful piece of our past or a basic truth about life—the kind of deep truth that enlivens all good writing—requires that we take the plunge and dive into some of the most difficult and painful parts of our history and our psyche.

Recently, I had the opportunity to write about these issues to a student who was struggling with everything that was coming up in the course of her writing. I’d like to excerpt the universal aspects of that letter here:

“I’ve watched many writers (and myself too) suffer and feel and relive so many things as they struggled to use their own life experience as seeds for their work—be it fiction or memoir. To get the real truth on the page, to dig that deep, hurts. It can be healing, too, ultimately, but the process of excavation can be excruciating. To cope with our lives, most of us close off parts of ourselves or compartmentalize parts, and when we start to write, those boundaries that have kept us walled off and safe can start to dissolve in ways we didn’t anticipate or plan for. Real writing forces us to go deep. I’ve had many students say to me either, “When I came to class, I quit therapy because the writing took its place.” And others who say, “After I came to class, I had to start therapy because so much was coming up in my writing.”

“So the first thing I want to say is that you are not alone and that what is happening to you is a normal part of the creative process. But it’s hard. And it’s a choice—and it’s a choice you get to make—whether you want to do this work now at this time in your life—or not. Sometimes it’s possible to reclose those doors once they swing open; other times our subconscious takes over and insists that now is the time to reconcile old feelings, to face ancient painful experiences, to come out into the light with what we know and what we have suffered.

“One thing I know is that it’s hard to craft anything when you’re in the stage of having so much breaking through. I taught a class at Cabrilllo College recently and one of my students quoted a previous writing teacher who said, “Write hot and edit cold.” To me, that says it in a nutshell. When you’re in a deep process of excavation (which you may be beginning), it’s the time to get the raw material out—to use writing to process the experience, to retrieve the memories, to face the feelings, to get what happened and how you felt about it on the page. But it is not yet the time to take that raw material and shape it into a novel or a memoir or a polished piece—that’s “editing cold.” Some distance and perspective from your material is necessary in order to look at that work as an editor, as a shaper of the material.

“It’s not that these two processes are completely separate—they never are. You can be deep into crafting an essay or a novel or a book and periodically have to delve into painful or difficult places—but during the times when that is primarily what you’re doing, it can be better to write in an environment where the emphasis isn’t on product, but rather on process—where your exploratory excavations can be supported without concern for character development or narrative arc or how to create an opening that grabs the reader. Flow, not form, is what matters in the early stages—particularly if your source material is a painful aspect of your own life that you are just beginning to face or are facing in a deeper way.

“Before I wrote The Courage to Heal, my book on healing from sexual abuse, I filled journal after journal with my own agonizing process of coming to terms with what my grandfather had done to me. I joined a writing group specifically for incest survivors under the wonderful tutelage of Sandra Butler, who was not a therapist, but a very wise woman and capable writer. How amazing it was that such a group was available when I needed it!

“This was 30 years ago and I literally wrote my way through the incest, just as I’ve watched people in my classes write their way through their grief when their spouse of 50 years has died, write their way through childhood trauma or painful divorces or grief over a disabled child. This is the incredible power of writing in community—of putting life as you’ve lived it on the page and having it witnessed by a supportive group of peers who are not there to comment on your word choice, your plot points or even your suffering. A whole room of compassionate safe listeners—and you speaking your story with your own true voice–can be transformative.

“Of all those notebooks I filled—and there were many—only a very tiny percentage of that writing ever made it into the finished book. It was therapeutic writing for me, not for the world, though without having written it, I doubt very much I could have ever completed The Courage to Heal. I needed to have processed that material in order to write about it. I’m not saying that I was “done” processing it when I wrote the book—that wasn’t the case—but I had a done a substantial chunk of work before I started. And I was in therapy twice a week during the time I was writing the manuscript—talking to all those other incest survivors brought so much up for me. So I worked and cried and worked and cried–but I still had to find a place of objectivity to write from—and perhaps that was only possible in that instance because the book wasn’t primarily based on my own story at all. It was self-help, not memoir or fiction.”

I’d like to ask you, my readers, how you’ve grappled with these issues in your own writing life. And in your response, perhaps touch on one or more of the following questions:

1. What does it meant to you to “write hot, edit cold?”

2. How do you know when you need to focus on process, rather than product?

3. What has helped you when you’ve been digging deep and suffering in the course of your writing?

12 thoughts on “Bleeding Onto the Page”

  1. Dear Laura,

    After reading this, I sat and thought about your title. I sat and thought about the quote by Ernest Hemingway. I sat and thought about how the effects of writing are therapeutic to some, and to others, so painful, that they seek therapy.

    If anyone is really paying attention to your title (and the quote)….when we are writing we are peeling off our emotional scabs and sharing the wounds that the scabs hide. We are bleeding, in order to understand, accept and heal. We are writing and sharing because we have so much to say. Writing isn’t a want, it is a need. For those of us who are truly “bleeding on the page”.

    Whether we fictionalize our wounds or not, when we write, we are safe in our vulnerability. When we pull off the scabs and bleed, we share our core selves and invite others into our dark hells (as well as into our joyous moments). We are allowing ourselves to finally accept what we were told were the unacceptable parts of us. We are able to love what we were told was unloveable. We remember things we didn’t know we forgot. When we are finally bleeding on the page, we are finally loving ourselves enough to heal. To “bleed on the page” is to enter a time machine. We can write it as it really was, as we remember it (even if inaccurate), or tweak it a bit. However, we choose to write, to bleed is to heal… and to heal is to accept… and to accept brings new knowledge and a sense of self. It brings a true understanding of who we were and who we are and who we want to be. It brings forgiveness.

    And best of all, it changes our focus.

    All of us are wired differently. The way we think…therefore the way we write…is different. To write hot and edit cold, may work for some and not for others. It may work one day and not the next. For me, I’m not concerned about punctuation, format etc while writing. However, I must complete a thought. If another unrelated thought comes, I write it down, but keep on with what I was writing about. Or I will lose it. I will lose the moment. For me to continue “hotly” I must edit as I go. I cannot leave it for later…as I may lose the words or emotions that I want to convey.

    For me, the “process” is critical to the product and I do not find them to be mutually exclusive. We need not be tidy, which is why we have rough drafts. However, for me, the process is not a means to an end. It is the most important part, and to not edit, while in that emotional place, can lead to a stunted read.

    I have cried many tears while writing and I have found myself excited by memories. Memories that become more vivid as I continue writing. I
    dig deep and I do feel sad, but to suffer is to be stagnant. I don’t want anyone to continue having that power over me. And so I cry and I laugh. And I am eager to share and to bloom. I already suffered…writing is my freedom. It is the light at the end of the my dark tunnel. I go to bed thinking about it, I wake up thinking about it. Writing is what sustains me. Writing is the foundation where I can firmly plant my feet. Even if it sometimes hurts. -Natalie Boutin-

  2. Natalie, Thanks for sharing your experience with these issues. I especially loved the way you ended your piece, “I already suffered…writing is my freedom. It is the light at the end of the my dark tunnel. I go to bed thinking about it, I wake up thinking about it. Writing is what sustains me. Writing is the foundation where I can firmly plant my feet. Even if it sometimes hurts.”

  3. I appreciate you, Laura and Natalie, for being willing to explore these questions, so relevant to where I am with my own writing. Thank you for sharing your reflections. Allow me to share my three cents.

    **

    For me “editing cold” is a thinking function rather than a feeling one. We need the coolness of rationality when we look at a text and ask, “Should I use ‘light green’ or ‘chartreuse’ to describe the heroine´s silk scarf? How do you spell ‘segue’? And, should I cut this long sentence into two short ones?” In contrast, heat comes to mind when in the process of writing there is spontaneity, emotion, flow, and I don´t have to stop to think.

    As humans study the brain, we have come to know that, indeed, when a person is experiencing heavy emotion (the realm of the limbic system of the brain), the neocortex (whose domain is thought) cannot do its best job. And viceversa. I have corroborated some of this when, as I prepare a therapy client to leave my office after expressing big emotions—having raged and cried their eyes puffy—, I ask them to tell me the names of 5 places that start with the letter ‘I’, and 5 ingredients often used in Thai cuisine, and to please count down from 100 in 3s. A little mental gymnastics is often enough to help them close the Pandora’s box we’ve been rummaging in for the past 50 minutes.

    It seems that we really cannot do both at once. It makes sense that when it comes to editing, we should enlist the help of our neocortex, because it is not in the realm of the limbic system to give a damn about spelling, say, or sentence construction. It follows that when we are doing the hot work of putting words on the page, like pouring jello into a pie mold or pouring concrete before it sets, we keep the cold editor at bay.

    **

    It took me five years to write the thesis for my Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature, not because my production rate maxes out at twenty pages per year, but because in order to write a feminist, post-colonial reflection on the relationship between Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, I had to become a feminist, post-colonial kind of person. That’s what took five years.

    I am now fully engaged in writing my first novel, a reincarnation story of a powerful priestess who died in 1968 and returns to our time, in three separate bodies, as a boddhisattva. The soul of my heroine and her three incarnations must engage with violence in all its forms and learn to overcome it, transform it, or assimilate it in order to become redeemers of the world. I have been wanting to write this novel for the past 22 years. I still don´t know whether I have become in all this time the kind of writer that can do that. My evolution continues even as I write, meditate, research and edit. I can only hope that my 22-year chrysalis of self-healing, spiritual and writing practice, ravenous reading, and love of the Earth has done its job.

    Sure, there is the process of how many hours you spend writing, with what kind of pen or computer, fueled by which kind of beverage or snack. There is also the process of writing 3 morning pages á la Julia Cameron, or timed writing practice á la Natalie Goldberg, or writing in a park with your left hand while whistling a blues tune. But to me, the process that really matters, is the one of becoming the writer we need to be.

    **

    This last question is very present for me now and I don´t have answers to it yet. One of my characters is a woman whose husband has risen in the ranks of the drug traffickers in the North of Mexico. He went from playing the harmonica under the shade of a tree while watching over his father’s goats, to flying 100 kilos each of cocaine, marihuana and opium low over the border in a light plane undetectable by radar, wearing snakeskin boots and a gold belt buckle, with an AK-47 on the copilot’s seat. He kills and tortures people in gruesome ways, and his merchandise destroys lives, quick or slowly, on both sides of the border.

    As part of my research, I have to know what the drug traffickers are doing, and once in a while I peek into the anonymous blogs where raw photos and footage of the latest massacres and beheadings are posted. These blogs, by the way, have appeared as a response to Mexico being the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, who could have their home or office car-bombed just for writing the news.

    I need to find ways to write this without traumatizing myself or my readers. I go between pain and numbness as I face the information, and receive first-hand reports from my drug-war ravaged home, where my family lives in constant fear. If I give in to suffering, I may never come out enough to write the story. If I become hopeless I cannot even meet the demands of my day job as a psychotherapist.

    Recently I told a writing colleague that I need a writing retreat where I can go days without bathing, and drag myself around the floor in dirty clothes, crying, in order to write these difficult scenes. She exclaimed smugly, “Method writing! That’s what you’re trying to do!” I don´t know about that, but it sure would be nice to find a way to feel and experience fully as I write, to succesfully navigate the razor’s edge between numbing out and full-fledged despair.

    1. Magali, I love your thoughtful response to my post–and also want to thank you here for introducing me to the idea of “writing hot, editing cold” in the first place. I’m in complete accord with all that you say here.

      I loved your description of how it can take decades to be ready to write something–not necessarily because of lack of technical craft and skill (though this may be a factor) but because we’re not emotionally or spiritually ready to tackle the material on the page. I deeply resonated with this part of your response:

      ” My evolution continues even as I write, meditate, research and edit. I can only hope that my 22-year chrysalis of self-healing, spiritual and writing practice, ravenous reading, and love of the Earth has done its job…Sure, there is the process of how many hours you spend writing, with what kind of pen or computer, fueled by which kind of beverage or snack. There is also the process of writing 3 morning pages á la Julia Cameron, or timed writing practice á la Natalie Goldberg, or writing in a park with your left hand while whistling a blues tune. But to me, the process that really matters, is the one of becoming the writer we need to be.”

      I know I still striving to become that writer to be able to tell the story of my mom and I in memoir form–and I know although I can write a little piece here and a little piece there, that I’m not ready–not in the way you mean. Though I am far more ready than I was five years ago or ten or twenty–and this story was just as compelling for me personally then as it is for me now.

      And this: “I need to find ways to write this without traumatizing myself or my readers. I go between pain and numbness as I face the information, and receive first-hand reports from my drug-war ravaged home, where my family lives in constant fear. If I give in to suffering, I may never come out enough to write the story…it sure would be nice to find a way to feel and experience fully as I write, to succesfully navigate the razor’s edge between numbing out and full-fledged despair.”

      Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking response.

      1. Dear Laura, my new way to describe you is: a skilled writing coach with a very high emotional I.Q.!

        I devoured half of your book, “I Thought We`d Never Speak Again”, yesterday; which I hadn´t encountered before. It showed me that you had attained a pretty amazing level of relationship with your mother even back then. It also showed me the places where I want to continue transforming hurt into openness, resentment into freedom, love, and yes, even forgiveness. It seems the work of forgiveness never ends, and some of the fuel for that journey is humility: remembering we all have done nasty stuff to others, too…

        Your book has shone a light in some places where I need to continue to transform if I am to write this novel. Thank you.

        1. Magali, you are so kind. Thanks for your very generous words. I Thought We’d Never Speak again is actually my favorite book I’ve written. I’m glad when it gets found and read!

  4. Laura,

    Thank you very much for this post. The things that have been helpful to me lately are: your writing group and the online writing community here and a surprising invitation I received last week. I have a friend who is a poet, and before April began, she put out a general invitation on Facebook to join her in the month of April and write a poem a day. Apparently, this is a writing celebration that I didn’t know of before. I am not trained in the craft of poetry, but I thought I could learn a lot by reading poems every day by people who had seriously studied this form. I told myself that it would give me another opportunity to write each day, and that I could consider it a haiku intensive. The idea that I could have this set form comforted me. And for the first two days, I did write haiku. But then I became intrigued by the notion of free verse. I started thinking about my current obsession, the teenage years, and saw how this form could enable me to speak of moments. So, I’ve really been having fun with this practice, and I think it’s been very helpful to me, although what I’m writing could definitely use the cold eye of an editor. But it’s not the point. This is about me summoning up these times and getting it out.

    I also liked what you said about timing. There is a part of me that feels sad that I couldn’t be focused on my writing all my life, but I remember feeling that I wasn’t emotionally ready when I was younger, that I hadn’t learned the lessons that I needed to know as a person to be the writer that I wanted to be. I think that is really true for me.

    1. Wendy, I love your openness and willingness to plunge in and try something new–something you’re not trained in or particularly good at–that openness is so important to your development as a writer. Bravo!

      I also love what you wrote at the end about timing. “I wasn’t emotionally ready when I was younger…I hadn’t learned the lessons that I needed to know as a person to be the writer that I wanted to be.” I think you’re much further along that path now–what an exciting time for you to come back fully into your writing self. I feel honored to be helping to shepherd you along that path.

  5. I once read this quote, (I have to find out who it is)-“Take all my secrets, I have no use for them now, no skeletons left.” That, for me, is how writing it down works. Once I write it, it’s like I give the weight of it away, but it has to be raw and clear and honest, or it won’t work. I’ve used creative writing to heal from complex trauma/ptsd (my sister gave me your book, it was WONDERFUL) and I just wanted to share with you that I am going back to college (at 34, oh boy) to continue my bachelors and masters in creative writing/nonfiction because I AM going to start a therapeutic art trauma/narrative writing program. I was pretty much annihilated in 2009 from PTSD and bipolar 2, sexual abuse and all that. It’s been six years and it took a long time, but I am healing. Sorry to ramble, I”m just so excited about actually using my talent and combining it with my life–who I am as a person. A soul.
    Amu

    1. Amu, welcome to the Writer’s Journey Roadmap and I’m so happy for you–your healing to date and harnessing the power of words in service to that healing, to yourself and to the world. You sound like you’re on fire (in the best way).

      In terms of your other question, I can’t advise you about form. That’s tough even if I’m intimately familiar with the work of a long-time student. I hope your narrative program will help you find the answer. In the meantime, read as many different kinds of memoirs as you can–including ones that don’t have a regular linear structure.

  6. and I forgot my question to you Laura–I’m having a tough time (so far due to fragmented memories though my body is the recorder) trying to find the appropriate structure or home for my memoir. I don’t know if I should do it in vignettes, as fragmentary as I was and how certain imagery re-emerges in all of my writing (even before IT HIT-ptsd), memoir, autobiographical fiction-I’m just stuck. Do you know where I can go or look to?
    Amy

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