What Does it Take to Write Well?
Though it is most often attributed to the great sports writer Red Smith, no one knows for sure who first bled this great insight—“Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” Like all great metaphors, this one invites us to slow down and examine its many facets.
First, writing hurts. It hurts in part because you are giving up for public view that which courses through your veins. Though we likely all do it to one degree or another in whatever line of work we do, precious few lines of work have such a clear and immediate connection between the product and the producer. It is my own life-blood, and when it is rejected or despised, I am rejected and despised.
Second, it’s just me. Sure it may in involve paper and ink, or cyber-paper and ink, but no one reads for either the paper or the ink. The raw material is me. I am the one manipulating the raw material. I am the one polishing the raw material. It all starts with a blank page and the writer. The page doesn’t bring much to the table.
That said, there is raw material that feeds the raw material. I like to think of myself, in terms of my writing, as a pig. (No doubt I have plenty of critics who would agree.) What I mean is this. A pig takes in copious amounts of stuff, some of it fairly expensive and fine, like pig feed, much of it cheap and base, like scraps from the family table. In God’s good providence, the pig then turns that stuff into something profoundly treasured and dear—bacon. But it takes more than just the consuming to get that done. The pig has to die. In like manner I consume copious amounts of stuff. I read fancy books written by theological giants, and I read blog posts and magazine articles by acerbic wits. But I also take in my surroundings and my circumstance. I am always watching or reading (consuming) or mulling (digesting) or bleeding (giving up the bacon.)
We are often told to write what we know. I would add that writing as bleeding requires that we write what we care about. We can’t expect our readers to invest in that which we are ourselves only mildly interested in. When we describe our favorite sports team we affirm, “I bleed black and gold.” (Everyone’s favorite teams wear black and gold, right?) When we write we need to be pouring out of us what matters most to us.
Finally, bleeding, or the circulatory system, comes naturally to us. In like manner we should write as we speak. You don’t need to “discover your voice.” You need to understand that your voice is “your voice.” The scary thing about writing is it’s just you. The easy thing is it’s just you. Fake you, affected you, no matter how charming, can never be as good as real you. Use your rhythms, your vocabulary, your diction, your blood.
OK, finally finally. The moment your blood stops flowing you die. With writing it is the same. Write as often as blood is flowing through you. Or to be more clear—write always. On the other hand, know when to stop.