Intrigued by the process of writing, I often find myself, late in the afternoon, reading about the art of writing, as recorded by writers.
One of my favorite quotes, for a long time, was attributed to Hemingway.
When asked how he writes, he reportedly responded that it was easy. “Just sit down at the typewriter and bleed.”
As much as I love the quote, and wish to God it was Hem, it was actually not said by Papa, but by a sportswriter commenting on the work of cranking out a weekly column. Regardless of the source, the insight seems true to my experience, although most have evolved from the clunky typewriter.
My means of writing has varied.
The implement of destruction has changed, at least for me. I had a Smith-Corona typewriter when I was in college that I lugged to the dining room or library in my fraternity house. I wrote long-hand in my graduate days, relying on my good friend, Susan Ashworth, to decipher my handwriting, and pound out my work.
I was one of the first people on the planet to have a portable computer, a Compaq beast that resembled a Singer sewing machine. Lord, “portable” was debatable but much more versatile than the industrial models that sat in the basement of the Cathedral. I have since used Dells for my bleeding although I do have an ultra thin Surface that I carry with me at times, just for sport.
These days, my Dell resides in my home office, sitting on my Texas desk, connected to a large screen monitor as a concession to my waning vision. Books stacked threaten to overtake me, my stereo system provides my musical bed for my time at work, varying from the Dead, to Joni to Emmylou, to Trane, and Ralph Vaughn Williams. Eclectic is the operative word, though my son, Thomas’ music brings me my biggest smile. It’s a fine environment in which to work.
The other morning, I jumped up out of bed, ready to write.
I’m lying. I did not jump, not even “rolled”. My wife had left the house early, so there was no early morning repartee. I moseyed out of my bedroom toward the kitchen for a cup of my Death Wish Strong Coffee. The Best. I took the filled large copper Yeti cup and ambled to my office, sitting down at my Logitech keyboard, ergonomically arranged, and began to write.
About an hour later, my wife got back home. I could hear her because the door to my office was open. I heard her call my name, “David”, with some alarm.
“There’s blood all over the hall.”
I paused, wondering if I had killed someone. And then, in a Hemingway flash, it came to me. I remembered hitting my toe on a wooden piece that connects the kitchen floor tile with the wood of the hallway. I recalled almost instantly, that I had hit that small piece in my slog to the office, momentarily threatening my progress. With coffee in hand, I remembered the surge of pride that I had not fallen down, nor spiled the magical elixir. Rather, I was upright, at least in my bodily position, and moving forward to my goal.
I looked down to see that my big toe on my left foot had a small gash on the front edge, and I was bleeding onto the floor of my office. Papa’s attributed words came to me in an instant, like one has upon waking from a dream. I laughed to myself that I was fulfilling this aphorism. I was bleeding as I was writing, literally, if not literarily.
After I doctored myself, the way my biologist mother would have been proud, I came back to the desk and began a slowed pause, to ponder this moment. How is writing like bleeding?
Of course, “writing as bleeding” was pushing the notion of an organic connection with the work of writing, sharing one’s thoughts with others. Surely, writing should come from one’s innards, but there are all kinds of bodily fluids that may flow. I will spare you my thoughts on those, but I imagine you are filling in the blanks. But blood, blood gets to the heart of the matter. I have tended to love the notion of “life blood”, which captures the essential nature of pouring one’s self out. In writing, one becomes clear that there is a cost, and I know it for a fact. But, there is a pleasure that mixes with the pain, somewhat like birthing. To create usually has a cost, as well as a gift. A mixed blessing, which seems to be the only one I know.
I’ve been thinking a good bit about writing recently. Prompted by one of those ubiquitous “profiles” that one is asked for, I was surprised that my lead in “who I was” was that of a writer, not priest, therapist, or coach. It made me pause, which is a dangerous thing to do.
Writing has always been a part of my life, from writing essays in honors English for Ms. Hinkle (Katharine Ross, the Sundance Kid’s girl) who I was hoping to impress: to columns in a sports page in the Tri-Cities “suburban disturber” (my dad’s name for the local paper); to music reviews in an entertainment magazine in Texas; to my weekly column in a church publication. I have always been writing SOMETHING. And as I mentioned a while back, my boss, Dr. Lancaster, used to say: Sometimes I have something to say, and sometimes, I have to say something. Spot on, Bill.
And then there was sermon writing. I loved that part of my work of being a priest. Following my ministerial mentor, Carlyle Marney, I made a vow at my ordination that I would never enter the pulpit unprepared, and I lived up to it…at least one vow pristinely kept. I enjoyed the research into the background of the Scriptures appointed for the day, and it’s connection to a particular liturgical season. I loved the challenge of seeing a new way to look at an old horse, to make the beast run, even gallop. Bringing the sermon “home” to show what difference it made in one’s life was the payoff pitch. Sometimes, I am sure that I missed that crucial moment, but it was not for a lack of trying. I cared, really cared, to make that connection.
The proper question comes as to “why?”. Why did I care so much? What was my motivation?
To attempt to deny my ego’s part in the equation would be foolish, particularly to those of you who know me. It was an opportunity to show both my learning, but even more, to show off my creativity. I revel in my greatest gift, and burden….my curiosity. It’s my only super power. There’s nary a rabbit that I will not chase, as I said for good and for ill. But I took pride, using that slippery word advisedly, in my creative way of connecting things, the old with the new, the past with the now. Ego is a part of it, but not all of it, not the heart from which the blood flows.
There is a sense of art in sharing with other human types my experience of our common world. When I read a writer, I am overhearing his/her description of their encounter with the world, their observations, their feelings, their wonder, their fear, their hope. It’s a moment of connection with another person who is, like me, bound by our individual perspective, but is valiantly attempting to communicate with the “other”, another being who shares this world.
When I sit down at my desk, I am trying to dive deep into my soul as to how I am experiencing life, in both the light and the darkness of human Being. My persona is obviously in the frame as it is a part of my identity, constructed in the effort to make it through the day. But in diving deep, I touch my shadow, the unconscious part of my Self, that I natively try to hide. And I bring my memory, an objective reality that receives my interpretive spin that is unavoidable, trying to wrestle with its amorphous form to find and forge meaning, even purpose.
When I come clean, most of my writing springs from stories. It’s a Southern thing. I fell in love with storytelling, listening to my grandfather. That became more intentional and structured as I became a cognitive developmental researcher at the Center for Faith Development. I interviewed a variety of folks about their lives, recalling the events of their life, and then pressing them to share the meaning, the coherence, the thread of trajectory that runs through their personal narrative. Every so often, I get a feeling that, when I am writing, I am conducting a self-interview, asking myself the same probing questions I previously asked others in an academic research setting. It seems only fair. And I am trying to be honest, allowing the blood to pour.
I’ll end this foray into the art and work of writing by noting a quote that I KNOW to be of the man, himself, Papa Hemingway. It hangs over my desk, along with his picture. Howard Thurman, MLK, Bobby Jones, and Jesus share the space…how’s that for a team.
Hem’s framed words come from A Moveable Feast. It’s his advice to any writer. It comes from his reflections on his time in Paris….. France, not Texas. It’s the reassurance, the self-coaching he would give himself in the pregnant moment, pondering his work while looking over the rooftops of Paris. “Do not worry. You have written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
I say those words occasionally, like a prayer. As he knew, it’s easier said than done. For there are voices that holler from the cellar of your life that remind you of your failures and lapses of courage. “You, a writer?” they laugh. And current voices that warn you of saying too much, of revealing past secrets and current tensions. Keep your voice down!
But fortunately, there are those balcony people, like Papa, who call you higher, to your aspirations, your passion, your greatest self. They urge you to dive into the deep end, write of the experience you know, daring to risk connecting it to the thing we all know as our life. It starts with one true sentence. And that requires bleeding.