Do You Bleed on the Page?

by James Scott Bell

One of the more ubiquitous quotes about writing out there, almost always attributed to Hemingway, is: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Great quote, eh? Only problem is, Hemingway never said it, never wrote it, and probably never even thought it.

So why is he considered the source? Because some quote aggregator back in the 1970s thought it sounded like something Hemingway would say. You know, the running-with-the-bulls guy, the likes-to-box guy. He’d be all about blood.


Later, the line was given to him in a mediocre TV movie called Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012). So now you see it almost daily on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, along with another thing Hemingway never said: “Write drunk. Edit sober.” I’m starting to feel like that Britney Spears guy. “Leave Ernest Hemingway alone!!!!”

The real source for the blood quote comes down to a choice between two writers: Paul Gallico (author of The Poseidon Adventure) and the great sports columnist Red Smith. In a 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.

This is good advice. You can write competent fiction without feeling. Heck, that’s what AI does. But you won’t get that deep connection with the readers—and turn them into fans—unless you pour your own heart’s blood into the characters and your prose.

Shortly after Gallico’s book came out, the widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell quoted Red Smith as saying, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” It’s likely, then, that Winchell and/or Smith paraphrased Gallico.

Smith apparently liked the blood metaphor, for in a profile in 1961 in Time magazine, he was asked how hard it was to produce a sports column every day. “Writing a column is easy,” he replied. “You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead.”

This has a different meaning than the “bleed on the page” quote. It’s an obvious reference to the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44). Smith was talking about the agony of having to come up with a fresh column idea every 24 hours (not easy!) and then write it in his singular style.

Putting these two sentiments together, I find it essential to feel something when I write a scene. Music helps. I have a playlist of various moods taken from movie soundtracks. I need an inner vibration to make a scene come alive.

And while I wouldn’t describe myself as “agonizing” (Proust-like) over my style, I do go over my words at least three times. There’s the daily editing of the previous day’s work; then the first read-through in hard copy; and a final polish. I pursue that “unobtrusive poetry” John D. MacDonald talked about. The effort, for me at least, is entirely worth it.

Mega-bestselling author John Green (Turtles All the Way Down) put it this way:

[W]riting is difficult for me. Sometimes it is difficult because I do not know what I want to say, but usually it is difficult because I know exactly what I want to say but what I want to say has not yet taken the shape of language. When I’m writing, I’m trying to translate ideas and feelings and wild abstractions into language, and that translation is complicated and challenging work. (But it is also — in moments, anyway — fun.)

It is indeed fun, and fully satisfying, to sit back and look at something you’ve written and think, “Ya know, that’s pretty darn good.” Maybe that’s what Hemingway meant when he (really) said, “For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.”

So…do you ever think of yourself as “bleeding” on the page? Should you?

28 thoughts on “Do You Bleed on the Page?

  1. It’s crucial that I feel something when I write a scene. If the scene is suspenseful, I need to feel my heart racing, if only just a bit. If the scene is humorous, feeling playful and amused helps. If the scene is an melancholic one, then feeling that emotion helps me create it. Drawing on how I felt during a similar situation in my own life is another part of putting my heart (and soul) into my fiction.

    That said, it isn’t always the case that what I’m feeling is what my characters might be feeling, especially with humor. In my recent cozy mystery, I was highly amused writing a scene where my heroine, Meg, had ruined her blouse getting under a bush to discover a clue and needed a change of clothing. A friend had a selection of concert t-shirts, none of which were my heroine’s style, but she had to choose one. She didn’t find the scene the least bit funny, but I and my beta readers did 🙂

    I’ve also learned the importance of sweating blood going over my words (and story) to get it as good as I can make it.

    So, yes, I think I need to bleed, if only a little, on the page when I write and revise.

    • Great point, Dale, about letting the characters feel what THEY feel, even as you write with an overall vibe. There’s a magic alchemy at work in that, which is why your readers loved that scene.

  2. This: but usually it is difficult because I know exactly what I want to say but what I want to say has not yet taken the shape of language

    Have a good Sunday.

  3. Great discussion, Jim. So important. So difficult.

    I noticed that Ben Lucas posted on X last night, quoting William H Gass, “The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.”

    Off to look for a fountain pen and some red ink.

  4. Great topic, Jim. I’m going to (try to) remember to *not* attribute that saying to Hemingway.

    I think authors are to words what Michelangelo was to sculpture. Chipping away the unnecessary stuff from a shapeless stone to reveal the treasure beneath is hard, bloody work.

  5. A former critique partner Mike had a different take on bleeding on the page. Another writer in our group would submit chapter after chapter of agonizing self-recrimination, guilt, and self-pity. The whining went on so long that Mike finally said in exasperation, “You’re bleeding on the page.” We figured out the writer should be journaling about his anguish rather than trying to shoehorn it into a story.

    I agree emotion is key to connecting with readers but by itself it’s not enough. It has to be balanced with action, complications, stakes, red herrings, suspense, and lots of other moving parts. As you eloquently put it, Jim, “magic alchemy at work.”

    • You are so right about that balance, Debbie. I’ve long advised writers to really let it out (bleed) when writing strong emotions…then scale it back 25%. That comes from my acting days, when the same applied to emotional scenes. If you overdo it on feelings, it becomes self-serving, melodramatic. But pull back just a bit, and the feelings bubble up from under the surface. The audience provides the rest.

  6. I’m having a productive year in terms of short stories. Lately, I’ve been sitting down to write a crime or speculative story but wind up drawing so much from my personal life that it winds up being Raymond Carver fan fiction, and I’m not complaining. It’s been great to take real life events and twist them a little into a story. I noticed it’s certainly easier to finish such stories, and they are indeed cathartic (bleeding and all).

    • I chortled at Raymond Carver fan fiction. I had a workshop with him in college. What I learned mostly was the power of the “telling detail,” how it can relay powerful emotion with a single, subtle image.

  7. I’m at home in Fairhope this weekend. It’s like going to Shangri La. We’re staying with my brother and his wife (she’s going through chemo, please say a prayer). We watched the Bama game while we had spaghetti dinner at my nephew’s (one lone Auburn fan surrounded by by a sea of Roll Tide). Something happens to my heart and soul here that never happens anywhere else. If I can just capture that feeling on paper I will make it.

  8. This is very timely for me, Jim.

    I’ve been noodling an idea for another novel, have several scenes written, but it’s not “doing” anything for me emotionally. I’m struggling to identify with my MC. I might set it aside for a bit.

    There’s another one in my file I started some time ago. I think I’ll take another peek at that one, because I recall several emotional/scary scenes that brought tears and made my heart race.

    Happy Sunday!

  9. I PICK scenes – and their pov character (the one most affected, usually) – to cause specific reactions in a reader. Within the story, of course.

    Then, when writing, I CHANNEL the character (I have a bunch of process steps to get into the head of the character if he/she changes, as usual, from the previous scene’s pov), and naturally go with what affects the character most IN that scene.

    It’s very circular, but, with three pov characters, allows me to go from high point to high point through the story.

    It takes me too long to write to afford wasting time creating scenes with low impact – think of it as hiking across the ridgeline, having to jump from one character’s mountain range to another’s, and all ending at the same peak.

    It has the nice side-effect that I’m never bored when writing.

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