“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”
This quote, famously attributed to Hemingway, doesn’t actually come from any of his works. In fact, there is some amount of dispute as to whether Hemingway actually said it. I’m going to give tentative credit to him, though, as it’s blunt enough to be Hemingway, and he is typically considered to be the man who said it.
It’s not that unusual of writing advice anyway. Many authors have written and spoken on the painful work of writing. Whether it’s the frantic sweating as deadlines approach or a broken heart as you let one of your character die–well, writing isn’t always a pleasant process. It’s messy, and it hurts.
But this idea of bleeding onto the page is an interesting one. It’s a uniquely Romantic or post-Romantic idea (which is what leads me to question the quote’s source), and in some ways, an American one.
Going way back in literature, we lose track of the names of authors. This is partially because of spotty records and such. But there appears to be a cultural context as well; ancient Western civilizations valued the story over the storyteller. The myth was more important than its maker. After all, what does it matter who Homer was when we can hear about Hector and Agamemnon? While certainly a foreign concept to our ears, there is a significant measure of sense ot this. The magic of the story is in the tale itself. The author need not insert themselves into the narrative.
But this Hemingway* quote provides a very different approach to writing, which is much more Romantic. This idea of bleeding our stories into the typewriter (or computer) implies an intense personal imprint that the author invests in their work. The story is a deeply individual artifact that will never be, and in fact cannot be, separated from its author.
Not only is this idea Romantic, it’s also pure Americanism. American literature is infused with a sense of individualism, of the settler or the vigilante. The lone hero in a darkened world. But that ideal isn’t just found in characters and plotlines. Before ever opening the book or reading a word, you can find this individualism. It has been breathed into our authors, and their very style of writing is changed by virtue of their being American. To write is to bare one’s soul. To write without bleeding is not to write at all–or at least not to write as an American.
The American writer is in many ways one with their story. They are not a passionless god moving pawns to create a narrative. No, an American gets his hands dirty, gets herself down in the grit and roots out the secrets. The American writer inhabits the world in which their characters live. The American writer bleeds.
That’s what we’re going to celebrate this month–American writers and American stories. Whether that’s books or movies, whether that’s Tom Sawyer or Captain America, we’re going to dig into American lit and see what this relatively young tradition already has to offer. So stay tuned for all of July as we celebrate American literature and the people who make it.