Breathing a Vein

Medieval image of man being bled medicinally

Medieval Bloodletting
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

brary, London.  CC BY 4.0 

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
       —Ernest Hemingway

Fast advice to new writers who bemoan the intensity of the discipline sometimes includes throwing around that Hemingway quote about the typewriter and the bleeding. It’s pithy and ironic and makes the more seasoned writer quoting it sound like they know something Hemingway did. It also inspires hilarious imagery: to each writer, his or her own brand of macabre. I keep it simple: me swathed in Civil War-era head bandages barely able to crawl from a drippy crimson keyboard to the coffee pot for yet another cup of Whatever It Takes so I can get that paragraph right. 

Bleeding out is not so bad. Even the practice of bloodletting, or “breathing a vein,” was for centuries an unquestioned, and sometimes successful, healing tactic. Ancient Greek physicians called the life fluid they drained from sick patients, plethora. In English, the word still implies excess or fullness, and then as now it suggests that too much of a good thing bottled up within a person needs coaxing out. If Hemingway’s metaphor for writing is accurate (and who’s going to argue with Ernest?), then bloody heroics and the prick of the knife to release some of an author’s life force is necessary to produce his best writingno matter how gory and counterintuitive that loss may feel at the time. And to take it a step further, the writer as a person may never be healed without that sacrificial flow.

After I finished and self-published Gold in Havilah in December,  I thought I was ready to celebrate, to relax a bit. I draped myself over the love seat with my own private tin of anchovies and a stevia-sweetened cream soda, ready to binge-watch the John Adams miniseries. Yet the rush of fishy salt had barely dissipated, the soda can was still half full, and John was only mid-Revolution when I sat up and considered it all sawdust and sickness. All I really wanted was to get back to the cold and lonely refuge of my office to breathe my veins again, to heal what ails me. Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you.” The wound was already primed to run red again.

This post first appeared on Relief.com