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When Writing Doesn't Make You Bleed

I keep stumbling across posts along the lines of, "Write the Thing That Makes You Bleed." That theme is present even in posts that don't specifically focus on that topic. The message? Writing hurts. You should write the painful thing, the thing that makes you bleed, the thing that scares you.

You have to bleed to make it real. It must hurt you to be valid.

I do acting things. In my experience, that method of work is unhealthy -- dangerous, even. You should take care of yourself and your mental and emotional health. You come before the work. It doesn't always have to hurt, and it certainly doesn't have to be painful to be valid.

Writing, to me, is like a more static form of acting where I get to be all the characters. Some of those characters have almost nothing in common with me. Do you know what I do when I don't "feel it"? I pretend. It's called acting, after all. I can pretend and sometimes that is safer than bleeding.

I got onto this topic thinking about my two main writing projects. One is more "bleed-worthy," shall we say, while the other is less so. I find that I enjoy the less "bleed-worthy" project more. I have fewer hangups. My writing is better, more efficient, and I get more words out per day. I also really love these characters and their story, precisely because I am less emotionally invested in them. I can like them as characters and not as scattered pieces of self.

The other project requires more emotional commitment from me, and I'm beginning to suspect that that's why it has dragged on for so long. Emotional investment means that I'm too close to the story to see it clearly. This story doesn't hurt, but I am closer to it emotionally, and that makes me a worse writer.

I knew a director who wanted to cast someone as Ophelia in Hamlet because she had recently and suddenly lost her mother. The director thought it would make Ophelia's grief over the sudden death of her father more "authentic." I pointed out that it might not be a good time for the actress to play that part. The director countered that it could help her work through it. I pointed out that Ophelia commits suicide.

Theatre as therapy? Writing as therapy? I agree with and support those things -- in a controlled setting, when the writer or theatre-maker is ready for it. Your journal is a safe space. Art therapy is a safe space. Writing professionally for something that you intend others to read and publish -- not necessarily a safe space.

When you are writing, you need to know when -- if -- you are ready to write the thing that makes you bleed. And part of that is being able to realize that writing the thing that makes you bleed is not necessarily the best thing for you to write right now. Or, hell, ever. Healing is realizing that you might not be ready. Healing is prioritizing your health and not feeling guilty when something you want to write scares you.

I reject the notion that you need to hurt yourself to be valid.


  1. Great post.

    I see what people are saying about the "bleeding,"...I have come across the same advice over and over as well in my writing travels. There might sometimes be a certain nobility for someone who chooses that sort of writing path. You know, maybe. But in general, I don't embrace it.

    The acting/writing overlap is a good call. Laurence Olivier, in his book on acting mentioned the time he played Othello...and felt almost over come by the role, but not quite. "I am Othello...but Oliver is in control," he wrote. That's how I see my acting much of the time, as well as my writing.

    In the majority of cases, I don't see why seeking out the pain is de facto advantageous. What if the first few things don't cause the bleeding? Are we to keep going until we write something that is so horrific we feel like hell by doing it? Like you, I don't see that as a fair metric by which to judge someone's commitment to their writing. Giving all of one's self to one's work is one thing. Committing a metaphorical hari-kari over the page/screen is something else. As you point out, such moments my not be the best times to attempt to be artistic.

    I can write scenes of tragedy in my fiction without living tragedy myself. As for my non-fiction, I sometimes open up a bit more, and let some "blood" into that writing, but moreso because I want people to understand the experience I am describing, not because I feel I must bleed to write well.

    In the end, it might be like surgeons, who ethically are not supposed to operate on their own family members; they are just too damn close to the patient to be trusted with doing their job at the proper clinical distance.

    1. Yes, and also, I'm sure this kind of advice is dispensed with good intentions...the "It worked for me; it will work for others" mentality.

      But. But, but, BUT.

      I would argue that this is one of the things that absolutely under no circumstances can be applied across the board...or even at all...I think that it is ethically problematic to give this advice. Someone who gives that advice, or who can write the thing that makes them bleed, is far enough along in their healing process to be able to do that. And that's great. But they're nobody else's therapist, they don't know what the "metric" for pain is, and they don't know what other people have been through. It is just a piece of advice that I don't feel anyone should give. If you want to write about it from a, "I did this and it helped me and my writing;" that is one thing...but I was running across these kinds of posts all. the. time. And just. This is not the kind of writing advice anyone is qualified to give because it's so potentially personal. Walk a mile in my shoes before telling me what to do with my life experience.

  2. Robert Hampton @sillynotabsurdTue Nov 25, 01:40:00 AM CST

    For "The Marathon Man" Dustin Hoffman went without sleep or showering or brushing his teeth for days to film a scene. When he told Laurence Olivier what he'd done, Olivier looked at him and remarked disdainfully "or you could try _acting_." :)

    1. Ha, I remember that. I think a professor told that story once...Olivier asking "well why don't you just act it?"

      Method is not a good idea. Nope, nope, nope.


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