December 29, 2022

I know this mantra

We hear it from our elders who quote versions of it in workshops they teach and craft books they write. We share it with writers attending our own workshops. “Bleed on the page.” But what does that mean? Several meanings come into our minds and propel us to “show don’t tell.”

Except sometimes we should tell

Go back in history and don’t confine your search to the 21st century or even the 20th century writers. Without googling, list the noted writers you’ve read; writers whose works you love.


  • How many of them do you associate with trauma?
  • How many do you wonder if that bleeding on the page was their way of coping with terrific loss and trauma suffered in their personal lives?
  • How many of them do you wonder what price they paid for their successes with the printed word? With storytelling?

Historically, the culture has romanticized this art form and  ‘bleeding on the page’ perhaps preferable to recognizing one’s own mental frailties, frailties that in all likelihood sent these gifted wordsmiths to the page seeking solace for their pain. Choosing the writing life can be a prison of its own making, success on the page at the expense of failure in their personal quests for sound mental health.

Hemingway was famous for saying that he couldn’t write without alcohol. He could edit but not write stories without being drunk. At what expense did he and his inner circle pay for his alcoholism and the abuse that came with it? What propelled him to drink to drunkenness until he finally ended up taking his own life? It was pain. Personal pain. Profound personal pain. And yet? He is an iconic American writer.

Except it doesn’t but here’s the thing, some of those successful writers who have suffered from trauma get that trauma reinforced via their storytelling. Sometimes it may lead them out of suffering. Sometimes the recognition from the world of readers is their elixir, as potent as therapy or the right mix of medicines. But mostly? I don’t think it does because it can’t.

Their fans only know that it didn’t give them the mental help boost so needed when we read about their deaths from addictions, from psychoses and from depressions that too often end in suicides. And yet we continue to romanticize the writing life, continuing to idolize the best among us who too often have suffered the worst internal traumas with no help other than their pens, papers, typewriters and computers.

Maybe we should refrain from using that expression, bleeding on the page as often as we do is my takeaway from writing this piece.

To all who read this, wishing you a blessed and mentally healthy 2023.

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