Lisa Lenard-Cook

The Lonely Writer's Companion

“How Important is It to Bleed onto the Page?”

Welcome to the new improved Lonely Writer’s Companion! The format’s simple: You send in your questions, and each month I’ll select one to answer. Email your questions to me c/o (Be sure to put “Question for The Lonely Writer’s Companion” in the subject line.)

"The bigger question is, why do you want to write?"

Question: Judy P. asks: “How important is it, as Hemingway once said, to slit your wrist and let it bleed onto the page?”

The Lonely Writer responds: Like many writers, Hemingway may have voiced some version of this aphorism, but the words, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed,” originated with the newspaper columnist Red Smith, writing in 1949. But Google the phrase (as the Lonely Writer did), and you’ll come up with enough variations to paper over your rejection wall. Now why is that, do you suppose?

Both of my parents wanted to be writers. Because I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, my father was the primary breadwinner, and seldom had time to sit down at his typewriter. (He also died when he was only fifty.) My mother wrote a column for the local Pennysaver for many years. It was called “Out to Lunch,” and combined a number of her favorite pastimes: eating; her trademark, “The Wandering Fork”; writing; and no-nonsense advice about how groups women should properly split the check.

I voiced my desire to be a writer early and often, but my father discouraged me, and insisted I take typing in high school, so I’d “have something practical to fall back on.” (My fast fingers served me well—I worked for years as an Executive Secretary.) When I finally did venture into writing professionally, when I was in my forties, my mother took one of my classes.

The first assignment—“What obsesses you? What do you think about those nights you can’t sleep?”—was designed to force writers beneath the surface of their stories. But my mother’s response so much resembled the breezy letters she’d sent me weekly for years, I realized she’d never write the novel she’d always said she was going. She realized the same thing. “You be the writer in the family,” she said.

Why do I tell you all this? Because you asked how important it is to bleed onto the page. The bigger question is, why do you want to write? Do you have a story that must be told? Is writing as important to you as the beating of your heart? Do you have a desire—a need, a compulsion—to connect with readers, to somehow, using only words, recreate emotions that your readers will feel as well? If these are the reasons you write, then yes, digging deeply—which is what the metaphor of opening a vein demands—is the only way you’ll succeed. If, like my mother (and many, many others), you decide you won’t, don’t, can’t, go deep, that you’d rather skate along the surface than tunnel back to those dark places where the best writing lurks, then your writing will remain merely competent.

"Yes . . . If writing is your passion, the result will be worth every drop."

So yes, Judy P, you do need to bleed onto the page. But listen: If writing is your passion, the result will be worth every drop.


Got a question for The Lonely Writer’s Companion? Email it to me c/o (Be sure to put “Question for The Lonely Writer’s Companion” in the subject line.) Your question could appear in a future column.


Find Your Story,
Write Your Memoir

by Lisa Lenard-Cook
and Lynn C. Miller
Buy This Book via

PEN-short-listed author Lisa Lenard-Cook’s most recent book is Find Your Story, Write Your Memoir (University of Wisconsin Press), which she co-authored with Lynn C. Miller, with whom she co-founded of ABQ Writers Co-op (, creating community in New Mexico for writers everywhere. She's an editor of the literary magazine bosque, on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, and the Board of Narrative Arts Center in Santa Fe. Website: