A Little Drop of Blood

I’m not a great one for dishing out writing advice.

There’s no real reason why I should be anyway.  It’s not as if I’ve scaled the dizzying heights of Broadway or Hollywood or been buried in Poet’s Corner or anything.

Still, I’ve been writing and thinking about writing for most of my life so you could be forgiven for thinking I might have something to offer.

Some little thing…

But I don’t, not really.

As far as I’m concerned, this is no bad thing.  I sometimes feel there is quite a bit too much writing advice abroad in the world as it is.  Everybody-and-his-Cousin-who-Once-Wrote-a-Birthday-Card seems happy to dispense their version of the ‘Writing-Meaning-of-Life’ with enough earnestness to fill a small bath.

I treat writing advice in much the same way as I see if pasta is cooked.  I tend to throw writing advice at myself and see if it sticks. If it does, it’s good.  I will pretty-much listen to anyone who has anything to say about writing but, if I find I can’t use what they’re telling me, it will just slide off me and onto the floor.  The few bits of advice that actually stick will be left in place until they are crusty on my T-shirt and utterly irremovable.

But back to little old me, writing and writing.  Surely I must have something to offer, something of my own.

Okay then, I do.

In order to extract this piece of writing advice from my reluctant self, I have had to invent a scenario:

I’m eighty-five years old and I’m dying. Not next week or tomorrow, I’m dying right now.  There I am, fastened into my deathbed by my far-too-tight sheets, which I am too weak to put even a ripple in.  I have just finished doing my own rather croaky version of ‘My Way’ (complete with extra verse about being allergic to cats) and now I am at peace with the world and ready to shuffle off my mortal um_ thingie.  (I’m dying, what do you expect, accurate quotes?)

There is a tiny tap on the door and a girl peers in.  She might be twenty or twenty two.  I’ve never seen her before in my life.  She approaches my death bed quite tentatively.  I might, after all, be contagious.

“Mr Armstrong?”
“I’m sorry to bother you, on your death-bed and all…”
“S’all right.  ‘Judge Judy’ is finished.”
“I just wondered if I could_”
“Speeeeeak, my time is short!”
“Jesus, you scared me.”
“Sorry. What is it that you want?”
“I’ve admired your writing,”
“Have you?”
“Gosh, where have you been all my life?”
“Oh yes, ‘The J-Seat’ was a fine radio play and ‘The Moon Cut Like a Sickle’ was instrumental in stopping me from my street-racing ways.”
“Nice to hear, ta very much.”
“I just wondered…”
“Anything.  (coughs)  Anything.”
“I wondered if you had just one piece of writing advice to offer an up-and-coming nubile young writer, what would it be?”
“Nah, I got nothing.  Writing advice is like pasta_”
“I know that one, I’ve read your ‘Collected Blog Posts’.
“Have you?”
“Yes.  There must be something else.”
“There isn’t.”
“There must be.”
“Leave me alone, I’m dying here.”
“Please… (please).”
“All right then.  Give me a sip of that Lucozade.  Thanks.  Listen, if there was one piece of advice I feel I could add to the lexicon of writing advice… it would be this;”

The Little Drop of Blood
Everything you write.  No matter how big or small.  Prick your finger and squeeze a little drop of your own blood into it.

“That’s it?”
“That is, indeed, it.”
“It’s a Metaphor, right?”
“Do with it what you will.”
“…I like how you underlined the title and all.”
“Could you, you know, expand on it a little, perhaps?”
“I’m dying here.”
“So, what, there’s someplace else you need to be?”
“… point taken.”

To Expand a Little
For years I wrote like it was a technical exercise.  I plotted stories and created characters and chucked a bit of fancy-pants dialogue in and thought it was fine.  But there was nothing of myself in there and this showed in the hollowness of the end-product.  Somewhere along the line, I seem to have learned that a piece of writing will struggle to be any good unless you insert at least the tiniest piece of your very ‘being’ inside it.  The great trick with doing this is that this ‘drop of blood’ is at its most potent when it can’t be seen by the reader.  It needs to be like some herb or spice going into a stew, totally assimilated, never to be seen again, but still flavouring everything.

“Wow, long speech.”
“Could you possibly repeat it one more time so that I can scribble it down for posterity?”
“Mr Armstrong? Mr Armstrong?


Grannymar said...

Great advice for a dying man! ;)

In fact there should be "A Little Drop of Blood" in everything we do in life.

Ken Armstrong said...

Thanks Grannymar, lovely to see you there.

I was afraid you were going to give-out to me for dying at only 85. :)

L.J. said...

Thank you for this. I can barely get through an hour let alone a day without writing something in my head. I wake up and it's words. I remember in my sleep. Every train journey home is a story I don't write. I want to write. I need to. Yet I endlessly second guess myself and teeter between feeling inspired and intimidated. Both reflective and original works I struggle with how much of myself I let in there. And yet I can't seem to do it any other way. I always fear that anything I write is too self absorbed and end up writing nothing. It's not that I care what people think so much as I fear they won't understand. Mostly I've slowly started writing over the past few months because I have to for myself. Because even if no one ever hears my thoughts or stories I hear them. So..thank you for reminding me my words alone for me are okay.

Ken Armstrong said...

Thanks L.J. A valuable comment. Keep writing, at all costs. I think it is possible to let too much of oneself into the writing and thus lose some balance but it is far-better to err on that side that to writer from a cold and remote place. The crucial balance comes with time and practice (we hope). :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Preaching to the choir, old son. It’s why I can’t quite get to grips with people who just write stories. I’m not saying that what we write shouldn’t be entertaining but it shouldn’t be just entertaining; it should aspire to be something more.

There is a joke about a wonder-rabbi at his death-bed, with all his diciples gathered together to hear his last words. The wonder-rabbi murmurs "Life.... is like.... a bagel." All his disciples are abuzz with the message: "Pass it on: The wonder-rabbi says life is like a bagel!" The word is passed on till it reaches the synagogue-sweeper, the lowliest of the flock. He asks" "Life is like a bagel? How is life like a bagel?" The buzz starts again as the question propagates back to the deathbed of the wonder-rabbi: "Wonder-Rabbi, How is life like a bagel?"

The wonder-rabbi pauses for a moment and then says "Okay, so life's not like a bagel." And then he dies.

Art Durkee said...

Blood and bones and soma and guts and sensuality and all the messy bits of life. Yes.

Lots of writers seem to think it's a purely intellectual exercise, a nice diversion and game for the verbal part of the mind, and forget to include the body and soul and blood and bones, etc. That's why so much writing is so very dry and unreadable. Your advice here is brilliant. It needs to be taken to heart by more writers. I've been having arguments with poets on this very point for decades. Contemporary poetry is way too much head and not nearly enough blood. Once you figure out the puzzle-box, why bother re-reading when there's no pleasure in it?

My all-time favorite actual Zen enlightenment poem:

"Now that I'm enlightened,
I'm just as miserable
as ever."

Ken Armstrong said...

Jim: I knew I had nothing new to tell you hear. Love the wee joke.

Art: I sense you write with all the bone and gristle as well as the blood, it kinda shows. :)

Jena Isle said...

Hello Ken,

I've been reading your posts since 2008? and every time I read one of them, a new perspective is added to mine. But I had wondered often if these were really "drops of blood" from you.

Now I understand, correct me if I'm wrong, these posts strike a balance of who you really are and what you want the world to know.

Thanks for that insight, a drop of blood into one's writing would really lend more meaning and "soul" into one's post.

Ken Armstrong said...

Dear Jena Isle, you are indeed a most constant visitor - something I appreciate greatly and never take for granted.

I think there is a little drop of blood on all of these little posts. Perhaps that's why I'm so pale. :)

maybepoet said...

The Lorenzo’s Oil of literature,
Is distilled into being by writers skilled
in nail-hitting, atom-splitting and advanced

It begins with a rendering
of pain, joy or poignancy
trimming off fatty irrelevance,
Scratching out insipid detail

More importantly
You need to imagine trying to describe to some heartless alien how
your first kiss felt,
not forgetting to be beautifully vague
and leave curious voids
where all your tear-splashed thoughts
bled on the page.

R. Brady Frost said...

Ken, I REALLY enjoyed this post of yours. Good to see a few familiar faces in your comments as well. I got a huge kick out of Jim's joke.

Writing advice is dangerous. I have plenty of books filled with mumbo-jumbo in my bookshelf. I've often wondered if maybe we'd all be better off if the authors of these books had written them when they'd first started out rather than after they've gotten the credentials to convince an editor they can make sales. By that point, I'd wager many of these authors have forgotten what it was like to be small and fragile.

I used to subscribe to writing magazines, but it didn't take long to realize that 5 Ways to do... every single month was more hogwash than anything else.

The only dependable way to learn how to write, in my opinion, is to actually write. If you spend all your money on writing books, you're moving in the wrong direction. Learning how someone else writes won't teach you how to be... you.

If you get sick and end up on that deathbed, even if it's when you're 85, you better let me know so I can come visit you! We can pretend we're pirates and down a bottle of rum. If you're not feeling up to it, I'll finish it for ya! Okay, it might have to be a wee bottle in that case.

Ken Armstrong said...

Maybepoet: Thanks. Sounds like your death bed will be more interesting than mine. :)

Brady: Good to see you there, a venerable 'old face' yourself. I'll look forward to that rum... emmm... not too much though. :)

Ken Armstrong said...

Thanks Finn. Hope all is well down you way. :)