Three times in recent weeks I have run across the same metaphor for what it means to write fiction well.
"You've got to bleed on the page." "Tell the story that makes you bleed." "If you don't bleed for your story, no one else will care."
What prompts such a gory figure of speech? Well, I was one of the persons who said it, and what I said about bleeding on the page was the closest I could get to describing the feeling of pouring my deepest hopes, pains, and longings into my work.
One day last spring, my friend came over to see me just as I finished writing a scene. When I went to the door to welcome her, I somewhat shamefacedly explained that my eyes were all red because I had just been writing a very emotional event in my novel. I had nothing to worry about. She understood.
When I write scenes that make me pause in my typing to wipe away tears, I'm not weeping because I'm writing autobiographical material. I'm living the characters' lives in my head, and I feel what happens to them as if it were real, as if they were my friends. None of them are exactly like me, but they're all drawn from pieces of me. I've known the searing guilt of hurting an innocent person--the shame of exposing myself to public ridicule--the unspoken family sorrows that few on the outside ever see. I've also felt things that can only be described as sublime: the blessing of forgiveness for the unforgivable, the rapture of hearing a virtuoso musical performance, the sweetness of pressing my cheek to my child's cheek as I wish her goodnight.
Then there are hopes that are so fused with my self that I can't untie the places where I end and the hopes begin: the hope for interracial understanding and brotherly love, the hope for a world that will always have majestic trees, clean oceans, and wild creatures, the hope that our children will grow up wise and strong and determined to protect human life and freedom.
Finally, there's faith. But nothing I can say will convey how that runs in the blood, how it was bought by blood, and why thousands of martyrs have given their life's blood for it.
So when I say "bleed on the page," I'm talking about giving the very stuff of your life to your writing--the stuff without which your life would not be yours. Blood is the sign of sacrifice, and the sealer of solemn vows. When I bleed onto the page, I do so with faith that somewhere, a reader who really, really needs it will realize that the world is full of her blood sisters and blood brothers, and that our vows are bound in paper.