Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The one-time sports writer, Red Smith, was once quoted as saying, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

I think, but don't know, that he was talking about good writing -- not just the kind of writing that defends and elevates the writer by bamboozling readers into one kind of agreement or another. Opening a vein is intimate and undefended. It is, in one sense, life-threatening and somewhat confusing: There is a longing to share (and not just convince) in a medium that defies sharing.

No one can tell the truth in words because words stand at a remove from the truth.They are secondary and fruitless. Anyone who can't help writing knows this and yet has no other recourse. I suppose the same is true for thinking, whether profound or superficial, holy or inane ... always at a distance, always defended against death, always feeling the gap between what is written or spoken or thought and the heart's desire to be enfolded by and at ease with the truth.

Poor writers, the ones who cannot find the vein, remain convinced of their convictions and seek out agreement with those convictions. Good writers know they are liars and just do their best to lie well. Writers, like anyone else, need to find the truth within their own lies. It's a bloody business ... drip, drip, drip. But what is the alternative: If the best anyone can do is to believe their own lies, well, how sad is that?

A long time ago, as a reporter, I too was a believer. No veins showing. Convinced of the mission and comforted by the convenience of standing at a distance. How kool was that: Telling tales of the ways in which others bled; finding ways to assert my truth by using the experience and thoughts of others; relying, whether in praise or blame, on some 'other' veins?

But I was lucky, I think. There were events and circumstances that rose up that pierced my heart and suddenly my veins were apparent and my craft could not reach or confine or even describe very well the piercing of this heart. The facts were before me and I was incapable of reporting the facts ... not incapable in the sense that I couldn't string words together, but incapable of truly transmitting what I claimed to transmit. Relying on someone else, elevating my pose and position according to someone else's words or thoughts or deeds ... it all became vacant and foolish ... and my beliefs collapsed in a heap at my feet.

There was, for example, the welfare mother I interviewed once. What was the hardest thing about being on welfare, I asked. And she replied that one of the hardest things was when Christmas rolled around and she was reminded by the TV over and over again of all the toys she could not buy for her kids.

Her tone and delivery were not sad. It was if she had suffered too many sorrows to be tricked by sadness any longer. She just told the truth -- opened a vein and bled. And in so doing, opened my vein. And my question became ... how could I stop this bleeding ... mine, hers, anyone's?

And the truth was, that as a writer, I couldn't. There was just no capturing life in the second-hand implements called words or thoughts or philosophies. I was defeated ... and dripping.

It was, of course, a good defeat, one I was and remain grateful to have met. Imagine going through life believing your own lies, your own second-hand implements. What a pity. But that didn't make things any easier at the time: My heart was torn out and there was no place to hide. Some part of me was distressed and yowling: My certainties were wrong ... big time.

But that welfare mom had another lesson for me: It was not enough to be tricked by sadness and then just wallow in the wailing. It was only enough to acknowledge the lies and be at ease among them. Not be tricked by them, not imagine they were the truth (even if they were), and certainly not waste time trying to convince anyone of anything.

Everyone bleeds, after all. A baby, as the Bible notes, is born between piss and shit. Piss and shit often suggest revulsion, but how can anyone be revolted by life when life itself is not revolted?

It's just something worthy of practice, I think. Piss, shit, blood, veins, lies and laughter.

Surely it's not something else, is it?


  1. Unexpected treasure - from the perspective of writing, and from the perspective of working with welfare moms. Thank you.

  2. Good quote from Smith & bloody good blog entry. Thanks.