Staring down the Blank Page

Nothing scares me more than a blank Word document. I stare at it and await the perfect opening sentence, an idea visualized in metaphor and punctated with a singing verb. I start typing, only to end with my favorite key – the Backspace button. I hold it down until I’m back where I began, staring at empty space.

Craig, on the other hand, feverishly fills the screen with the images playing in his head. His words carry me along effortlessly long before I realize I have no idea what he’s talking about. But who cares? He writes the right way, like all the books preach. He gets it down. He keeps his pen (or fingers) moving. He turns off the critic and writes from the other side of his brain. He imagines a scene small enough to fit into a one-inch picture frame.

Me? I do it all wrong. I can’t move on to the second sentence until I have some degree of satisfaction with the first. At writing workshops, when everyone’s pens move and pages turn, I’m paralyzed by my few flat sentences.

I spent years wondering what was wrong with me. Until I read Harold Fickett’s essay “Gushers and Bleeders: On Getting Started” in A Syllable of Water: 20 Writers of Faith Reflect on their Art. It turns out Craig’s a gusher and I’m a bleeder. Gushers produce prose “like a Mississippi River without banks.” They have an easy time on the front end creating their art but a difficult time on the back end editing it. We bleeders, on the other hand, “are painfully slow at composition … rather like trying to force kielbasa through cheesecloth.” But once we get things down, we’re eager to clean them up … and maybe the first draft is already somewhat coherent.

I feel validated that my condition has a name. Even better, I’m in very good company. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth is a bleeder, or at least his character in Ghost Writer is. I have the following quote from the novel hanging in my office, tucked in my purse and stored in two places on both my home and work computers. It gives me that much comfort.

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and I write another sentence. Then I have tea and I turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”

I had hoped to post this piece on Tuesday. Then I kept turning the sentences around (I also worked late all week and read a mediocre novel for my book group). This time, however, I’m hitting Publish. Then I think I’ll need to lie down.


  1. Loved that you mentioned Phillip Roth as a bleeder. Did you see the NYT article about how he’s quitting writing another fiction book? Pretty interesting. It’s why I can’t even start.

  2. ‘I feel validated that my condition has a name.’ How true!:) Bleed on…

  3. I think there are also those of us who begin with drops of blood and, if we bleed long enough, eventually find that we have some gushing in us as well. That’s how it was for me writing my first novel. And my ill-fated attempt at NaNoWriMo this year shows me that it may be just my own writing rhythm that I must accept. I can’t gush from the get-go. I have to bleed first. Thanks for this post. I’ll probably be linking to it soon. :)

    • I think you hit it – listening to and accepting our own process. How much self-condemnation I would have avoided if I had learned that sooner.

  4. Nice Julie, I agree, and you said it better than I could have. Lee, I was getting worried….:)

  5. A ‘bleedin’ brilliant piece about the method that works best for you, Lee. It captures the front end struggle of plowing into the work…so worth the effort to bring it to the page. And while you are done, the Gushers are still on clean up duty.

    • Sadly, my only real indication that I’m done is my deadline, even a self-imposed one (“I have to post something today!”). Otherwise, I would fiddle with my pieces forever.

      Thanks for your encouragement, Julie.


  1. [...] I read a great blog post from Lee Lueck at Sketches and Notes about gushers and bleeders (read it and then pop back over [...]