Bleeding on the page is something that students of writing are taught not to do. “While she’s not bleeding on the page,” a professor might say of some essay, “she gets across her melancholy by selecting vivid details.” To bleed on the page is to release a bolus of emotion, an uncontrollable gush, a repetitive torrent of self-pity. I can’t illustrate it with published examples, perhaps because the sanguinary submissions were rejected. I can, however, give some examples from my own writing, since I started thinking about bleeding on the page after I noticed myself doing it in my notebook (I had also taken to writing about myself, occasionally, in the third person):
Having given up on sleep, the writer settled onto the couch with her notebook, writing quickly in cursive and slashing out forbidden letters, half-written names. The messier the better. At five words or so per line, the pages were covered quickly, making it seem as if she had “gotten out” more than she would have in a notebook with wider pages and less space between the blue squiggles.
Bleeding on the page might seem like just a catchy phrase, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to connect many of the questions and doubts I had about writing, specifically, about style, which I would define as the way a writer chooses to present information or ideas to a reader.
The antithesis of style, bleeding on the page involves no choice and serves no reader. A means of excreting misery, it has a certain literalness, as if rather than evoking woundedness, you provide a blood sample. Though this release may serve the author, it doesn’t consider the reader at all. In thinking about what was “wrong” with bleeding on the page, I came to appreciate style.
I’m sure that some proportion of readers will question my definitions–always great sources of confusion. I remember talking with friends on Friday night about who within our group of school acquaintances had “drunk the Kool-Aid.” After going on for a while about who had drunk it, we realized that we couldn’t agree on exactly what “having drunk the Kool-Aid” actually meant.
But however you define it, style is one of the most basic aspects of writing. To those who have drunk the—ehem, studied writing, it’s given that writers think about their audience and write in what, to the uninitiated, might seem a calculated way to communicate to that audience. I now know that all writing possesses style, even if the style mimics spontaneous speech or thought. Yet I did not always know that.
A college biology major, I wasn’t introduced to style until graduate school, where I studied journalism and read A Room of One's Own for my elective about essays. It did not make a good first impression.
When I learned that Virginia Woolf’s celebrated essay, so conversational and spontaneous in tone, was more stylized than genuine, I felt as if I had just bitten into a beautiful apple and gotten a mouthful of wax. It seemed counterintuitive, like fake fruit or buying plastic flowers in the spring. Why should Woolf work to sound as if she’s just speaking her mind? Why should she labor, while preparing to deliver a lecture about women and fiction, to make it sound as if she just happened to recall the day when she walked along the river and then was told to stay off the turf and couldn’t use the library and then had a dinner of stewed prunes? Perhaps my true question was, or is, ‘You mean I can’t just write what I’m thinking and sound good?’
The attitude that leads to asking such a question is, I think, the same one that leads to bleeding on the page, some blend of selfishness and naïveté. There was a time in my writing life when no distinction lay between what I wrote for myself, in my diary, and what I wrote for publication, since I had published almost nothing, and the things that I did intend to publish were rejected. Writing was just writing and I tried, in my naïve way, to make it good writing, which I defined as saying what I thought in the clearest way possible. Implicitly, I meant “the way that seems clearest to me.” As “writing was writing,” my voice was my voice. I thought of it as something to develop, like a muscle, and that once it was mature, the words it chose would be the right ones. Bleeding on the page epitomizes this way of writing: its aim is self-expression, not communication.
Consciously or not, I had imagined or hoped that Woolf and David Foster Wallace, another extemporaneous-sounding writer, had developed their voices so that when they sat down to let their thoughts wander, what came out was A Room of One’s Own or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The idea of writing in a particular way to have a particular effect on an audience struck me as deceptive and manipulative. I felt duped to learn, for example, that Woolf wasn’t displaying genuine modesty when she suggested that the reader or listener could “throw the whole of it into the wastepaper basket” but, rather, was stooping to make that reader feel at ease.
Alas, it’s true: Virginia Woolf is not really making conversation in A Room of One’s Own; her epistolary essay Three Guineas is not a real letter; A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again isn’t actually David Foster Wallace’s minute-by-minute thoughts about his time on the cruise ship, provided by some sci-fi thought-transcription service. Santa Claus is not real, either. Style can feel like deception on one level. On the other hand, everyone should know that pieces of writing are just pieces of writing, essays, composed at desks and tables, meant to communicate certain ideas to readers. To make them seem like conversations or diary entries or stream-of-consciousness thoughts or anything requires style.
Maybe style is less add-on than necessity. Without it, all a writer can do is confess immediate feelings, which, in the extreme, is exactly what bleeding on the page is.
I’m trying to forget you. I think about you every time I pick up a book or a pen or…I would not have tried to cry on your shoulder. But my cool letters lie: I cry about you on other people’s shoulders.
Confession has its limits. Even when high emotions are involved, something beyond literal confession is necessary in order to capture the grief of fictional characters or to recall our past selves or to temper present grief to levels befitting a public persona.
Me 1: This is going on and on. I’m not sure what this is. As literature, it is bleeding on the page.
Me 2: But I am bleeding! Why not put it on the page?
Me 1: Go to a hospital.
Bleeding on the page has more than limits: it has real problems. It is not written at a desk after breakfast; it’s written in the middle of the night, between bouts of crying, and this is not an advantage but a handicap.
Writing from emotion is something Virginia Woolf has quite a lot to say about, and I have come to agree with her stance. Woolf thinks that it is wrong to write in a state of high emotion because it prevents one from “think[ing] of things in themselves.” In a vivid scene from A Room of One’s Own, Woolf goes to the library to research women and fiction and, as she reads tomes with titles like The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex, she starts to doodle her impression of the author, a man whose “expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained.” She later gives these volumes up for “worthless” because “they had been written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth.”
The failure to think of things on their own is not unique to men or to history. In the past (A Room of One’s Own was published in 1929), Woolf believes, resentment hobbled women's writing by getting in the way of clear thinking. Charlotte Bronte, she writes, may have had this problem. Woolf quotes a passage from Jane Eyre and then comments that its sentences seem to contain some barred emotion trying to escape: “If one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters.” Today, women still write of themselves from defensive positions in “explaining” their choices.
In the scribblings that punctuate this essay—“writing quickly in cursive and slashing out forbidden letters, half-written names”—I am guilty of a similar crime. This notion of “getting out” something by writing is exactly what Woolf advises against. But hold on: Woolf was talking about published books, here. I am talking about a diary. Isn’t it okay to be self-centered in your own private notebook? I don't think so, both because, as I said, I tend to hold all my writing to the same standards and because being in an emotional state, period, is bad for writing. “I think about you every time I pick up a book or a pen.” Oh dear. The ideal writer, in Woolf’s view, has nothing to get out, no misery to excrete, and thinks of nothing but her subject when she picks up her stylus. As Mary Gordon writes in her 1981 foreword to A Room of One’s Own, “The clarity of heart and spirit that [Woolf] attributes to writers like Shakespeare and Jane Austen who have expressed their genius ‘whole and entire’ demands a radical lack of self that might be required of a saint.”
Virginia Woolf thought that writing with a clear head was essential and bleeding on the page, anathema. But if you are writing with a clear head, then emotions you do express have to be fabricated, recreated, and the argument against bleeding on the page becomes an argument for style.
I began to wonder what would happen if a writer chose not to bleed on the page to but to write “in the style of” bleeding on the page. I think that in Woolf’s view, the only acceptable time to write in a “bleeding on the page style” is when one is not at all upset but one’s character, including the narrator of a first-person essay, is. For Woolf, style has is not just about aesthetics; it has an almost moral element.
I'm not going to go into Susan Sontag's ideas on style, but I can't resist mentioning here that Sontag believed that in order for an act to be moral, it had to involve choice. In her essay "On style," she discusses the way even art that seems transgressive is moral because it develops one's sensibility and extends our bounds of thought. "It is sensibility," she continues, "that nourishes our capacity for moral choice and prompts our readiness to act, assuming that we do choose, which is a prerequisite for calling an act moral, and are not just blindly and reflexively obeying." Writing with style, that is, writing deliberately, is the moral way, in that view, while bleeding on the page is not.
Anyway, style may be necessary, obligatory and the alternative to bad writing. But what’s good about it? I need to know because something still bothers me about the whole thing: I still don’t like the idea of fake flowers. Maybe the problem lies in the analogy. The writer of stylized words isn’t buying sentences off the shelf; the writer is creating them. Maybe instead of comparing stylized writing to fake flowers from the dollar store, a better analogy would be to hand-painted blossoms. There, the advantage of a style is clear. It lets the artist create things as they choose instead of accepting what reality provides. Wouldn’t you rather have Van Gogh’s sunflowers?
Style lets a writer tailor her prose, and one way to do that is to write for a particular audience: to think about readers already know, what information you can give them and what kind of language they are likely to respond to. In that way, style, which I once saw as manipulative, seems accommodating.
It can also convey ideas by embedding metaphors in the very structure of a piece of writing. For example, I once wrote an essay (unpublished) where some parts were in the style of a play. I had thought about making it a play altogether and was advised against it. I wasn’t a playwright, and the essay would not have worked well as a play. Yet giving it that style improved the essay because it helped me show the reader that what was happening was like a play. By combining the forms, I gave the piece more wiggle room and leeway to be its own thing. It was admittedly not quite a play and not quite a memoir and I hope that, in the reader’s mind, it finds a legitimate existence somewhere between the two.
On the subject of metaphor: In the introduction to The Broken Estate, a collection of James Wood’s literary criticism, Wood says something about fiction that expresses the power of creating something in the style of another. Wood describes a scene from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Two parent characters, each in a lidded bin, are talking to their son, Hamm, through their servant, Clov. It's a surreal situation. When the mother, Nell, dies, and no more sound issues from her bin, Wood comments on how much it moves him even though Nell isn’t a real mother, even though the scene is “not quite” like reality: “This ‘not quite’ is a big enough connection between my real world and Beckett’s imagined world,” he writes. “Perhaps what this scene reveals is that representation needs only a very small point of connection, and the smaller the point of impact, the more acute the effect.”
What is it about this "small point of connection" that gives it such potency? Maybe the answer lies with the reader’s imagination. The more abstract the art, the more the reader or audience member can fill in. Everyone has a unique connection to a piece of art—everyone will connect to Endgame’s parents, Nell and Nagg, in a slightly different way because they draw on different memories of different parents, which they can superimpose on the abstract figures onstage. The abstract is more accessible than the literal.
Style is, in some way, a form of abstraction. Something “in the style of” something else is “not quite” like the real thing but evokes it, limns it. Maybe literalness is the ultimate fault of bleeding on the page. It is not Virginia Woolf's spider web of fiction “attached ever so lightly, perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners,” four small points of connection to reality. Bleeding on the page is so bound to real life that it seems, to use Woolf’s description of science, “dropped like a pebble on the ground.” Woolf was writing about fiction, but I think this concept applies to essays, too; though they are more fact-bound than fiction, essays are still works of art.
The bleeding-on-the-page essay cannot choose when to touch down: it is practically bent over, burdened by its literalism. I remember getting a graded essay back from a teacher and seeing “too much” written where I had added one detail too many. If one extra detail weighs down an essay, then you can image the sagging of an essay that bleeds on the page.
How would a “bleeding on the page” style be different? It would show the reader, a particular reader, what heartsickness is like, presenting a birds-eye view of the diarist on the couch, not just a transcript of her writings. It would give just the right number of details and leave room for the reader’s imagination to do its job. It would be written not in a state but in Woolf’s “white light of truth.”
I wish I could be more dramatic about the end of my journey toward style, but in fact, I came to realize these things not while walking along a river, not at gunpoint, not while flipping through books at the British Museum, especially not crying over a notebook. Yes, I read Woolf, Wood and Beckett; yes, the occasional idea came while jogging alongside cornfields, but I often couldn’t remember the good idea when I got home from my run. The real ‘ahah’ moments about style and bleeding on the page came at a desk writing an essay.