How to Move Beyond Words — Write with Blood

John Sowers

I remember sitting behind a mixing table at NRG music studios in North Hollywood. From the street, NRG looks like a back-alley warehouse, surrounded by a high, chained link fence. No flash. No fanfare. From the outside, you’d have no idea that NRG hosted artists like: Jay-Z, Linkin Park, Alicia Keys, Foo Fighters, Avril Lavigne and others.

I was sitting in Studio A listening to an artist lay down vocal tracks. The two songwriters, Ben and David, were sitting right beside me, feeling and mouth-syncing the words. After one take, Ben got up and went into the recording room. He was saying something to the singer – and she was nodding. From behind the glass, I couldn’t really hear what he was saying, but I did make out one phrase….

Bleed for me.

Ben was calling for blood. He wanted her to wring every drop of raw passion and pour it into the mic. Every ounce of soul. Every ounce of pain and feeling and life. Here were two Grammy-winning songwriters – two of the best in the world – and instead of worrying about meter, pitch or style, they wanted something deeper. Something more visceral. They wanted blood.

The singer responded. And magic happened.

This was a transformational moment for me. I began to wonder, what does it mean for an artist to bleed? As a writer, how do I reach down and spill my life onto the paper? How do I connect to and communicate from my deep soul?

In his 1946 book, Confessions of a Story Writer, Paul Gallico offers:

‘It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.’

In the 1880 novel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche says this:

‘Of all that is written, I love only what a man has written in blood. Write with blood and you will experience the blood as spirit. Whoever writes with blood does not want to be read but to be learned by heart.’

*Photo by Clive C

I know this idea of writing with blood sounds a little subjective. The best way I can describe it is when artists put words and bone, feelings and flesh on our experience. She puts words on our anguishes, elations, ecstasies – words that we would never find ourselves.

This is the big knock against most of the reality-show artists. Kids with big voices, big talent, big hair. They look the part. You listen to them and they have huge pipes. But something is missing. Something more than a voice.

Clive Davis, President of RCA Records speaks to this. He discovered talents such as: Alicia Keys, Carlos Santana, Jennifer Hudson, and Whitney Houston. He recalls the night he first heard Whitney sing:

The first time I saw her singing was in a club called Sweet Waters in Manhattan. It was a stunning impact … to hear this young girl breathe such fire into the song, I mean, it sent the proverbial tingles up my spine.

The best artists, writers, and creatives have superior craft, work ethic, talent and rare opportunity. Yes, they have a team of editors, mixers, and directors. But at the core of who they are, the best ones have learned how to pour out every ounce of themselves. They have learned how to bleed.

• • •

For a few other examples of artists who bleed well, check out:

• Adele singing “I Can’t Make You Love Me
• Dave Grohl’s acoustic version of “Times like These
• Anything written by Jazz Poet Langston Hughes

John Sowers

John Sowers

This is a post by John Sowers, one of the Storyline Contributors. John has just released his latest book, The Heroic Path: In Search of the Masculine Heart. Learn more about John's story by visiting his website or by following along on Twitter (@johnsowers).