Stroke Clinic

By Atos, Flickr Creative Commons
By Atos, Flickr Creative Commons

Our guest today is Marybeth Whalen, author of five novels. The newest one The Bridge Tender releases this month and brings readers back to Sunset Beach, North Carolina. Marybeth is the cofounder of the popular site, She Reads.

I am passionate about the craft of writing and encouraging other writers in that craft.

She and her husband Curt have been married for twenty-two years and are the parents of six children—ranging in age from college to elementary school. She spends most of her time in the grocery store but occasionally escapes long enough to scribble some words—and is always at work on her next novel. She is passionate about the craft of writing and encouraging other writers in that craft.

You can connect with Marybeth on Facebook and Twitter.

Stroke Clinic

Two of my children have been involved in year-round swim league this year, and it’s been quite the education for them—and for their newbie parents. As the year is winding up, we’re finally understanding some of the terms and conditions that come with year-round swim. Competitive and demanding, this isn’t a league for the faint of heart (parent or child). And nothing represents this better than the final meet of the regular season: the big one—the meet all the kids work hard to qualify for. So when the results of that meet come back, you better believe everyone wants to see where they fell in the rankings.

Since neither of my two swam in this big meet, I read the results with no personal stake, more for the educational value, a commentary on the state of the team, still learning how all this works. I scanned the names, noting the ones that came up more than once, the ones I’d come to know as the heavy hitters, the big kahunas, consistently bringing home wins all season long. These were the kids to watch.

TheBridgeTender high resOne week later, a missive went out about a stroke clinic which takes place during the team’s two week spring break. No practice! Bliss! But if you were struggling and wanted extra help, these clinics would be provided. A flurry of emails followed. I pictured weeping and gnashing of teeth in homes all over our suburban corner of the world as kids who thought they were getting a break found out that, no, they were going to stroke clinic instead!

When the list of names of who got a spot in stroke clinic came out, I scanned it, looking to see if my son got the spot he wanted… and finding a surprise as I did. Guess whose names I found on the stroke clinic list? The finalists from the big meet! Column after column, the names matched up. I closed the email and walked around pondering this for the rest of the day.

I’m still pondering it, in fact. Because those kids—those “best of” names—reminded me of something. The best? They get to be the best for a reason. They don’t take breaks. They never stop working to be better. They push themselves and they always know there’s something they could do better. Instead of pointing at their current rankings, they are focusing on the rankings that have not come out yet. They see an opportunity to get better…and they seize on it.

It would’ve made more sense to me if the stroke clinic list was a list of all the kids who didn’t make the cut in the big state meet. They weren’t good enough, so they want to get better. But something tells me those kids aren’t ever going to be on any lists. They’re there to pass the time, to play around, maybe to get their parents off their backs. They’re not there to win. The ones who are there to win are the ones who are there to work… and work hard.

You guys are writers so you understand the message in this little illustration without me belaboring it. You can make your own applications. I know I learned something valuable from those young swimmers, a lesson I will keep in mind for a long time to come. When I’m tempted to slack off, two words are going to come to my mind: stroke clinic. There is always work to be done, always the chance—and the choice—to get better.

Are there times you’ve gotten writing inspiration from unexpected places? Please share your encouragement with us—we’d love to hear your own “stroke clinic” experiences.



  1. says

    Most of my time working on my MBA was a lesson in boredom. But I remember a magazine article I stumbled across while researching another topic. I wish I’d saved it. The article was about the mad race among the software companies in the 80s. They were putting out product so fast that, by the time one hit the market, it was already obsolete. They interviewed a developer who worked for one company (which is probably long out of business now) who talked about how he often worked until midnight on a new program. He recalled walking out of the building one night well after midnight, turning around, and saying, “Man I love working here!”

    The article wasn’t a lesson in hard work as much as it was about passion. When you love what you do, the work isn’t unpleasant. We live in a society that has placed a high value on dollars earned and the painful sacrifice you must endure for it is this unholy thing called “work.” That’s a shame. And it’s why so many are unhappy with their jobs. Work should be the effort you make in pursuing your greatest passion. When defined in that context, work is pleasant, something you look forward to, and rewarding.

    So when I’m sitting at my Macbook every night while normal people are doing whatever it is normal people do, I’m working. And loving it. And I’ll always remember that article about a guy in the 80s who absolutely loved working 16 hour days.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..Middle Grade Book Review – Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt

    • says

      Certainly there are a lot of people who get stuck in careers they don’t like. An equally common tragedy, though, is when people start out with a real passion for their work, but it gets snuffed out by the greater forces of reality.

      The developer in that article was lucky–he got to spend 16 hours a day developing. But many fresh-faced developers with big ideas get shunted into tech support, treated like code monkeys, and told by their managers, “You’re just the tool. Tools don’t think. I hold the tool and I’ll tell you what to think.” (Real-life quote from the boss of a programmer friend, BTW.) The developers start to hate their jobs not because they hate their work, but because they love their work and they’re not allowed to do it.

      The same happens in every industry–teachers, researchers, social workers, etc. And it happens with writers, who start out with a passion for writing and then slam into the gigantic hurdle of publishing. The people who love writing are many, the people who get paid for writing are few.

  2. says


    You are focused on the young healthy swimmers – the best of the best, trying to become even better.

    I had a much different reaction to ‘stroke clinic': the place where people who have had a stroke go to get better. To improve their coordination, to regain as much as possible of what they have lost, to walk again.

    I love English – this kind of different meaning attaches to so many words. A language where cleave means both to stick together – and to split apart.

    Both metaphors work: the swimmers and the stroke survivors all need to work very hard to improve. Both need specialized help – an expert view from without. Neither have a guarantee of success – only an opportunity.

    You’ve learned from the young swimmers; I learn from the ones who will walk if at all possible. The swimmers have a shot at glory pulling them forward, but the others are fighting for their lives.

    Thanks for a great morning thought-starter.

    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt´s last blog post ..Added PRIDE’S CHILDREN – Chapter 14, Scene 4

  3. says

    Oh gee, I love this, MaryBeth. Your point goes beyond the old stale advice of keep at it, do what you love, keep-your-eye-on- the-ball kind of thing that we’ve all heard a million times. I like when you say “There is always work to be done, always the chance—and the choice—to get better.” You’ve certainly highlighted the key: to keep improving on one’s talents and skills as a sustaining goal. It reminds me of a number of authors whose early works were so wonderful and then the later books just did’t have that same quality, as if they didn’t keep up the pace. Kind of like floating instead of swimming, to use your metaphor. Thanks for the reminder to keep stroking the waters.
    Paula Cappa´s last blog post ..The Dead Grey Eye

  4. thinkpiece says

    I think the advice here is terrific, I truly do.

    The title? Well, having spent much time in an actual stroke clinic with a loved one, I find it insensitive at best. Not the best play on words.

  5. says


    I know a U.S. senator. My sister was an Olympic athlete. My wife was a junior champion ice dancer. I know a woman who was the first chair cellist with the New York Philharmonic.

    No one would imagine that those people did what they did by native talent alone. Everyone knows they worked for it to a degree that most people do not.

    Why, then, do some folks believe that becoming an author with any sizable audience is something that anyone can do just by sitting down to write?

    Don’t rest, don’t stop, keep training, put in Olympic effort. Why should it be otherwise?

  6. says

    “They get to be the best for a reason. They don’t take breaks. They never stop working to be better. They push themselves and they always know there’s something they could do better.”

    The same could very well be true for those kids who didn’t make it, but that doesn’t mean their achievement is any less valuable. Maybe even more, if they had to overcome more obstacles than “the best”. Just because they might not be future Olympic swimmers because their bodies aren’t built the same as those of “the best” doesn’t mean they didn’t work as hard. Success isn’t an automatic result of hard work, unfortunately. It depends on many more factors in a person’s environment, and often also luck. That goes for artists as well.

    “It would’ve made more sense to me if the stroke clinic list was a list of all the kids who didn’t make the cut in the big state meet. They weren’t good enough, so they want to get better.”

    They weren’t good enough… I hope nobody ever says that to their face. We’re all good enough, regardless of our achievements. And yes, it would have made more sense to give the children who didn’t make it to the big state meet another chance to do what they enjoy. It’s a children’s swimming competition, not an Olympic qualifier.

    I’m reminded of a quote that has been attributed to the Dalai Lama, but actually seems to belong to David Orr:

    “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”

    I get my inspiration from people like David Orr.
    Sorry if I seem to be taking this too seriously, but I just couldn’t help responding. I work with children for a living and your story just hit a nerve.
    Andrea van der Wilt´s last blog post ..Melia

    • says

      Something’s been bothering me about this post since I read it, and I think you put your finger on it, Andrea. I spent far too much of my life striving for what I now see as a false sort of success – one that’s defined by a media-skewed culture. I don’t like thinking of storytelling in those terms. I think so much of that kind of over-zealous competitiveness is imposed upon young people. To win at any cost is no way to strive.

      It’s not that I don’t believe that sports and stretching oneself, athletically or otherwise, is at all bad. Quite the contrary. And I don’t mind using a good sports metaphor once in a while. But as a writer I believe in striving for goals that are more about personal fulfillment than about winning or notoriety or monetary gain. I left the business world with the mantra: Life’s too short. For me writing is not about finding my way onto any list. It’s about finding myself. I try to remember that when I feel like my goals are slipping toward competitiveness or envy or obsessing over outside validation.

      Thanks, Andrea, for helping me to see why it was bothering me. I honestly wish the best to those of you who want to be on a list!
      Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Written To Death – Writer Unboxed Redirect

  7. says

    Great observations and advice, and having worked in a spinal cord injury ward and seeing the hard work the patients did to gain function, I think your title is spot on.

    When my son started playing baseball and would hesitate to swing the bat I learned to not be timid. I learned to take risks in my own writing as he took the ones on the ball field. Swing, and a hit!
    Vijaya´s last blog post ..Starcursed by Nandini Bajpai

  8. Tina Goodman says

    I have a young friend, Luke Harmon-Vellotti, who is a very gifted chess player. He plays chess everyday except his birthday. He became an International Master at the age of 14 and was accepted at many prestigious universities at age 14. (He has written chess books also.)
    Talent and constant hard work have gotten Luke very far in a short amount of time.

  9. says

    Thanks for your thoughtful piece, Marybeth. Today I got my inspiration from a bubbling fountain which I discovered after a long walk. Walks generate ideas, and usually end with me seated somewhere adding to the pieces of paper that eventually get organized into my story.

    I must confess I read your post first thing this morning and wasn’t sure what I thought. I figured I’d go about my daily routine, percolate, then come back to see what some of the other folks here had to say.

    I quite like what Ron has said and relate to the sentiment. I write on the weekends too, when I make a point of doing no work, because to me writing doesn’t feel like just work. True, it has its challenges, but my heart is one hundred percent in it. I live it. I breath it. There was a time I wrote for 26 hours, with only a few breaks, and I loved it.

    However, I also thing Vaughn has captured another important point and I will echo: life is too short. There once was a time when I pushed myself hard because I felt I had to make my writing perfect, had to get a book done and out there. All the tension and anxiety went into the story I ended up manufacturing, and that was not a good thing. (For the record, the 26 hour writing spree was something I did during that time period, but, although my attitude about writing has changed drastically since then, I would not be opposed to something similar, should the opportunity arise.)

    I don’t think you’re trying to say that we should push and forget about life, though. No. What I’m hearing is, “you get out what you put in.” That means no excuses. The writer who takes the extra time to write a scene in three different POVs to see which one is the best, to look words up, to rewrite sentences, to take a writing course, to attend a workshop, to get up at 2am to revise a sentence because guess what? they JUST captured the perfect rhythm that will make the paragraph work! That person is going to go a lot further than the writer who does the bare minimum and sits on the sidelines. It’s skill, not just talent. It’s devotion, not just pipe dreams; that means sacrifice.

    But, there is a life to live, and a balance we must all must have. If you are a writer at heart (echoing Ron again), then 16 hours of doing what you love IS living life to the fullest. When you are immersed and wholly committed, then every moment becomes an opportunity, and that I think is what it means to attend the stroke clinic. I have come to learn, though, that being immersed in writing does not preclude one from wonderful walks, sports, socializing (the BEST inspiration), family, games, and entertainment. Hold writing as number one in your heart and everything else has a way of being added in just so.
    John Robin´s last blog post ..The blog that John wrote

  10. says

    This is an excellent article not only because of the content but also because of the comments it generated. I especially enjoyed reading what Andrea wrote about the swimmers who may not be the best but try and, as John so eloquently alluded to, what Ron wrote. But please know I read you all and you’re all winners in my book. : )

  11. says

    Like you, I would have thought that the swimmers that need the most help would take advantage of the stroke clinic. But as I think about it, the people that seem to do the best in any activity are always the people that practice the most, in music, sport, and so one.

    I always struggle with writing everyday. This post came at the prefect time.