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Writing to the Beat of the Vulnerable Heart

Malibu, humble bragging: "Pretty, oh, I’m not THAT pretty."
Malibu, humble-bragging: “Pretty, oh, I’m not THAT pretty.”


I’m editing a biography of an accomplished pediatric heart surgeon. The author had interview access to many of the parents of the children with damaged hearts, and he was also allowed to be in the operating room when sometimes superhuman attempts were made to repair that damage. What struck me (and terrified me too) was how with a factual narrative accounting of the bleak medical outlook for these tiny patients and the sophisticated efforts to save them, the book and its stories relentlessly pulled me into its emotional center.

I don’t have any children, so it wasn’t a reflex empathetic response. I think it was the unvarnished way the writing described the terrible conditions of these kids, born with severe defects in their hearts, and of the waves of terror and tedium that followed for the parents in attending to their care. Or helpless in the face of it. And then, in the operating room, a day of reckoning.

Vulnerability is the story’s core: here were children as young as three weeks old getting open-heart surgery, children as young as four years old getting heart transplants. The vulnerability of these tiny kids, the vulnerability of their parents—it was breathtaking. That emotional magnet in the writing pulled and pulled, no matter that some of the material was also technical and dry.

Cats Have Hearts Too
Now for a more personal story: the closest thing I have to a child is my cat Malibu, who has delivered humor, charm and consternation to my house for a few years now. A couple of weeks ago, she came in with a swollen cheek. She had a small scratch above her eye, so I presumed she had a little infection from a fight.

Malibu was semi-feral—we got her after seeing her wandering our rural neighborhood for close to a year. She’s skittish, and it’s unimaginable to consider trying to get her in a pet carrier and bring her to a vet. So she’s had a mobile vet for all the time we’ve had her. He came by, examined her, gave her a shot of antibiotics and supplied us some liquid antibiotics to give her over the next five days.

The next day, her face was inflated, the cheek bulging like a golf ball was underneath, her eye nearly shut, and her manner transformed, from lively cat to a halting, aggrieved creature. Now, I love this cat, so I was alarmed. And we couldn’t reach the vet, having left him a few anxious voice mails. By the next morning, her face had ballooned all the more, but with a ghastly twist [trigger warning: vile accounting to follow]: her wound had exploded and was oozing pus, and did so repeatedly over the next day.

We finally reached the vet, who told my girlfriend and I that the burst abscess was a good thing (!), and that were he to have come over, he would have lanced her face to release the filth. He suggested just continuing with the antibiotics routine, and apply hot compresses to her face periodically to encourage the cheek fluids on their merry way. We did, and she has fully recovered, albeit slowly, and is back to heatedly rebuking us for the rigidity of her dining schedule.

But—and parents, forgive my equation here—I was struck even more, because of the personal immediacy, of Malibu’s vulnerability, and how emotionally engulfing that sensation of vulnerability is. And thus how useful the coaxing of that sensation in a reader is for a writer.

Below is the compressed arc of Malibu’s story, considered in the sense that she’s the protagonist, with the goal of living a full cattish life, with the antagonist being the illness, the crisis/conflict being the escalation/expression of vulnerability, and its resolution seen/felt through her “readers” eyes, ours:

  1. The illness shows: something’s wrong
  2. The illness escalates: dread
  3. The illness crisis: the wretched pus
  4. The crisis complication: not hearing from vet
  5. The fear doubled: she’s going to die!
  6. The condition in stasis: anxiety ups and downs
  7. The condition betters: still paranoid, some glimpses of good
  8. The condition healed: thank god, but what if she had died?

Rilke Yanks You by the Throat
Of course, Malibu is not a character, she is a living being. And I was witnessing her (and my) vulnerability first-hand, not from reading words on a page. Our real-life relationship with Malibu over time, the sense that she’s part of our family, gave her illness the gravity. And for the children under the knife in the operating rooms, perhaps it was the life-or-death immediacy, especially after reading of the pre-operation agony of their families. That mix created the extremity of vulnerability, and its rich effect. As Neil Gaiman said, “Love takes hostages. It gets inside you.”

But with care, writers can create that sinking, engulfing feeling in the stomach of readers, the fear, the vulnerability. My lead character in the novel I’m editing has some deep cracks in his character—self-deception, a drinking problem, arrogance layered over poor self-esteem—but I’m hoping there is a building up of goodwill towards him in the reading, a sensing of his vulnerability, developed over the one-step-forward/two-steps back rocking of his world, so that readers feel his damaged heart, and beat with it.

I’ll turn here to what might seem an odd example of the expression of vulnerability, but let’s read Rilke’s famous ““Archaic Torso of Apollo”:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Of course, this is a poem, not a novel, so Rilke compresses the sense of identification and developed history in our seeing of the headless Apollo. For me, despite the power, the dazzle, and dark procreative centers, there’s a feeling of vulnerability here. And then, the simple declarative “You must change your life” is a magnitude 10 quake. Boom! Through Rilke’s genius, the reader transforms into the vulnerable one.

We all have so many small (and sometimes large) losses and longings in life. The surgeon in the biography has had so many remarkable successes, but she’s also seen death, and the devastation it brings. The devastation is a consequence of being vulnerable. I have to do a final proof on the biography, and I’m going to look for how the wording, rhythms and structure first caught me. There are ways that even sometimes cynical writers like me can put a beating child’s heart in a manuscript. And to do that well, so that your readers feel its tremors and its triumphs, could be the cat’s meow.

So, beating hearts of WU, how can you—if you want to—evoke that sense of vulnerability in your readers, without making characters or their dialog and actions maudlin, or sentimental or formulaic? Particularly, what do you think are the elements of character and structure that make that a felt sense in the reader? (And doesn’t Rilke’s last line pull on your viscera?)

About Tom Bentley [1]

Tom Bentley [2] is a novelist, essayist, and business and travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a how-to book on finding and cultivating your writing voice. His singing is known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions at tombentley.com [3].