The Writer’s Stethoscope

Written By: Susan Walker-Spring

The water beckons me, but I can’t go. Too many responsibilities on land and, anyway, I don’t know how to swim. Still it calls to me until, inevitably, I abandon all reason, gather my pen and my courage, and approach the pool. I breathe deeply, hold that breath, and dive in.
I am home.

At the beginning of medical school you get a stethoscope. You start out clumsily with the instrument; you mimic others and attach it to your ears in what you hope is the proper orientation; you listen to a patient’s heart beating, but you are completely unable to interpret what you hear. Then, you learn. You learn that there is a world of difference between listening to the heart and listening for an identified checklist of normal or abnormal sounds. Is the first heart sound too loud? Does the second split apart slightly when the patient breathes in? Is there a noise between the two that does not belong? You follow each ‘lub-dub’ cardiac cycle, listening over and over and over again until all items on the list are checked off. Now, you practice. Patient after patient, heartbeat after heartbeat, cycle after cycle, each an opportunity to become more skilled at listening, more confident in your ability to understand what you are hearing, to detect a problem should one exist. Finally, armed with what you hear and what you know, you make a plan to improve your patient’s condition.

I have been a doctor for over two decades, my stethoscope now an extension of my body, a third arm, a sixth sense. I have listened to thousands of pediatric hearts, tens of thousands of cardiac cycles, and I am as confident as one ought to be when caring for children, which is to say, I am confident, but not arrogant. I continue to hone my skill as I approach the plateau of the learning curve. Each patient heart is unique, of course, but few of those hearts present me with a diagnostic challenge.

This year, a new adventure begins. After three consecutive years of relegating my Southampton Children’s Literature Fellowship application to the electronic trash bin (No time! Not capable!), I abandon all excuses and all reason and hit ‘send.’ My writer’s stethoscope is new and unfamiliar in my timid ears. I play with it, of course, I place it against my story’s chest and ponder its heart, but interpretation does not come. Is it sick or healthy, a piece of good writing, or not? How to tell? I find myself near the bottom of this new learning curve, where it is most steep and intimidating, and the plateau seems far away.

I make a left turn into the Southampton College parking lot, following signs adorned with a blue lifeguard chair. “Southampton Writers Conference,” they declare. Are lifeguards required here? Is this experience dangerous? I don’t know, but my heart beats as if it is. Voice and microphone shaking, I read my response to a writing prompt to a room full of writers more competent than I. I sit with new writers in a small classroom, each of us spellbound by the teaching of a master storyteller. I listen as seasoned writers read their work. I chat with writers over coffee and laugh with them over wine, and it occurs to me about half way through the week that maybe, just maybe, I might be a writer, too.

Echoes of medical student uncertainty arrive, waves of ‘imposter syndrome’ unworthiness that crash over me as I work. All the other conference participants are further along in their manuscripts, I am sure; they have better premises, can convey their thoughts more clearly than I. It isn’t my first experience with this condition. I tolerate its presence as one does the familiar ache of an old back injury returning like an unwelcome guest whenever the weather is bad, and press on. ‘There are no such things as good writers, only a good piece of writing,’ I am told. Surrounded by great writers, I allow myself to believe this small deception because it encourages me: I might be capable of good writing, too, someday.

But how to get there? In workshop sessions that seem to last mere minutes although hours pass, I am shown the path. I pick up that trusty stethoscope and listen to my work. Does the voice ring true? Is the narrative distance appropriate? Should this part be scene or summary? Clarity unfolds like a flower in bloom, and I am amazed at what I uncover. How had I overlooked that vague description, that inauthentic voice? Why had I not thought to add that detail earlier; how many ‘suddenlys’ does one paragraph need? Alternately amused and horrified, I correct these errors and move forward. Reaching the end of my piece, I go back to the beginning and read it again, listening for another identifiable echo of amateur work. As I practice, I adjust my understanding and my writing; my patient slowly improves.

Confidence grows quietly within me, and in response I write. I write in the morning, tapping my keyboard thoughtfully under a white tent on the sprawling Southampton College lawn. I write at night, laptop and elbows resting upon striped comforter, bedtime be damned. I write at lunch. I write instead of lunch. I write with children surrounding me, clamoring for my attention, and I write alone on my back deck as sunlight fades over the harbor. I write as time folds and disappears, as shadows grow longer and other obligations grow more pressing. I do not ever write perfectly. I do not often write well. But I am improving.

Equally important, I am happy. Ridiculously, completely, utterly happy, and it occurs to me that this must be what makes me a writer. Not having a list of published works (although of course that would be nice), and not the fact that I can or can’t make a living off this work (although that, too, would be nice). What makes me a writer is that I love writing, all of the messy, overwhelming, frustrating, and exhilarating moments of it. I can’t imagine not doing it. It’s part of who I am.

As the conference draws to a close, a final assignment looms. I, along with all participants, must respond to one last prompt. We crowd together in Avram Theater, a group of introverts more comfortable with solitude than stage. Still unsure, yet less so than one week earlier, I approach the podium, look out at my fellow writers, and begin, “The water beckons me…”