Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
May 18, 2016

The Gift of an Opened Heart

 Mari Ann Stefanelli

Blazing fear woke me. Suffocating, I sucked and clawed at the air. A cardiac intensive care nurse held my hand, murmuring it’s ok, it’s ok, you’re on a ventilator, remember?

My doctors told me I should never have gotten endocarditis, a potentially fatal bacterial infection that attacks the heart. Endocarditis is uncommon in people with healthy hearts, I read on mayoclinic.org.

I had a healthy heart. Until––

  • In 1999, two months after my daughter was born, my mother was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer––a death sentence.
  • Days later, postpartum depression set in.
  • We moved closer to my mother.
  • I quit working and quit writing.
  • I got pregnant with my second child, a son.
  • In December 2001, my mother died.
  • Four months later, during my son’s birth, his head came out but his shoulders were stuck. Two nurses jumped on top of me and jackhammered my abdomen to force him out. I was certain we would die. My husband grabbed my hand, saying it will be okay.
  • Seven days after his birth, my son was hospitalized and placed on IV antibiotics. His penis was infected from a circumcision I didn’t want him to have.
  • In the hospital, I held my son for the next seven days and prayed, while a maddening rash blistered my body. The most powerful antibiotic in existence conquered his infection, and we returned home.

As a writer, I considered sharing all the pain, loss, and fear I’d experienced in less than three years. Start a blog. Grieve. But I remembered my mom telling me, “When I was diagnosed with cancer, I never asked ‘why me?’ I thought, ‘why not me?’” If she had found grace and dignity to face death, couldn’t I pull myself together to face life?

I became a human trash compactor, piling my emotional offal into a heart-shaped chamber, pushing, stomping, and crushing it into semi-submission for almost a decade. And like a handy can of Lysol, a smile and laugh were my camouflage. Odd illnesses vexed me and perplexed my doctors, and I knew buried emotions were poisoning me. Still, the fear of reliving––perhaps really living––that pain was unthinkable. But the urge to write lingered.

While I vacuumed, swept the floor, or showered, entire passages skittered through my brain, and I wanted to write about how postpartum depression had torn me from my baby girl, how my mother’s death came when I most needed her, how close I’d come to losing my infant son––and perhaps myself. Instead, I wrote a restaurant review.

In 2009, I realized I didn’t want to feel, but I did want to write. I joined the venerable Atlanta Writers Club. I was shocked when my halfhearted efforts rewarded me. The first workshop I attended was the acclaimed author Jessica Handler’s “Writing through Grief,” where I sobbed as I wrote the first words of my memoir. At another workshop, I talked with Jedwin Smith, an author and former journalist twice nominated for a Pulitzer. I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a friend like Jedwin? Later, a top-notch literary agent requested a book proposal. The writing life beckoned, but I wavered.

In September 2010, I came down with a 103.5° fever, debilitating chills, and a constant river of sweat. I saw two doctors in two weeks; both misdiagnosed me. When my heart began to hurt, I saw my cardiologist.

Within an hour, I was diagnosed with endocarditis; ultrasound pics showed bacteria attached to my heart’s mitral valve. Two weeks’ unfettered access to an all-they-could-eat-heart-buffet made them huge, like kelp. Six weeks of powerful IV antibiotics killed the kelp, although big holes remained.

Two months later, I had open-heart surgery to repair the damage. My heart was stopped and sliced open; a heart-lung machine breathed for me and oxygenated my blood. I woke up on a ventilator. It was as frightening as it sounds, but in three days I was home­­––and my heart was healed.

In 2011, Jedwin Smith offered a writers’ workshop three miles from my home. I registered and made up my mind: I was a writer, and I was going to revel in all life’s pain and glory. Classmates soon became friends. One nominated me for a fellowship to attend a retreat taught by the renowned author and writing coach Rosemary Daniell. Others asked me to review their work. Jedwin showed me I had an aptitude for editing and helped me turn that into a career.

Buoyed with love and encouragement, I wanted to share this joy with other struggling writers. I asked the general manager of my favorite vacation spot, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a writers’ retreat here?”

“Yes!” he said. “And the owner knows Winston Groom––the Forrest Gump author. We’ll invite him.”


In 2015, I launched The Writer’s High Retreat™, with Winston Groom as the guest of honor. Jedwin and Rosemary agreed to speak. Rosemary invited her dear friends Pat Conroy and Cassandra King. Pat had another commitment, but Cassandra, another of my literary heroes, said yes. I emailed Kimberly Brock, telling her how much I had admired her debut novel, The River Witch. Would she consider presenting at my debut retreat? Yes.

At the retreat, Kimberly’s presentation startled me. “To tell the stories of our hearts, we must face what we fear most. Those are the only stories worth telling.”

That’s it!

To tell the stories of our hearts, we writers must face our fear. Fear will steal your breath and suffocate you until you remember––it’s only an impediment: a ventilator for me, something else for you. Sometimes, all we need is one person who will hold our hand at a panicked moment and remind us, it will be okay. OKAY doesn’t mean we can change the past or bring back loved ones or get rid of disease––it means while we have breath, there is hope. Kimberly told us hope is the gift of all stories.

If your story is locked in your heart, there is a writing community waiting to embrace you. It may be online, it may be bricks and mortar, or it may be something you create yourself. It can change your life. It can open your heart.

No surgery required.

Your turn, WITS readers - what odd gifts has life given you that have helped you write?

 *  *  *  *

Mari Ann Stefanelli

 bio photoMari Ann Stefanelli has loved writing since she could grasp a pencil. Originally from Gainesville, Florida, she graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in public relations and had a fabulous career in that field. In 2015, a series of epiphanies spurred her to launch her writing and editing business, The Writer’s High™, LLC. She also launched The Writer’s High Retreat ™, which debuted in April 2015, to share with others the joy she’s found in writing. Mari Ann lives with her husband and children and high-maintenance rescued mutt in the Southeast where, with the sun as her muse, she’s writing a memoir about lies, love, and open-heart surgery. Mari Ann can be reached at mariann.stefanelli@gmail.com, http://www.twitter.com/thewritershigh

http://thewritershigh.com, and http://www.facebook.com/thewritershigh.


60 comments on “The Gift of an Opened Heart”

  1. Such a beautiful post, Mari Ann. My heart hurts for yours! Life has put many gifts in my path. Painful, but it's amazing - the mind takes all that, stirs in something I'd never have thought of, and it comes out on the page.

    It's endlessly fascinating for me, and I hope it helps someone who reads it, that's going through hard times - a reminder that things can change in an instant, and bad things can work out . . . even if you can't see how. Thanks for the lovely post.

    1. Thank you, Laura! You're right––it's funny how pain becomes lodged, even though the crisis has long since passed. But then it becomes a sort of common denominator––especially among writers––transforming us and our writing in ways we couldn't have imagined. I sometimes wonder if all writing is inspired by pain and loss...

  2. That you for this post. I too, have a strong desire to write about my pain. Instead, I've tried to fictionalize it. 40,000 words in my truth has morphed into something I hardly recognize. But, I procrastinate - out of fear - of relieving it, hurting others, or exposing the dark truth. Is there an online group of memoir writers? I'd love to check it out. Thank you for giving me a bit more courage. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

    1. Sheila, congratulations on reaching 40,000 words! That's a tremendous milestone. As I read your comment, I found myself thinking we have a lot in common:) Fear and procrastination can keep us from excising the pain that festers within. But your decision to share your truth as fiction and reaching a major milestone in your story show me you're committed to the journey. I'm not aware of an online group for memoir writers, but perhaps some others will let us know? If there isn't, I'd be happy to start one with you!

        1. Sheila, I'll be in touch––I'm hearing about several wonderful organizations but still looking for an online memoir group. We may have a new venture to explore!

    1. Thank you, Anne! I feel so fortunate to be part of our wonderful critique group. I hope other writers will find or create a safe place to share their work with other writers. There is no friend like a fellow writer:)

  3. Such a beautiful post, Mari Ann!!! Thank you for sharing it with the WITS community.
    I open my heart every time I sit to write. For me, fiction is a way to pour my fear into something more productive.

    And Ms. Kimberly Brock definitely has a way to of touching those places you thought you could hide from. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Orly! I hope other writers will feel your words in their heart. I know it can be a challenge to face our fears, but once we do, we can channel them and make them work for us.

      I'm beginning to look at my life as BKB and AKB––before Kimberly Brock and after Kimberly Brock. How I ever got through a day without her generous and unfailing support is beyond me. Writers, if you have the chance to attend one of her workshops, see her speak, or read her book or posts, don't miss it!

  4. This is a gorgeous post, Mari Ann. Thank you for posting with us here at WITS!

    Grief is a tricky little bastard. Patient as a spider, stealthy as a spy. It will hang around the periphery of your life and wait until you process it. And even after you thought you were done and "processed," it will hide in your pockets to suprise you at odd moments. Writing helps so much, doesn't it?

      1. I understand. And it's super scary. I think I was attracted to writing women's fiction so I could get at all those pesky emotions. 🙂

        1. Pesky emotions––love that! I've always written narrative nonfiction, but lately I've been considering a fling with fiction. It seems so...freeing and wonderful.

          Any other writers out there who move easily between the two? Or is this an impossible dream?

  5. There is so much meat on this bone, Sugar. Mmm . . . mmm . . . mmm. You don't gloss over the unimaginable happenings, and you don't dwell on them either. You don't blame others or bemoan your fate, you just name it, accept it, own it, and keep moving. You see how these things have changed you, the opportunities they have offered you. I'm probably not making sense, and there's a reason for that. A good one. Just know that I love you, and I thoroughly enjoyed your post.

  6. Mari Ann... Thank you so very much for this inspiring post. I'm deeply moved. I've written 3 published memoirs about my life rescuing horses from abuse and neglect, and the sanctuary we operate in GA. Reliving some of their stories oftentimes leaves me feeling gutted (as I sob on my keyboard) yet it's also truly cathartic. Thank you for sharing with us. HUGS!

    1. Melanie, your words brought tears to my eyes! Animal cruelty is beyond my comprehension and often makes me ashamed to be human. Is your horse sanctuary in Canton, Georgia, by any chance? I'm searching for your memoirs… Hugs to you!

      1. We're in Lincolnton. An hour north of Augusta on the SC line. Currently caring for nearly 50 horses. And I'm honored that you'd take a peek at my books. THE HORSES OF PROUD SPIRIT, HOOF PRINTS, and THE DOGS OF PROUD SPIRIT. Proceeds from sales help us continue our rescue work.

  7. I was riveted with this post from word one, Mari Ann. I too came to writing in a "come to Jesus" moment, when, after my first husband's suicide, I felt as if the Great Creator had thrown me up against the wall to get my attention. The calling to write about the events I and my young sons were caught up in was clear, and ended up in my novelization of those events in THE FAR END OF HAPPY. Opening one's heart has the most amazing affect of getting others to open theirs, as well. I wish you much joy and meaning on your writing journey.

    And I too have benefitted from Kimberly Brock's insight, at a time when that story was told and I was unsure of what direction to head in next. Love me some Kimberly Brock!

  8. Kathryn, I can't thank you enough for sharing your thoughts. So many times I doubted myself and wondered if my story would be meaningful to anyone else. One morning, I felt a lightning bolt from above and a clear command followed: It's not a competition. Write.

    When I opened my heart to writing, and to living, I found joy, peace, and extraordinary friends.

    And speaking of extraordinary friends, one of these days, I'm convinced there will be a Kimberly Brock Award!

  9. Good grief Mari Ann, (no pun intended), what you've been through. And the fact that you are able to open your heart and spill it on the page, well, I am in awe. “To tell the stories of our hearts, we must face what we fear most. Those are the only stories worth telling.” You my dear keep good company. What an inspirational well to draw from. It is obvious that it's rubbed off on you. What a beautiful post! There are some, like yourself, that have experienced a tremendous boatload of grief. And yet, are not able to share it in their writing. What, may I ask, has given you the strength to face your fears and share it with the world? How do you deal with all those unearthed emotions? You are one brave girl!

  10. Karen, I know what you mean--it's HARD to tell our stories. The show Naked and Afraid has nothing on writers;)

    I had so many health issues that became more and more serious each passing year, but the endocarditis was a wakeup call. It had had plenty of time to attack my heart because two doctors misdiagnosed me over two weeks. One part that's not in the post is that there was also a chance the IV antibiotics wouldn't kill the bacteria. If that had happened, I wouldn't be here. But the antibiotics did work. Still, I realized my buried emotions were poisoning me, and if I didn't write all the pain out of my body, I might actually die before my time. That was a big motivator:)

    You're kind to say I'm brave, but I was terrified. Like many writers, I'm fairly introverted and don't like walking into unfamiliar territory. What kept me motivated and gave me courage? The new writer friends I made every time I took a step in the "write" direction. These wonderful, generous, kind, talented writers have turned my life around, helping me create a career from chaos.

    I know there are other writers out there who are facing problems much worse than mine. I hope they'll trust me and take a chance. Go to a writers' club meeting or join an online writing group or attend a retreat––the rewards are great and the risk is minimal:)

  11. Mary Ann, I think we are sometimes at our bravest when we are the most terrified. We are forced to be brave and grow even when we don't think it's possible. Thank you for sharing your journey. Your post was so moving, I'm sure your memoir will touch the hearts of many and help some people through their own tough times. Many a memoir has helped me heal, making me realize that I'm not alone in the pain and grief I've experienced. Good fiction does the same thing for me too. I love Kimberly Brock's words of wisdom about hope.

    My heart aches for you having lost your mother at a particularly vulnerable time. I also think that watching our children suffer and fearing we might lose them can easily weaken our hearts. I'm glad you have found your way through all your challenges, and that you are using your experiences to inspire others.

    1. Oh, thank you! The support and encouragement I've received from sharing this post is humbling. And it's another reminder of the gifts waiting for us in the writing community. Kathryn Craft made a powerful statement in an earlier comment--when we find the courage to open our hearts, we find open, kind, generous hearts all around us. That's the message I hope all writers--especially those who are struggling--will remember. I'm grateful for WITS and other writers' groups that bring us together and help us find strength in sharing our stories––there's no doubt writing is healing.

      Like you, I've found healing in other writers' words––both memoir and fiction. I read somewhere recently that new research suggests reading can work as well as therapy in some instances. I think writers and readers already knew that, but it's good to share our secret with the world;)

    1. Kim, I'm so glad you're writing your story! I know how hard and painful that can be, but the gifts that come will reward you every step of the way. Wishing you joy and courage and new beginnings in your journey!

  12. Inspired and moved by this beautifully written piece... God bless you for sharing!!!

  13. In the midst of the pain you shared, and the trials you detailed, I could not help but smile as I read this. Life is hard. Writing about it is harder. Well done. Truly excellent. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Zachary! Your words are a revelation to me--it is much harder to write it! Perhaps that's because in the writing, we're forced to examine our lives from so many perspectives. And as we look back, we see where we strayed and how that detour changed us, for good and bad. A quote comes to mind, it was Socrates I believe, who said, "The unexamined life isn't worth living."

  14. Mari Ann, A beautiful heart-felt post - how could it not be. You've been through so much and your sharing will help others move through their grief. I agree, it is through writing that we find our courage and our healing and on that journey we influence others with our honesty.

    1. Lori, your words brought tears to my eyes. It's my hope--perhaps my passion--to help other writers find their way along the dark and twisted paths where we sometimes languish. In sharing our truth, we find healing and liberation.

    1. Tracy--oh, how I understand your fear. Small steps will help. First, I encourage you to reach out to your writer friends and your writing community. There are so many writers-- just like you and me--who are looking for support and willing to give it in return. Finding just one or two of those writers will change your life. And you're always welcome to contact me!

      When it comes to the actual writing, set small goals. Outline a chapter. Write one paragraph. Write one word if that's all you can manage. The key is to keep moving forward.

      For me, the writing did hurt. But it hurts far less than not writing. A good analogy is the humble oyster. Think of how a sharp fragment finds its way inside an oyster shell. It cuts and irritates the tender flesh. It might destroy the creature. But the oyster uses its limited resources to coat the fragment, over and over, until it has smoothed the lethal edges, rendering it harmless––yet beautiful and valuable.

  15. The story is there. The feelings are buried deep. Without the combination, there is no heart. Thank you for sharing your powerful story. Your writing is lyrical and touching.

    1. Barbara, thank you for your kind comment! Writing about--and sharing--this period of my life was terrifying. What I didn't anticipate is it would also be the experience that freed me!

    1. Rona, thank you! I've often felt I had to run this gauntlet to win the prize––the extraordinary friendships I've made with other writers. Your friendship is the newest blessing in an ever-growing gift.

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