The Power of the Pen: Rilke’s Ich muss!

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By Bob Mitchell, author of 'Time for a Heart to Heart'

Among my personal truckload of awesome quotes about the act of writing, perhaps my favorite was uttered by one of the greatest poets ever, the German Rainer Maria Rilke. (My second favorite is by the great American sportswriter Red Smith, who, when asked about the difficulty of writing, replied, “Writing a column is easy. You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead.”)

Anyway, Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke advised the young poet Franz Kappus to “ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And . . . if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity.”

Since I began writing many decades ago, I’ve always believed that this “necessity” should be—no, must be—the only motivation for a serious writer. Not fame, not wealth, not recognition. But just because.

Well, two years ago, once again Rilke’s quote presented itself to me, this time quite unexpectedly. I was just beginning to structure and develop my fifth novel, when I suddenly became very sick, and my writing plans had to be placed on hold indefinitely. Long and arduous story short, after enduring three near-fatal episodes of ventricular tachycardia, two harrowing months of waiting for a new heart on life-support IV drips (during which time a malignant tumor was inconveniently detected in his right kidney), partial nephrectomy surgery to remove the cancer, another month of waiting, twelve-hour heart and kidney transplant surgery, and spending a total of 100 days on life-support IV drips in four hospitals, a memoir centering around this life-changing saga was screaming out to be written.

And so I wrote it. Not because I am some famous celeb or in prison for a felony (the usual suspects for memoir writing), but because I am a writer. And because writing is writing, whether it is in your wheelhouse (as fiction is for me) or not (as memoir is for me). And because Rilke’s Ich muss! Was whispering to me that it was my personal duty.

As it turns out, Time for a Heart-to-Heart: Reflections of Life in the Face of Death is a very different kind of memoir and unlike any other in its category. Not simply a narrative of the physical and emotional experience of what it’s like to need, go through, and recover from a heart transplant, this memoir is at its core a thought-provoking, heart-to-heart introspective monologue, and intimate dialogue with the reader, concerning life’s fundamental conflicts that I was in fact being forced to ponder during my ordeal, that gave it clarity and perspective, and about which I had been thinking, teaching, and writing for over five decades: fear and hope, despair and joy, failure and success, pride and humility, thought and feeling, control and surrender, arbitrariness and justice, constriction and freedom, youth and age, life and death.

After I completed Time for a Heart-to-Heart, it was my good fortune to find it a home and to obtain a number of impressive marketing assets. (Actually, this is not true at all, since “good fortune” had little or nothing to do with it. It took a lot of hard work on my part, if I may say so myself. As Ben Hogan—in my opinion, the greatest golfer who ever lived—once said, when asked what was his secret of being a great golfer, “It’s in the dirt.”) First, Skyhorse agreed to publish it (pub date is 9/5/17), and along with the contract came a team of talented, cheerful, and hard-working people who are giving me great support, for which I am grateful: editor Caroline Russomanno, publicist Madeleine Ball, author liaison Sarah Jones, and designer Rain Saukas, who so powerfully adapted the 1890 painting by Spanish artist Enrique Simonet y Lombardo that I submitted to him and that proudly adorns the front cover of the memoir.

Next, I was able to snag some lovely blurbs by eminent cardiologists, as well as a wonderful foreword by Larry King and a warm afterword by Dr. Jon A Kobashigawa, an internationally renowned heart transplantation pioneer.

Finally, I took a risk and approached a number of major hospital centers/medical schools on the East Coast to see if I could deliver a Grand Rounds lecture. A few of them rejected my request, adhering to their strict rules (don’t get me started . . .) of having lectures given only by MDs who present recent research findings. But to my amazement, three august institutions—Georgetown University Hospital Center in DC, Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC, and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in LA—were open-minded and outside-the-box enough to accept my offer; so in late September, I will be giving lectures there (as well as leading seminars with residents and fellows) about the fundamental conflicts I discuss in my book and the critical importance of the patient-physician relationship during end-stage cardiac care.

Hey, ya never know, as they say. I will someday return to my fifth novel, but for now, I plan to enjoy every minute of my new writing adventure, as unexpected as it has been in the context of my life. Just as I plan to continue to enjoy every minute of my life, because, well, after my cardiac ordeal, I am just grateful to be here.

In the final analysis, and to put it in hey-ya-never-know perspective, I’ll proffer another one of my favorite quotes, this time a homespun, oddball, yet deeply profound lyric by country singer George Strait, which, the first time I heard it, shoot, I nearly drove my car off the dadgum road: “I ain’t never saw a hearse with a luggage rack.”

Bob Mitchell’s memoir Time for a Heart-to-Heart is a reflection of his remarkably eclectic life experience. He has been a sports fanatic since birth and is also passionate about art, music, world literature, travel, food and wine, and dogs. He is the author of eleven published books, including a volume of essays, a collection of poems, five nonfiction books, and three novels about sports and the meaning of life. Bob studied at Williams (BA), Columbia (MA), and Harvard, where he received a PhD in French and Comparative Literature. He has had careers as a university French professor (Harvard, Purdue, Ohio State), a teaching tennis pro, an award-winning advertising creative director, a teacher of advertising and creative writing (New York, Paris, Tel Aviv), and a novelist and has lived in seven states as well as Paris, Brittany, Angers, Besançon, London, Florence, Stockholm, Montreal, and Tel Aviv. He resides in Carlsbad, CA, with his wife, artist Susan Ellen Love. Visit his website at

Time for a Heart-to-Heart: Reflections on Life in the Face of Death
By Bob Mitchell, Foreword by Larry King
Skyhorse Publishing Hardback, also available as an ebook
On Sale: September 5, 2017
ISBN: 9781510724402

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