Stephie Smith never dreamed of becoming a writer until a series of her humorous essays about family were published behind her back. Unlike most things done behind her back, this one she actually liked.
And now she writes.
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This has been an exciting week for me because I finally pulled everything together and published my book, Duke of Deception. And I sold over 400 copies this week. Better yet, I received emails from readers who loved it and that’s really where it’s at. That’s what I write for, anyway, to bring others joy or satisfaction or whatever good feelings they get out of reading what I write.
A friend once told me I never allow myself to feel the joy of accomplishment. He said I do something that someone else thinks is great, and then instead of celebrating my accomplishment with friends and family, I tell everyone why it isn’t really all that good. Instead of smiling, I go around frowning because something—there is inevitably something—isn’t perfect. Say, what? Do I really do that? Yes, I realized I do. I wondered if, when I finally published this book, I would follow my pattern. Guess what? I have not. YAY for me!!
From the very first day my book was on Amazon and CreateSpace, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment. I had finally published the book of my heart. I’d completely rewritten it four times, the final time going back to the vision I’d had of the story when I first thought of it many years ago. I’d changed that vision because of editors, the market, agents, contest judges—everybody’s opinions but mine. And yes, there are people out there who may criticize elements of that vision, but that’s what free choice is all about. I don’t read/look at the negative stuff because it’s my intention to feel good about this accomplishment for the rest of my life, and no one is going to spoil that for me—not even me!
So, I’ve been walking around feeling great, and it seemed to me that the world responded in kind. A couple of days ago I went to Publix, Wal-Mart, Pet Smart, and my mother’s apartment building, and I noticed that everywhere I went, people were smiling at me. I couldn’t figure out why and then I realized I was walking around with a big, stupid grin on my face. I couldn’t help it; I was happy and for maybe the first time in my life, I was really feeling my joy.
I drove home thinking about what my friend had said, and thinking about all those strangers sharing the joy I couldn’t contain. Evidently that old saying about when you smile, the whole world smiles back at you is true. I’m not usually much of a smiler so I hadn’t really known, and the more I thought about it, the better I felt. I had brought joy into the lives of all those people just by finally letting loose with mine.
Alas, no. When I got home I discovered the real reason people were smiling every time I turned around, and it wasn’t because of my infectious joy. The seat of my pants was ripped open from waistband to crotch … and I wasn’t wearing underwear.
Another assumption gone wrong, but what the heck. They still got joy, didn’t they? Or something like it.
What’s the affirmation for today?
The knowledge that I seek is within myself awaiting my question.
It took Leonardo Da Vinci 12 years to paint Mona Lisa’s lips. That’s what I learned from my iGoogle fact for the day. Evidently he couldn’t get them right. I’m thinking it went something like this:
Leo shows the unfinished painting to his cousin. His cousin says it’s great! Leo should finish it as quick as possible and sell it! Maybe it’ll make him famous!!
An exuberant Leo shares the conversation with a fellow artist and shows him the painting. Fellow artist says, “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it will never sell. Not unless you change her lips. An enigmatic smile? The public doesn’t want to look at that. And the lips are the focal point; if you don’t get them right, you might as well hang up your brushes.”
Leo is affronted. The lips look great, and anyway, this is the painting of his heart. He doesn’t care if anyone else likes those lips. He’s painting it for himself. Everyone else can go to hell.
A few weeks later Leo is still thinking about those lips. It would be nice to sell the painting. He needs the money, and maybe it will lead to other painting jobs. His cousin hadn’t mentioned anything wrong with the lips, and if he’d thought something was wrong, he surely would have said something, right? Hmmm. He asks his cousin about the lips specifically and is told the lips are great. Perfect. Nothing wrong with them. But it bothers Leo that his cousin can’t remember exactly what they look like. Was she laughing, his cousin asks Leo. Leo decides family members may not be the best to ask opinions of and takes the painting around for comments.
Fellow artist / agent / broker (FAAB)#2: “The lips? Yeah, there’s definitely something wrong with them. They’re too full. Full lips used to be in but they’ve been done to death. People are sick of full lips. You need to thin them out.”
Leo doesn’t want to, but if full lips had been done to death…. He thins them out–a little.
FAAB#3: “The lips aren’t full enough.”
Leo tells FAAB#3 that he thinned them out based on comments. FAAB#3 says, “Who told you that? Full lips are still selling. Full lips will always sell; they’re a mainstay of portraits. But they have to have something unique. Extra spit on the bottom lip or one of the corners turned down in a sneer. You know, something that instantly grabs the attention.”
Leo can’t bear the thought of making her sneer, but he did like the full lips, so he changes them back. Then he adds some spit–er, glow–to her bottom lip.
FAAB#4: “What’s that on her lip? Is that a sore? No one’s gonna buy a painting of a woman with a sore on her lip, especially if she’s smirking about it.”
Smirking? She looks like she’s smirking? Leo tries to ignore that comment. He’s got enough to think about with the sore–glow. He decides he must have done a crappy job with the glow if FAAB#4 thinks it looks like a sore. He works on it another year, all the while worrying about that smirk.
FAAB#5: “I love it!! Unfortunately, I just brokered two paintings that were exactly like this–you know, enigmatic smile, a touch of glow on the lips. I’ve got to have something different now.”
Leo kicks himself for taking so long to get the glow right. Now he’s missed the boat–the one carrying all the other artists.
FAAB#6: “You’ve obviously spent a lot of time on this painting and you’ve done a good job, but it just isn’t unique enough. It’s like every other painting that’s selling right now. Can you change her dress to red? And while you’re at it, maybe you should do something about those eyes. Squinting is always good. Goes great with red.”
Red? Squinting? Leo’s not changing her that much, even if it means not selling. But if all these other ones that are selling are just like his, why can’t they sell his too? He’s more than willing to change the lips since they’re the focal point and if he doesn’t get them right, no one will give it a second look. But he’s not changing anything else. Nothing else needs to be changed. Squinting? Really? No. Hmmm. Maybe he’s got the whole look wrong. Maybe he should ask other people.
FAAB#7: “What’s with that weird smile? It’s way too subtle. People want to know what she’s thinking about. If you’re gonna have her smile, then have her SMILE. What you’ve got there isn’t a smile.”
Leo explains that he wants people to wonder what’s behind the smile. It’s part of the mystique. FAAB#7 snorts in disgust and walks off, leaving Leo to ponder whether or not he should just paint a big toothless grin on her face and be done with it.
Leo keeps working on the painting but he doesn’t know what to do with the lips, so he just goes over the rest of the painting, strengthening the composition, perfecting his style. He decides he’d better start keeping a list of the changes so he doesn’t do the same ones over. Full lips with enigmatic smile–no spit. Slightly thinner lips. Full lips again with enigmatic smile and spit. Full lips with enigmatic smile and more natural looking spit. Full lips with enigmatic smile and more natural looking spit but with a red dress and squinting eyes. No!! Scratch that one.
FAAB#8: “You’re very talented and I’ve no doubt you’ll sell soon. But the rest of the painting doesn’t seem to flow with the lips. Maybe the style isn’t quite the same? Maybe you’ve worked the lips too much?”
Leo wants to scream. Hell yes, he’s worked the lips! But what does the FAAB means by “too much”? How can it be too much if they’re still not right? Maybe he just needs to start completely over with the lips because his style changed while he was finishing the rest of the portrait. Maybe fixing isn’t the answer. Maybe he needs to recreate from scratch.
Leo recreates the painting of his heart from scratch. Hey, wait a minute. Those lips look just like the first lips. Dang it! Now what? He’s spent 12 years on those lips, only to end up back where he started from.
He looks at Mona Lisa. She appears to be smirking at him. Where the hell is that red paint?
(Yes, I’m sure it went something like that.)
What’s the affirmation for today?
First I seek JOY, and all else follows.
Once upon a time, my desk window overlooked my garden. Ah, how I loved to sit there and write.
The window faced east, but the rising sun in the morning was blocked by a row of trellises that I’d put in with the help of a friend. There were four trellises, each 8 feet long with a couple of feet between them, and each about 8 feet tall from the ground. The garden part was mostly on the other side of the trellises, facing the street, but that didn’t matter. From my side–the side that I looked out at while writing, I could see the cascading coral honeysuckle vine. Birds–mockingbirds and cardinals–flew in with twigs to build their nests in the woody thicket. Often one of a pair would perch at the top of the trellis, standing guard, shooing away other birds that had the gall to think they might nest there too. Later, after the nest was finished, the pair took turns standing guard while one brought food for the babies. I started my writing around five a.m. and the babies began chirping, or rather, squeaking, around that time too. The squeaks became more frantic, reaching a crescendo as the parent bird, food clutched in its beak, lit on a nearby vine and and began nosing through the thicket to the nest.
One morning, a ruby-throated hummingbird appeared. He zipped from flower to flower, hovering for a few seconds above each to drink the nectar. He seemed to hit them all, but never the same one twice. After that first day, hummingbirds showed up daily, several times a day.
One would think that having such a view would interfere with writing, that it would zap my concentration, but surprisingly, it didn’t. In fact, I wrote faster and better with that view than with any other before or after. I felt buoyed by hope and awe and joy, and those feelings didn’t dissipate when I drew my gaze from the view back to my work.
I’ve come to realize that I have to go to my writing with the expectation of experiencing wonder and joy. For many writers, those feelings come from their self-confidence, from knowing that they will write something they are proud of. I wish I were one of those writers, but I’ve never had self-confidence when it comes to things I create. When I lost my beautiful view after the hurricanes took it away, I lost my joy in writing; I had nothing to look forward to when I entered that room that looked out over a dismal, ravaged landscape.
I’m finally making a new view for myself, one that invites me to sit down and enjoy it while I write. Maybe I won’t always need a beautiful view to experience joy while I write; maybe someday that joy will come solely from within. I just know that to commit to something such as writing, which takes up every second of the “spare” time I don’t have, I need the expectation of joy, so first I seek JOY and I hope all else will follow.
I have all of my Great Aunt Louise’s diaries, which she began back in 1926 when she was just 27 years old, and I have found myself so touched by her writing that it’s difficult to speak of it or even to read the passages aloud to myself without my eyes filling with tears.
My Great Aunt Louise was a remarkable woman with a profound faith in God, and I have yet to read a passage that isn’t saturated by a positive, joyous outlook on life. She writes about what a lucky woman she is, how every day is a beautiful day to be shared with God. She tells how she lives in a triangle of love and she draws a triangle with the words My Parents, Home, and Dale (her fiance) along the three sides. In the middle of the triangle is the word GOD.
She mentions an evening spent with friends, and then writes of how she wishes never to judge another human being and never to take away from someone through criticism or disinterest that which is uniquely his — his individuality — and how, though someone may be difficult to deal with, each of us brings something wonderful and special to this life. I inferred from her words that she had met someone that night who had sorely tried her patience, but I’ll never know who it was; she would never have written his name.
I found myself thinking wistfully about my writing eliciting the same feelings in a hundred years from a great niece who had never known me, and I mentioned it to my sister, who was as touched as I was by some of the passages and who agreed that I couldn’t leave behind a better legacy than my writing. And I believed her — until I spoke with my mother a couple of days later and brought up the subject of Great Aunt Louise (my mother’s aunt) to her.
My mother started to giggle and I asked what was so funny, thinking that perhaps I had gotten Great Aunt Louise all wrong. Maybe my secret romantic nature that always wants everything to turn out happily ever after had caused me to misinterpret the entries. But no. Mom wasn’t laughing about that.
“Yes, your sister told me about your conversation. We laughed so hard we had to hang up the phone. You’re so negative, after all. What could you hope to pass on?”
This gave me pause because I have never thought of myself as negative. True, I have a self-deprecating, cynical sense of humor, but that doesn’t mean that I see the world that way or expect everyone to behave in the worst possible manner. In fact, every morning as I drive to work I look at the gorgeous sky and thank God that I’m alive to enjoy such a sight. And it wasn’t just that my mother said that, it was also that my sister had been so supportive to me and then had called my mother so they could enjoy a laugh at my expense.
So, remembering that old saying that if one or two editors say something negative about your writing you can kill them (oops, I meant blow it off), but if three or more say it, you’d better take a hard look at it, I decided to poll a couple of friends. Not about my writing, since they haven’t read any of it, but about my being negative. I ended up asking just one.
“Yeah, you are pretty negative,” he said. When I asked him to explain, he said that I live in my own little world, unwilling to open up to new experiences. I won’t go out partying with him and his friends at night and I don’t want to play volleyball on the beach on the weekends or spend the day on the “party” boat (a paddleboat that moves so slowly that even the drunkest of drunks can maneuver it) because I want to stay in my own little house and write, or putter in my own little butterfly garden. He even brought up the fact that I don’t like seafood as further proof of my negativity.
I was depressed all night about the things he said, and even when I went to bed I felt like a failure as a human being. But when I awoke the next morning, I realized the first mistake I made was in assuming that he knew what he was talking about. So I asked myself, am I really a negative person or is he just a jerk?
I decided he’s just a jerk.
I quit partying every night when I got to the age of 30. I quit spending my weekends at beach parties and keg parties even earlier than that. I don’t see anything wrong with enjoying my home and my yard and my family and my friends and my home repair projects and yes, my writing. Why should I have to spend every night getting high with deadbeats, drinking in bars and eating seafood that I don’t like just because he thinks I should? Why didn’t I turn the tables and say that I find him negative because he goes out every night to party instead of staying home to write? As far as I’m concerned, I’m not the one with the problem. He is. He needs to grow up and get a real life and until he does, he needs to stop criticizing others for having one.
And then I thought about Great Aunt Louise again, and I vowed to change my attitude or at least the way I present myself so that people don’t misunderstand and think I’m negative. I don’t have to like seafood, but why did I even have to tell him that I don’t like seafood? And why do I have to criticize him for criticizing me? Just because I don’t consider partying every night to be a “real” life doesn’t mean it isn’t. It is for some people, just not for me.
I’m obviously not going to be the same kind of writer as my Great Aunt Louise. She probably met someone just like my friend that night when she wrote that she never wanted to judge others because we all bring something important to this world. Not me. I write that he’s just a jerk. And I hope that a hundred years from now someone can appreciate my writing anyway.