Monday, February 18, 2008

The Human Heart in Conflict With Itself

by Patricia Smiley

Nothing makes me feel more like a loser than trying to learn a new skill—like knitting socks. I told you last week that I’d enrolled in a class. To bring you up to speed, I’m half finished with the first sock, and I think it looks pretty darn good.

Drunk with success, I decided to start the second sock before the next class. However, after five false starts, I began to suffer yarn anxiety. I didn't remember what to do with all those needles nor did I understand why I was knitting my sock inside out. But what sacrifices would I make to avoid going down in history as a one-sock wonder?

Back in fourth grade, my teacher wrote on my report card, “Patty too often asks for help when she could puzzle the problem out for herself.” That hurt, but it taught me a lesson: asking for help is bad. In fact, it’s more than bad. Asking for help means the teacher will rat you out to your parents, and they’ll have to finally admit they spawned a miscreant. What comes next is your school lunch wrapped in a road map.

I vowed then and there that nothing short of catastrophe would ever make me ask for help again. It’s a trait I gave Tucker Sinclair, the heroine in my books.

Old lessons die hard. Fast forward to the present. The clash between my doomed sock and my vow of self-reliance sent me scrambling to the bookcase for my dusty copy of Reader’s Digest’s Complete Guide to Needlework. I followed the instructions for knitting with double-pointed needles but as hard as I tried, I could not repeat the success of that first sock. I felt as if I was at the bottom of a dark abyss with only one way out—the hard way. To save my sock and my self-esteem, I had to get help. I jumped in the car and raced to A Mano Yarn Center to confer with my teacher, yarn whisperer Annette Cutrono. Today a sock was saved. Tomorrow...

So, what does this have to do with writing?

At the December 10, 1950 Nobel banquet, William Faulkner said in a speech:

“There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

In our own way, each of us Naked Authors explores the human heart in conflict with itself, even in this little yarn: A writer, torn by old emotional wounds, triumphs over fear, knits a sock, and learns that asking for help does not trigger nuclear winter.

So, what’s the worst advice you ever got?

Happy Monday!



  1. I've had more bad advice than I can recall. However, one woman's bad advice is another woman's key to the universe. But one thing comes to mind, and it wasn't exactly advice, more a "warning." My mum was always telling me that, "Life's not a bowl of cherries, you know." So I never expected that big bowl of juicy cherries, only the pits, and because that's what I expected, that's what I inevitably received. I had to teach myself to expect more.

    Last year, my friend, Kas, wanted to buy some artwork for her house, and asked me to go with her. Now, I'm not a big one for buying artwork, but even before we walked into the second gallery, I saw this wonderful piece - a large painting of a bowl of cherries on plain white background. So I bought it. Just like that. Because life is a bowl of cherries. Since then I have bought a pair of pajamas with a cherry print, and upon seeing the "cherries" painting on the wall, my friend bought me napkins and place mats to match. So, expect juicy cherries - always.

    Oh, and don't worry about the sock thing. It's not uncommon to ace the first sock, then make a sockery of the second. You are in good company.

    And as a final note, my friend, Nora Klaver, felt so strongly about the "not asking for help" issue, that she wrote a book on the subject. Called "Mayday!" it's all about being able to ask for help - with the added blessing of connecting us to others.

    Bring your knitting to Bouchercon - we can sip champagne, and twiddle those needles!

  2. what’s the worst advice you ever got?

    "Hey, Rhoades, you know who you ought to ask out? [name withheld in case the crazy wench is still around and self-Googles]."

  3. Our J, great comments. I just saw a segment on 60 minutes last night about why the Danes are the happiest people on the planet. The reason? Low expectations.

    I do so look forward to knitting with you at the bar at Bcon. BYOCherries.

  4. Dusty, that's a hoot. At least she wasn't one of those scary blind dates.

  5. From my high school guidance counselor, who clearly suffered from low expectations as well:

    "Maybe you could go into retail?"

  6. My high school counselor encouraged me to take typing and shorthand so I'd have something to "fall back on," presumably when I failed at everything else. Did I say I can type 80 words a minute?

    And Dusty, if this woman was a self-googler, why did she need a date? Just asking.

  7. Patty,

    What a great yarn!

    When I returned home from my first day at my first job, my father asked me, "Who was the son of a bitch?"

    He was right. There always is one, and no use feeling singled out because of it.


  8. In my first class on my first day of college, the professor's first words were "My goal is to fail every one of you."

    It was years before I asked any professor anything.


  9. Father Wisdom. It's a beautiful thing. When I was applying for my first real job, my dad made me offer to work for free for a week, just so the owner could see how good I was. The woman was so shocked, she hired me--with pay.

  10. Jeez, Lisa, what a horrible story. Talk about intimidation. I wonder what motivated him.

  11. Sock it to me! Way to go, Patty! I took up crocheting years ago, knowing I could never master knitting. Couldn't master crocheting either, though I made a lot of scarves and a Pepsi-can hat and a beer-can hat (Coors, I think--that or Bud).

    Nothing wrong with asking for help. It's a sign of intelligence. Must be: I'm ALWAYS asking for help. A woman colleague of mine when I was teaching in south Texas at a university told me that each of her first classes are nothing more than her asking for help--how to fix this or that, what could be wrong with her car, and so forth. She said that after the men "helped" her with solutions and thus proved their "manliness," they were ready to accept her ability to teach them.


  12. A beer can hat???!!! You're holding out on me, Groupie. I expect to see you wearing it next time we meet. Maybe we can duplicate it for the official Naked Authors chapeau.

  13. Oh, that just socks for you, Parry!

    I'll also note that in advanced sophomore biology in HS, everyone thought one girl was dumb because she asked lots of questions. This is the same one that ended up with a Master's from Stanford.

    Now then, I'm not sure if it's the bad advice, or that I'm dumb enough to follow it. In either case, there is a very long list.

    How about, "You have to listen to what she says, not whats she does."

    I went down in flames on that one. *shudders*

  14. I've heard the same phrase several times and it never works out.

    "How bad can it hurt?"

    The answer is, invariably, "A lot."


  15. How about, "You have to listen to what she says, not whats she does."

    Ooooh, that's a good one, Jeff.

    And I bet you've repeated that phrase a few times, James O.

  16. From my First Novels class teacher, senior year of college:

    "You have to stop using humor to avoid true emotion in your writing."

    Only took me twenty years to get over that.

  17. People have said that to me, also. Not recently, however :o)

  18. And Dusty, if this woman was a self-googler, why did she need a date? Just asking.

    Heh. Funny.

    This was long before Google...but I still keep up with her whereabouts through the alumni association, just to make sure she's still safely on another coast.

    I still wake up screaming.

  19. Ha! We need details...Dish, baby.