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December 15, 2014

Joanne Huist Smith: The Best Christmas Present Ever

Posted by emily

Award-winning journalist Joanne Huist Smith began writing short stories and journaling when she was only nine years old. Like all good bookworms, she was inspired to write (and shorten her first name) by Jo March, the heroine of Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN. Jo’s memoir, THE 13TH GIFT, is about how she and her family pulled together after the unexpected death of her husband with a little help from friends. Here, Jo shares how one good friend (and two amazing poems) moved her to pursue her passion for writing.

My friend Kate’s ultimate go-to gift during the holiday season is always a book. I often suspect that she pulls from her personal collection when seeking meaningful presents for me.

As my unofficial writing coach, Kate’s book selections more often than not offer guidance in a facet of my life where she knows I am struggling.

Over the years, she has given me pearls of wisdom like STORY by Robert McKee, WRITING ABOUT YOUR LIFE: A Journey into the Past by William Zinsser, Stephen King’s ON WRITING, and THE COURAGE TO WRITE by Ohio author Ralph Keyes.

These books provide continual inspiration to me. I selfishly never loan them out, though I have purchased additional copies of each to share.

Kate’s intent in gifting me these particular books was obvious: to build my writing muscle. But sometimes the intent of her book offerings is hidden so deep that I have to dig --- or read --- my way to the lesson.

When she gave me NEW AND SELECTED POEMS by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, I knew she had more than my reading enjoyment in mind.

I have struggled through the poetry of Emily Dickinson, “A little bread — a crust — a crumb,” Robert Frost’s "The Road Not Taken" and many others. While I enjoyed hearing the figurative language read aloud, the art form intimidated me.

I opened the Oliver book with trepidation. I would read every line, but only because I knew my friend would quiz me about it. 

I found treasure inside.

Within the pages of this National Book Award winner, I found my future.

I was just 10 years old when I learned about writing as a career in the book LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott. After reading the novel at least a dozen times, I announced to my parents that I intended to shorten the name they had honored me with at birth from Joanne to, simply, Jo. The action was meant to honor Jo March, the lead character in the book, who also dreamed of becoming a writer.

As a kid, I habitually wrote short stories for friends and family members as birthday gifts. I even penned a few jingles, which I called “poems” at the tender age of 12.

Reading also helped fuel my desire to write. I began journaling after reading HARRIET THE SPY, a children’s novel written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh. It is a habit I continue today.

I began reading to learn about writing, and I read a lot.

I think it worried my Dad that I had set my focus on a career he considered difficult to attain. He cautioned me that little girls from middle class Midwestern families more often grow up to be secretaries, sales clerks and moms.

“They don’t become writers,” he said.

I didn’t want to believe him.

He advised me to attend a career center instead of a college prep high school. I followed his advice, studied office education and accounting.

I hated every minute of it.

Though my grades were good, Dad refused to sign scholarship applications when it came time to look at colleges. Was he so certain I would fail?

Because he was my father and I both loved and honored him, I obeyed.

My writing went undercover, and I never shared my work. I kept my journals and short stories hidden in a box in the closet, even after I married.

Dad’s words haunted me until Mary Oliver’s poems “Wild Geese”and “The Journey” set me free. They taught me I had not only the right, but also the responsibility to find my own place “in the family of things.” They left me determined to save my own life, and I have.

That box of scribbled stories came out of the closet. I shared them with a guidance counselor at Wright State University. Two weeks later, at the age of 32, I got a letter notifying me that I had been awarded a scholarship.

During this season of love and gratitude, I send my sincere thanks to Mary Oliver, and to my friend Kate for the gift of this wonderful book.

To my father, who passed away more than a decade ago, I respectfully say, “Daddy, you were wrong.”