Please welcome this week’s guest Leslie Payne for The Journey. She answers the question: How have you seen God work in your writing journey?
One lovely January morning in 2000 my writing journey began by accident. Snow fell gently from the grey sky as I waited in my car at a red traffic light. Writing was not part of my life. My passion was dance, ballroom, swing, and Lindy Hop. For several years I had kept a delightfully hectic schedule dancing three nights a week. That winter morning I sat at the red light tapping my fingers on the wheel as I reviewed dance steps in my head. Before the light turned green, my life was forever changed.
A loud noise. A glance. Truck grill filled my rear view mirror. I yelled a desperate prayer and called on the name above all names. “Jesus!”
A large, heavy delivery truck rear-ended me at full speed. As he pushed my car forward, crushed the trunk, and repeatedly whipped my body forward and back, my prayer was answered. The traffic light turned green. The tractor-trailer in front of me pulled away the moment my car moved toward it. My life was spared, my body was not.
A rare, irreversible nerve injury to my shoulder ended my career as a sign language interpreter for the deaf. Other injuries affected my neck, back, torso, and one leg. The busy, active life style I loved vaporized. In its place I gained daily physical therapy and all consuming chronic pain. Life as I knew it was over and a new, unwanted chapter began. As a 39-year old, never-been-married single woman who suddenly had no job and a mountain of medical bills, I entered my forties feeling anything but fabulous.
Three years later I was still living off my savings and had settled into my very unsettled life. Physical therapy and doctors’ appointments continued to dominate my social calendar, but the Lord reigned over my heart in a new way. Through the first two years of devastating pain, grief, and heart wrenching loneliness, I experienced a desperate, sweet, intimacy with Jesus. I did not know how he would get me through, I only knew he would.
Experimental neurosurgery offered new hope. I prayed and pleaded for it to relieve the pain so I could find a new career. God did not answer those prayers. Instead he sent a special ambassador of his love – a tall, handsome, retired Air Force officer with solid character and a tender heart. He was a sailor and an athlete. We knew I couldn’t keep up with him physically, but relationally we were an excellent team. Can’t you see Jesus laughing with delight as he answered my prayers in a way I never imagined? On our wedding day my name became Mrs. Payne. The Lord sent Mr. Payne to help me live with chronic pain. A wonderful, new chapter of life began.
After dancing left my life, I sought new ways of creative expression. Browsing through a bookstore one day I thought, Why not try writing? I always loved writing letters, weren’t they kind of like writing an article to a friend? Before I even considered what I might write about, I bought a book on how to get articles published and studied it cover-to-cover. With pen in hand I drafted articles and query letters on yellow legal pads until my husband insisted I have my own computer. Before a single article was published he introduced me to new acquaintances as his wife, the writer.
To his delight and my surprise a local magazine published my articles on a regular basis. Soon I submitted to anthologies. Books found on the shelves at Barnes & Noble included chapters I wrote. When a magazine with a circulation of one million readers featured and article of mine, I felt like I hit the jackpot.
Yet my writing was not the reason I was so quickly published, it was slant of the articles – pain. An estimated 75 million Americans live in chronic physical pain. Millions more live with emotional pain. On some level every one of us is hurting or broken. Pain is what we all work so hard to avoid, yet in this life pain is a given. It humbled me to realize my written words encouraged others even as I continued to struggle in my own pain journey.
Since physical pain became my daily companion my perspective has changed. Old people who slowly made their way through the grocery store used to irritate me. Now I see them as heroes, venturing into the world despite their vulnerability. Before pain I complained more than I’d like to admit. Now I realize negativity robs my limited energy, but being grateful refuels and refreshes others and me. Prior to pain heaven was in my thoughts only at funerals. Now pain daily reminds me I am a soul living inside a very limited body. With Jesus the best is yet to come.
It was physical pain and the hope of heaven that led to my first fiction novel. Rev. James “Smitty” Smith was my father’s best friend. Smitty knew I’d been published and wanted me to help “get his story down on paper.” The first time he asked, I respectfully declined. The second time he asked, I couldn’t say no. He was 84-years old and recently diagnosed with advanced cancer.
What started as an obligation became an honor and joy as Smitty told his story. Raised in Baltimore City during the Great Depression, he was a happy, hardworking shoeshine boy despite his crippled arm. His parents tried to protect him from the ugliness, the painful prejudice that waited outside the invisible boundaries of their poor, colored neighborhood. Daddy labored long days as a hod carrier, the lowest job on the construction site, yet he had an inner dignity. Daddy required all his children work hard and have high standards so they’d be ready when more opportunities opened up. When Smitty was 15-years old he discovered the shameful secrets surrounding his unwanted birth. Even more painful, he learned his parents were not really his parents. Overwhelmed by the truth, Smitty concluded he was just another colored nobody in a white man’s world. It took running away, nearly dying, and a friendship he didn’t want to become the somebody he was born to be.
Smitty told me his story as an old man and pain from his childhood still glistened in his tender brown eyes. He had been a nobody. Yet I only knew Smitty in his later years. To me and countless others he was a spiritual giant. How could a nobody become such an amazing somebody? The answer came into focus as the old man looked back at the young boy he had been and told his story. The more I listened, the more intrigued I became.
“Smitty, would you like your story to touch more people than just your family?” I asked one day during an interview. “Would you like to shoot for the moon, see if we can be published?”
He liked the sound of that. “I want to encourage anyone who feels like a nobody. Let them know they’re a somebody, a child of God.”
“A foreword from someone famous might help your story get attention.” I leaned forward on the kitchen table. “You know anyone famous?”
He scratched his head. “Got a nephew who teaches college down in Florida, lots of folks know him.”
“What about your other nephew?”
“Hmm.” Smitty’s eyes sparkled. “You mean Dr. Tony Evans of the Urban Alternative? I guess a few folks have heard of him.”
Without my knowledge Smitty’s wife and her sister made a phone call. Even a busy man like Dr. Tony Evans couldn’t say no to his mama and his aunt. A foreword about “Uncle Smitty” arrived in my mailbox before the first draft of the book was complete.
The Legacy of Nobody Smith is a simply told, true story with a deep challenge. Rich with history, humor, and hope it invites readers to meet a heartbroken shoeshine boy, witness his journey through life, and glimpse the legacy of faith he leaves behind, a legacy that circles the globe.
Will the book be traditionally published? I hope so, but either way I know there is a plan because the pain that brought my life to a screeching halt was given new purpose. When Smitty was ready to tell his story before he died, I had the time to listen – and that was no accident.
Bio for Leslie Basil Payne
Non-fiction articles were Leslie Basil Payne’s first experience in published writing. She decided to try fiction and wanting feedback, submitted to a contest found online. Surprised to semi-final in the 2012 Genesis Contest, Leslie ventured to the ACFW conference to learn about the group. Awed by the celebration and support ACFW members offered each other, Leslie decided Christian fiction was her next goal. She has been falling in love with the power of story ever since.
Married to an avid sailor, Leslie often writes by hand on a yellow legal pad as they cruise on their sailboat, traveling from Maryland to Maine. Involved with church and the community, Leslie is busiest keeping up with her very active, 103-year old father-in-law who lives with her and the Captain. Introduce yourself on Facebook at http://www.Facebook.com/leslie.b.payne or visit Life with Payne at http://www.LeslieBasilPayne.com.