Big, Scary Things

The request was the type I would instantly say yes to: I’d like you to write for us. Steady gig, decent money, but most important of all, an editor I really enjoyed working with. And yet, my gut screamed: NO!!!

I thought about it for a day — the gut sometimes needs to be checked — and then replied: There is a good chance I’ll regret this, but I’m going to say no. I explained why — that I am starting the new memoir-writing business we’d talked about, that I’m nervous but I have to just go for it. I hit “send” and instantly, I regretted it. Until I received her response. The first line read:

“This is the time for big, scary things!”

The good editors have this knack for cutting through to the heart of a story.

Big and Scary. I thought about this a lot. Big and scary sounds so BIG and SCARY! But then I realized — I’m no stranger to these things. Charging toward those challenges, instead of shrinking from them, is likely why I’m not sitting in some suburban Detroit high-rise writing instruction manuals. (I’ll explain that later.) In fact, if I think about it, and I have, big and scary is a recurring theme in my life.

At age 13, my guidance counselor suggested I take the entrance exam for New York City’s specialized high schools. When I was accepted into one of them, my parents shared their opinion but told me the decision was mine — the better school, which required taking the subway, alone, to a place where I knew no one, or my zone school with my friends, which had a bad reputation but was closer to home.

I remember the decision wearing on me physically — the first time I had felt real stress. My mind obsessed; my stomach was in knots. The zone school was the easy choice. Brooklyn Technical High School was the reach. Fear of regret overpowered fear of the unknown, and I opted for the harder choice. A school with 4,000 students, 45 minutes away by subway, full of the smart kids, defined big and scary for a 13-year-old kid.

When the time came to apply for college, I zeroed in on schools with journalism programs. When I arrived at Boston University, I brought with me the bravado developed over years of  being the English teacher’s favorite student. So when my Journalism 101 professor brought me to tears, I was left reeling and questioning. I was 17 years old, in a new city, alone, and my days of being the best writer in the room were over. Finding my place was hard. I had asked for big and scary, and it delivered.

At the wide-eyed age of 23, when I was fired from my first reporting job at a Brooklyn weekly newspaper, big and scary was not a choice. It was thrust upon me, and I realized I had two options — fight to stay in journalism, the degree I was still financially indebted to and emotionally linked with, or branch out into — gasp — public relations or, worse, writing for trades. When I interviewed for a big publishing company that wrote books about OEM certification (what the hell??)  and came close to being hired, I realized that the survival of my soul required my figuring out how to use this pathetic, loser resume to get back into the newsroom.

I bought a pack of index cards, went to the library (this was 1996, folks — the Internet was barely a thing) and researched the names and phone numbers of every editor within a 25-mile radius of Dearborn, Michigan, where I had fled to after the firing. My then-boyfriend was living there and working for Ford Motor Co. While Sid was at work, I sat on the floor in his completely unfurnished apartment (seriously, we didn’t even have a chair) and went through those index cards, calling editors one by one. Hi, my name is Cynthia, and I’m calling to find out if you have any openings for a reporter. Most of them were not hiring. By 11 am, I was emotionally exhausted, beaten down by the no, no, no. I committed myself to making three calls a day. One morning, I gave a call to this small daily newspaper south of Detroit. I asked for the editor by name. When she picked up the phone, she didn’t so much answer as bark. “I’m on deadline. I can’t talk now. Call me later.” Click.

Having enough experience in newsrooms to know that editors can morph into creatures of darkness while on deadline, and being incredibly desperate, I psyched myself into calling her back. The phone call led to an interview. The interview led to an offer. The offer led to the eight proudest years of my reporting life.

There were other big, scary moments in my life — Traveling around the world by myself at age 21. Choosing to leave the hospital while in labor with my first child because I was sure I could endure the pain better at home. (I wanted, and got, a natural birth.) Opting to leave the easy suburban life of a Ford wife and return to New York City, where nothing is easy and everything costs too much. Choosing to start my own freelance writing business instead of looking for a real job with a regular paycheck and benefits.

Recently, with freelance writing becoming a dying profession (my opinion), I found myself faced again with the choice: easy — find a 9-to-5 job, or big and scary — start the memoir publishing business I’ve been fantasizing about for years.

This is the time for big and scary things!

To be honest, I started writing this blog post two days ago and fear had me delay posting it. It was very personal. I wasn’t entirely sure why I was writing on this topic, only that I felt compelled to do so. I realize now that I needed a reminder of who I am and what I’m made from. In my 20 years of writing other people’s stories, I’ve witnessed how empowering reflection can be. We live through experiences but don’t always process what they have meant in the narrative arc of our lives. I find that older people tend to do this naturally. Possibly because they have the time to do so, but also it’s because I think they have so much material to work from. When you can look back and connect the dots, you realize — life has been extraordinary!

By taking the opportunity to reflect, I realize that the remembering, the processing, has emboldened me. I have done all of these hard things. Now, it’s time to keep building upon those experiences. Everyone has their big, scary moments. Some you don’t want to relive, but others became the building blocks of who you are . Think about those experiences. Write them down. Read it back to yourself. And then, be empowered by your own story.


The Power of “Yes”

Last spring, I was offered the opportunity to stop hustling for one-off assignments from this website or that magazine and instead take on a long-term copywriting project. The assignment was to write patient-focused content for NYU Langone Medical Center.

I resisted the idea at first. As a journalist, I feared the conflict of interest issues. But after providing full disclosure to all my relevant editors, I went for it. After all, a long-term project meant regular paychecks, and that is the holy grail of the freelance life. Plus, I was in a bit of a writing rut. To get out of it, I decided to adopt a new mantra: Just say yes. Whatever the opportunity, just try it. See where it takes you. And so I did.

For the revamp of the NYU Langone website, I was responsible for writing all of the patient and family support content. Nothing exciting or sexy, but pages such as “what to bring for your hospital stay” will  get lots of traffic. As a writer, I’m not hard to please. If what I write helps anyone in anyway, I consider that a job well done.

The project had its challenges. Being a reporter requires that I sometimes be pushy. But when you’re working corporate, you can only push so much. You can’t insist that anyone talk to you, you can’t threaten them with a potentially embarrassing “no comment,” you can’t shame them with a “so-and-so talked with me already.” You just have to be really, really nice, and hope that your courtesy and professionalism  get you what you need.

As with all new gigs, I had to learn how to adapt my writing style to the client’s voice. That’s a bit more of challenge with corporate writing, where yes, they want copy to be reader-friendly but not “girlfriend friendly,” as so many magazines and websites ask for these days. So I had to find a way to preserve my voice, while also adapting it to a more reserved audience. A challenge, but I enjoy challenges.

I learned quite a bit about the corporate world, and even considered rejoining it. Was it time for me to leave the insecurity of the freelance life for the stability of a steady paycheck? Was I ready to trade a flexible schedule for an employee handbook? I seriously considered it. On the one hand, I realized how much I enjoyed collaborating with a team. That’s not something you get to do very often when your desk is in your bedroom closet. But on the other hand, I need to be able to work my hours on my schedule, be that at 7 am or 10 pm, so the rigidity of 9-5 just isn’t for me. While the lure of a corporate job was strong, for now I’m going to keep working the freelance life, taking what I’ve learned from the corporate experience and using it to grow my business in new ways.

I’m not sure what is coming next for me, but I am glad that I decided to say yes when a new opportunity arose. I think that by continuing to do that, I will find a new path.



The Freelance Life: Leaving the Home Office for the Real Office

When I was first offered the position, a long-term freelance gig writing health-related content for a big-name Manhattan institution, I hesitated. A steady paycheck would be nirvana but could I handle this one daunting specification? “Writers are required to attend in-person weekly staff meetings,” among other on-site requirements.

On-site? You mean out of the “comfort” of my office, by which I mean the small table I sit at, alone, in my bedroom? And I’d have to be somewhere at a certain time — 9 AM Mondays, to be exact . This would add a whole new layer to my morning routine, something called “caring what the hell I look like when I leave the house.”

After much deliberation I decided, after nine years of working from home, that it would be good for me to break out of my hermit-like routine and get out amongst the people. Today was the first day in the office, and from the minute I walked out the door I realized why people get that jealous look in their eyes when I tell them I work from home.

The shocks, surprises and reminders came in rapid succession. All are manageable, but only if you are prepared for them. So here are 13 tips to help you transition from home office to the  corporate life

  1. You need to wear shoes. And you have to keep them on all day. This is non-negotiable. As such, you will have to walk in shoes. Possibly for long distances. This will be an affront to your soft, widened-over-time feet. So throw a Band-aid in your bag. If you decide to wear heels, pack a whole box
  2. How you smell now matters. And you definitely want to do something about that hair (keeping in mind that borrowing your daughter’s scrunchie is fashion suicide, and that “fashion suicide” is a thing you should care about). Lipstick is a good idea too.
  3. Decide which of your two “Suitable for the Workplace” outfits you will wear. Hint: The wool suit will kill you in any month between May and October. And make sure the day’s high is over 70 before daring to bare your legs. Also, it might be time to stop being so cheap and spend some cash on work duds.
  4. You have little control over your commute. You’re used to your “drive time” taking as long as it takes to walk from your bed to your desk. Now, however, you are at the mercy of forces you cannot control: mass transit and/or traffic. So even if you leave 15 minutes early, as I did, expect you will be late, as I was. Instead, on your first day, leave an hour early so you can accurately figure out how long your commute really will take.
  5. You’re a worker now! It’s rush hour, and at some point you’ll find yourself one in the mass of people moving in one direction, filtering into various office buildings. Your pace will naturally join that of the crowd. You’ll look around and soak it in — the energy, the sense of purpose — and feel energized. (You’ll also spy the young women in flip-flops and have an “aha!” moment.)
  6. The assumption is you’re a possible terrorist. Enter most New York City office buildings and you’ll be stopped before you hit the elevators. You have to sign in. You might have to show ID. You might even have your bag searched. If you haven’t worked corporate since before 9\11, as I haven’t, this will be a somewhat creepy shock. The world has gone crazy, and in doing so has added an extra 10 minutes to your commute.
  7. Social Media is no longer considered “work.” Once you arrive for your on-site work day, you cannot fall into your normal routine. Meaning, you cannot spend the first hour scanning Facebook and Twitter, not even under the guise that “being socially aware is key to my marketing strategy.” All the client would see is a contractor who is completely ignoring them, while on their dime. Not smart.
  8. Meetings! They will remind you of why you left the corporate workforce. When you’re used to working alone, and working fast, sitting in a room with 12 people staring at a Powerpoint makes “Freelance You” think: “What a waste of time. This is killing my hourly rate!” But here’s the bonus: Like a real job, you’re now being paid to just sit there. So relax back in that swivel chair. And chuckle over the fact that you’re being paid to sit. But then remember to…
  9. Stay awake! Loud, gaping yawns are a statement unto themselves. Learn to stifle them.
  10. You’re on another schedule now. If it’s 10:30 and you’re hungry for lunch, suck it up. Your kid waits for lunch period at school, and you’ll do the same in the workplace. Same goes with quitting time. You leave when everyone else leaves. This will drive you insane at first, this lack of control over your own time. But remember: Steady Paycheck.
  11. “Lunch” is a thing. It’s a specific portion of your day, devoted solely to taking a break and grabbing a bite. It’s something you do separate from working. You might even leave the building, go shopping and eat something you did not prepare. And it might be really yummy.
  12. The unmentionables. You cannot do any of the gross things you do while sitting alone in your home office. You know what I’m talking about. Figure out how to manage it.
  13. Which leads to… You will have to use a public restroom, which is a reminder of the most overlooked perk of working from home: a private loo. Consider this when deciding how much fiber to have in your breakfast and how many cups of coffee to consume.

But even after all of these shockers, my day in corporate America was an invigorating experience. Bouncing ideas off of others, hearing others voice their experiences — it’s a third dimension that is all-too-often lacking in most solopreneur enterprises. So if you have the opportunity, get out of the office. Only do it in a pair of comfortable shoes.

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