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.