“Feeling insecure is good for you. It forces you to do something better, use all your talents.” Helen Gurley Brown, Editor and Chief, Cosmopolitan Magazine (1965-1997)
Fear Can Be Your Muse
By Elizabeth Cutright
I have to admit, I haven’t picked up a copy of Cosmopolitan in years. When I was in my early 20s, the magazine was indispensable – a “go-to” any time I needed something trashy for the beach or had an hour (or three_ to while away on a plane, train or automobile. Eventually, I became frustrated the cyclical nature of its content (“ten ways to please your man” – again?! Didn’t I just read “ten ways to make your man happy” last month?). In the end, I exchanged my subscription for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Premier Magazine and daily delivery of the Los Angeles Times.
(Now, of course, I read everything online, Et Tu Brutus?)
They say you are what you read, and as I scanned through the obits and essays about Helen Gurley Brown this week, I realized I’d absorbed much more from the pages of Cosmopolitan than just naughty scrunchie maneuvers and “tell-tale signs a guy might be cheating/in love /into my friend/hungry/lonely/a stalker.” Cosmo – along with Sassy and Marie Clare and Jane – were my introduction to the world of publishing. Reading these magazines written and edited by women for women made me aspire to a career beyond my rural hometown. I wasn’t sure what kind of creative employment I wanted exactly, but these magazines opened my eyes to the possibilities.
And so I wrote for school newspapers, and I edited the yearbook. I took photography classes and wrote short stories on spec. But when I got to college, I started to doubt myself. All those reporters in my college newsroom, the slim, long-limbed poets in my creative writing class, the brash, confident screenwriters I bumped into in the hallways of the Film Studies department. They acted like they had it all together, knew the secret handshake or code word; they were part of the club. I watched them get published, get hired and disperse into the publishing atmosphere like so many seeds from a dandelion.
I went to law school and tried to find a safer path.
Looking back, I wish I’d seen my insecurity as a strength. That Helen Gurley Brown quote above resonates with me now in a way that’s both heartening and melancholy. Oh to know then what I’ve learned all these years and decades later. I wish I could tap little 18-year-old Daily Creative Writer on the should and whisper in her ear… “Don’t sweat it. Just keep trying. They’re all fronting anyway – they don’t any know any more than you do. There is no secret club.”
At one point, years after college when I was stuck in a dead end job and hoping inspiration would be dropped off my doorstep by some beleaguered stork, I made the decision to chose courage over fear. Obviously, I’m not off battling super villains. I didn’t join the military or law enforcement. I didn’t decide to actively participate in scary activities.
What I did was make a commitment to say “yes” when I’d really rather say “no.” I forced myself to go when I’d rather stay home. I decided to try the side road, take the shortcut, and accept the dinner invitation, even when I couldn’t predict what would happen and had left all my maps at home.
As you can imagine, not everything turned out for the best. I had plenty of “what the fuck am I doing” moments in my 30s. I probably participated in more than one relationship that began so many warning signs and red flags that the whole rigmarole should have been encased in hazard tape. I had some confrontations I’m not proud of, and I lost a friend or two. And I’m a lot more cautious with my time, energy and money than I used to be.
But I also learned that trusting your instinct doesn’t always mean going with the easy choice. Sometimes every fiber of your being rebels against the risky option precisely because it’s the right thing to do – the thing you must do, the hurdle that must be cleared to reach the next level. The insecurity is less a warning sign than a beacon. It’s a bright light in the fog that lets you know there’s a rock coast up ahead, but that with some concerted effort, a steady hand, and a little bit of luck, you can make it past the cliffs and head on out to sea.
So if you’re scared to write or scared to try or scared to tell people what you secretly want to do, take heart. That fear is a beacon. It’s a signpost that signifies your headed in the right direction. I believe that a little bit of fear and uncertainty is a good thing – it means you’re alive…it means you’re really living…it means you’re not wasting a single second.
Embrace your insecurity. Let it cajole you and motivate you. Write in spite of it. Write to show it that you can.
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