My 7-Word Brush with Helen Gurley Brown

The phone rang while I was making dinner. My kids were underfoot. It was 1986, we didn’t have Caller-ID yet, and I always suspected telemarketers at that time of day. I tried to answer with an attitude, making it clear we didn’t need new windows or a timeshare in Jamaica.

The voice on the other end was low and commanding, and her name was Myra. She was a senior editor at Cosmopolitan, following up on a query letter I had sent a month before. She was quick and to the point.

“We’d like to hire you to write the article you’ve proposed. We can offer $3,000 with a kill fee.”

I was not yet calling myself a writer back then for fear I would be outright lying. I was piling up meager checks here and there, mostly from parenting magazines and newspaper op-eds. When she said $3,000, I was conscious of not hyper-ventilating into the receiver.

I had queried Cosmo about an article idea I knew nothing about — not unusual for me back then (or now, come to think of it). The topic was the relatively new phenomenon of single career women deciding to have a baby on their own, without a husband or even a boyfriend in their lives. Tame by today’s standards, there was a time when this was groundbreaking.

Myra wound up our conversation with this: “The first draft will be due in six weeks. Of course Ms. Brown will have final say. I’ll be in touch after she reads it.”

I got off the phone, positively giddy. Then I realized Ms. Brown was Helen Gurley Brown. And my knees shook a little.

The next day, I began my research. Since email was not yet the communication of choice, I did everything by phone while my kids sat in front of the television, eyes glazed over by Gilligan Island reruns. It was not my best mothering moment, but — hey — I was going to have a byline in Cosmo.

I felt a connection to the women I interviewed even though I’d gone the conventional route toward motherhood. They were smart and savvy. Their stories were poignant, about their dreams to have a baby, about running out of time. Myra had made it clear in our first conversation that the magazine did not approve of this new way to form a family and my piece should reflect that slant.

I thought I knew better. On the day I put my draft in the mail, I believed I was going to make journalistic history. A few days later, the phone rang. It was Myra.

“We received your draft and Ms. Brown has seen it.  I’m going to read from her memo.”

Here is what Helen Gurley Brown thought of my draft: “This writing is smug, small, and sanctimonious.”
I’ve always loved the idea that she brought forth alliteration to cut me off at my writing knees.

Here’s the good news. There was a kill fee waiting for me that exceeded my wildest expectations. I thought HGB was wrong about my writing, but I still had some wounds to lick. So I licked them. And I developed a clever answer for  friends who kept asking when my article was going to appear in Cosmo.

And the bad news? There wasn’t any. My keyboard was still waiting for me in the morning, with all its possibilities. So I sat down. And I got back to work.

The Other Rules for Writers

All the sage wisdom that begins with “Write what you know,” and ends with “Show, don’t tell,” is there for the asking. Here are some other rules you probably haven’t found in any writer’s handbook. Perhaps one of them will unlock that bestseller that’s inside you somewhere.

1. Let your wall inspire you. Furnish the wall near your desk with meaning. Frame or tack up little things your eyes can drink in when you wonder why you thought writing seemed like a good idea in the first place. My wall sports, among many things, my favorite New Yorker cartoon of a penguin flying high above other penguins, saying, “We just haven’t been flapping them hard enough.” It also has a framed note from Anne Tyler, telling me sweetly why she couldn’t read and critique my manuscript I had sent her. I keep that note to remind myself to be that gracious if I ever win the Pulitzer, and as commentary on my boundless optimism that I really thought she would read my stuff in the first place.

2. Make a negative list. Create a list of all the people who doubt you as a writer. If anyone has said, “Many are called but few are chosen,” put that person at the top. Same with someone who has used the words “writing” and “starving” in the same sentence. Give your parents a little slack. (After all, their job is to worry, so don’t include them.) When you’re finished with the list, fold it carefully and tie it with a ribbon before you throw it away.

3. Make a positive list. Make a list of 12 living people in your life, present or past. Choose one each month and write him or her a letter. E-mails, texts, and cards don’t count. Make peace with your old college roommate; tell someone why you’ve always admired them; make the day of someone who wasn’t expecting to hear from you. Good writing is about relationships, so resurrect, enhance, create or feed some of yours.

4. Don’t throw anything away. Keep a notebook and take it everywhere. After writing becomes your way of life, you may find you dream in already constructed sentences that delight you. Write down phrases and sentences that come to you even though they may have nothing to do with what you’re writing at the moment. And then never throw away your notebook.

5. People watch. Got to a ballgame, even if you don’t like baseball. Sit on a park bench. Give blood. Have lunch alone in a restaurant and listen to the way people really talk. It will help you in writing dialogue more than any workshop ever will.

6. Start over every morning. Let your accomplishments excite you, but don’t let them placate you. Let your rejections teach you something, but don’t let them paralyze you. A writer’s life is like that of any other artist — a composer, a painter, a sculptor. There is nothing there until you sit at your desk and create it. You’re in charge, and there’s no one in the world who can string words together the way you do at that moment, on that day. Now go. Create.