April 2023

Life Sentences

‘When in doubt, make a fool of yourself’

By Kaz Cooke
The inspirational advice from a book that emboldened the author to pursue a career in writing and cartooning, and to approach life with joy

I bought Cynthia Heimel’s book Sex Tips for Girls in about 1984 at a 7-Eleven. The cover photo was of long legs, in fishnets. The leg-owner’s hotsy-totsy high heels matched her red Bakelite phone with its twirly cord. I wasn’t that sort of girl (all right, I had the phone), but the back cover made me laugh so I paid $5 for it.

The book wasn’t all “sex tips”. It was a laugh-out-loud, one-way conversation about independence and confidence, with a ballistic level of quips – a kind of straight-girl, gay-friendly, comradely truth-telling.

I was in my very young twenties, at a time when many of us glimpsed a propped-open window to journalism and cartooning, boosted each other to the sill and fell through headfirst. Cynthia (I shan’t call her Heimel) was a columnist, which I longed to be, and a New Yorker with the capital-V Voice of an insightful, hilarious friend. I felt a whole-body frisson reading it. I was emboldened.

A year or so later, I took clippings of my newspaper cartoon, Hermoine the Modern Girl, to a feminist publisher in Fitzroy (shut up, they had them then). McPhee (Hilary) and (Di) Gribble were fab, but sensibly insisted I write stuff for a book, too. Cynthia had shown the way: my book, published in 1986, was braver and brasher than I felt.

Hang on, you say. Back up. What about Cynthia’s line? The one that you hold close to your heart, that gives you gravitas and courage? It’s a tall order to remember a singular sentence from a writer, isn’t it? We tend to remember sticky-note aphorisms, not a deft description of a crocus’s parabola in the breeze. We remember tone; how something made us feel.

Her writing told me I could be the things they never call straight men: feisty, sassy, fun. Impertinent. Ballsy (no, euww). Cynthia pointed out the marketing of self-loathing to women, the Mr Wrongs and Rights. She said funnier versions of what we’d all say years, decades later: treat yourself, friends are your extended family, dogs are important.

She wasn’t – as blurb-writers claimed – fearless. She was brave, which is smarter. Author Emily Prager said Cynthia “had the soul of Janis Joplin in the voice of Hedda Hopper”. Some brilliant sentences became her subsequent book titles: If You Can’t Live without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead Yet? and Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I’m Kissing You Goodbye! But none of these is my favourite.

In 1986, a well-known cartoonist I admired wrote the introduction to that inaugural published book of mine, The Modern Girl’s Guide to Everything. Later he approached, looking worried (all those older guys looked worried to me, they had forehead and eye wrinkles and I was 24). “Was that intro okay, not too much?” he asked. Puzzled, I read it again. It’s fine, I told him, thank you so much.

The next time I read it was 2020. I gasped. It’s a deliberate joke, a creepy parody of him, a forty-ish man, having found my book. He wrote: “a valuable insight into the fears and most interestingly, the weaknesses, of the Modern Girl … [I have] taken certain notes so I can better understand the needs and secret longings of the present crop of young females and look forward immensely to putting this updated knowledge to practical application at the soonest possible opportunity.”

Not once was he a creep to me in real life: never in words, insulting glance or deed. And none of my feelings about that intro now are his fault. I was thrilled then, and it’s on me that I was naive enough to miss the entire, well, thrust of it. (I mean, der.) I just forged on; after it was published I forgot every word of it.

But here’s Cynthia’s sentence that became indelible for me: “When in doubt, make a fool of yourself.” When in doubt – the perennial state of even the luckiest young woman in an old man’s world. And then the joy of the next bit not being Helen Gurley Brown nonsense such as, say, “Make yourself look more attractive by standing next to an armchair and ask a man to explain something.”

I didn’t take Cynthia’s exhortation to be about clowning or making yourself a target. It’s about trusting yourself to be different, to be creative, to leap, to risk. If other people think you ugly, or trivial, or shouldn’t be there (in my case some sure did), that’s their problem. Writers and performers have to find their self-esteem and their audience, and withstand nasty and ignorant comments on their body shape, their work, or who they are. It’s about being a resplendent Lizzo in chaps, with a flute.

When she died in 2018, the obituaries called Cynthia Heimel a sex writer. The Washington Post said she “brought humour to hanky-panky”. Sure, and yay, but she really wrote about making a life with joy, connection and courage when confidence fails. Every time someone says “when in doubt …” try interjecting with “… make a fool of yourself.” They’ll look at you funny. But you won’t care.

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