That Dreaded Syllable: Saying No

Recently I’ve been asked about writing advice that isn’t geared specifically toward new writers or those looking to “break into” print. It’s not often I write about those further along–because careers, like people, are pretty unique, mostly, and any advice I’d be able to give might backfire terribly in someone else’s arena. But I figure what I’m about to say is Reasonable Life Advice as well as Publishing Advice.

My Friday the 13th started about 24 hours early. The 12th was one of the more bizarre days I’ve ever had in my life, and that’s saying something. I’ve found myself today having to say no, in both personal and professional (albeit completely unrelated) situations.

This is not easy.

In the first place, I was raised not to say no when someone pressed an emotional hot button–something like “I need you now.” My only value was how compliant I was, and I was trained well and thoroughly that compliant was what I needed to be to survive. For years it has been extraordinarily easy for anyone I cared about to get pretty much anything they wanted out of me, just by appearing needy or in-crisis enough. Now, taking care of your friends isn’t a bad thing–but you need to be cautious who you call “friend” if that’s a commitment you want to make.

If it’s very distressing for you to say no, you can bet a certain type of person will sense that. And a series of painful games may begin, with you trying to make this type of person happy and avoid saying no. And it can’t be done. You will be sucked dry like an orange slice, and they, flush with stolen vitality, will find another victim. It’s wreckage waiting to happen, and it happens every day.

As a female, too, it’s presumed that I don’t say no. It’s difficult for me to outright refuse someone, especially in high-stress situations. There’s a huge weight of cultural disapprobation involved in a woman saying “No.” Over and over, in many implicit and explicit ways, women are told that it’s necessary to play along, be gentle, be nice, spare everyone’s feelings. And God forbid you should say “No!” and stick to it, or listen to the inner voice that warns you of danger. Then you’re a bitch.

When it comes to working in publishing, another layer of uncertainty and pressure is added. If you say no, there’s always a chance you won’t be invited back. To be a writer is to be a freelancer, and to be a freelancer is profoundly unstable. Every “no” must be weighed against the damage it could do down the road.

You’re beginning to see why a “No!”, whether diplomatic or not, is an act sometimes fraught with danger.

Most often, my “no”s are part of a long process that involves me taking several barometric readings. In the case of a personal no, I usually discuss things with a friend I can trust. I tend to “chew it until the flavor’s gone” and agonize over how hurt someone will be if I say that dreaded single syllable. It takes a lot to make me close up and stop giving.

When it comes to saying no in the writing world, I have to balance the prospect of possibly not getting paid against the trouble the job will take, and how I interact with the editor, and a whole host of other issues before I even get close to saying no. I also often run a prospective “no” past my agent, partly to check in with the longer-term plan for my career and also to get her opinion on the best and most diplomatic way to refuse. It takes a while.

A great deal of my life lately has been saying no in small ways with people I trust. Just to check out what happens when I do so.

And you know, I’m discovering the damndest thing: most of the time, a no given in those situations isn’t really a big deal. The person you say that dreaded single syllable to shrugs and goes on to star in their own life movie. It doesn’t make the sun go out or the world end.

But in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve had to say no in a personal situation where I’ve felt unsafe to refuse, and yet compelled to do so. All my emotional hot buttons have been pushed, and the fact that I was also agonizing over saying no in a professional situation just made it worse. (I should stress again, the two events were in no way related. Except temporally. Bad luck, that.)

It’s been incredibly difficult. I’m fighting against my conditioning, my upbringing, and fighting in the face of a very real fear to say “no” and stick with it. My friends–those I can trust, those who I’ve practiced the little tiny “no”s with–have closed around me like a protective wall, each in their own warm way. I am told over and over again that it’s OK for me to draw my boundaries, that I am not, in fact, crazy, that I have a right to protect myself, and that they love me just as much as ever.

But it’s still tremendously difficult. And the fact that I care for and want to protect the person I’m having to refuse is extraordinarily painful.

Saying no professionally has consequently been more upsetting than usual. It may mean I don’t work with a particular editor again, but it’s a chance I have to take. I pride myself on giving my editors what they need, and I try very hard to be reasonable to work with. Having to refuse, especially when it’s really nobody’s fault and just a mess-up, is utterly crazymaking, and contributes to a round of professional second-guessing and doubt that makes a hurricane look like a teapot tempest.

Which leads me, in a roundabout way, to my advice. If you want to make a career of writing, sooner or later you will have to say “no” to something. Spend some time thinking about saying no. What it means to you to refuse, if you can do so with little angst or if it’s a hot-button issue with you. Figure out how to do it gracefully, figure out if you need backstops and people to talk to before you actually utter the dreaded syllable. Cultivate those habits and the comfort with that one little word now. Being unprepared when the time comes to say it is very uncomfortable. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I can only imagine how badly I’d feel if I hadn’t been working on this very issue for months.

Now I’m going to go do some deep breathing. And, my dear Readers, if you can, help me out here. What helps you say no? Have you found a trick to it? Do you agonize over it, or is it no big deal to you?

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