Monday, October 30, 2017

The Importance of Saying No

by Linda Rodriguez

I have always had a hard time saying “no.” I like people, and I always want to help good causes. This has led to years of low pay in the nonprofit sector, tons of overwork, lots of volunteer hours, and on the good side, an awful lot of great friends. It also leads periodically to a terrible feeling of overload, that point I get to when I have so many urgent or overdue or essential tasks to do that I’m paralyzed. How do you prioritize when everything needs to be done RIGHT NOW?

When I get to that point, I have to move into To-Do Triage. I list everything that’s demanding my attention (and get the most depressing multi-page list). Then I move down the list, asking myself, “What will happen if I don’t do this today?” If it isn’t job loss, client loss, contract violation, child endangerment, arrest, etc., it doesn’t go on the much tinier list to be dealt with right now.

The trouble is that you can’t live your life in To-Do Triage. At least, I can’t. Not as a permanent lifestyle. Sooner or later, you have to learn to say “no.” Even when it’s difficult. Even when it’s going to hurt someone’s feelings (whether it should or not). Even when it’s something you’d like to do. At least, if you want to write, you will. Sooner or later, you have to learn to guard your time like a mother eagle with her nestlings. And sooner or later, you’ll find yourself having to relearn it all over again. At least, I do. (Maybe I’m just a slow learner, and all the rest of you can learn this lesson once and for all, but it keeps coming up in new guises in my life.)

I remember the first time I learned the lesson of no. I was a young, broke mother of two (still in diapers) who wanted to write. The advice manuals I read were aimed at men with wives and secretaries or women with no children or enough money to hire help with the house and the kids. Since there was three times as much month as there was money, hiring anyone or anything was out of the question—I was washing cloth diapers in the bathtub by hand and hanging on a clothesline to dry because we hadn’t enough disposable income for the laundromat. Yet still I wound up the one in the neighborhood who canvassed with kids in stroller and arms for the March of Dimes and the American Cancer Society.

One day someone who knew how much I wanted to write gave me a little book called Wake Up and Live by Dorothea Brande, who also wrote the wonderful On Becoming A Writer. As I read it, one sentence leaped out at me:As long as you cannot bear the notion that there is a creature under heaven who can regard you with an indifferent, an amused or hostile eye, you will probably see to it that you continue to fail with the utmost charm.”

I began carving out time and space for my writing, and to do it without shortchanging my babies, I cut out television and most of my community involvement. This lesson had to be relearned when those babies were high schoolers, my new youngest was a toddler, and I became a full-time student and a single working mother at the same time, unexpectedly. It returned to be learned again when my oldest two were grown, my youngest in grade school, and I took on running a university women’s center that also served the community. Every time it had to be learned in a different way with different adjustments. Once I’d given up television, that option was no longer open to me. At one point, I switched my writing to poetry because what time I could create or steal was in such small fragments that it made novels impossible to write.

Now that I’m writing novels again and publishing them (as well as poetry and freelance work still), one of the time-eaters is the promotion work we authors must all do to win the readers we believe our books deserve. It’s not something that can be skimped on, and yet the creative work of designing and writing new novels must go forward, as well. For a while now, each request for my volunteer time and work has had to be carefully weighed, and most reluctantly rejected. At this time, my major volunteer commitment is Kansas City Cherokee Community, our official satellite community of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, set up by the Nation for those of us in diaspora. Everything else must sadly fall by the wayside—and some people are quite unhappy about that, as if they had the right to my time and skills because I’ve given them in the past. I’ve had to learn to deal with that.

What about the time book promotion takes, however? With my first novel (this was never a real issue with my poetry books and cookbook), I said “yes” to every opportunity, every event, every guest blog, every interview, every podcast, everything. And I managed to write books during that time, as well—and had the worst winter, healthwise, in many years, having worn my body down. Now, I’m trying to be more strategic about the promotion opportunities I accept. I’m still saying “yes” to many of them—it’s part of my job, and I know that—but I’m examining them more closely and deciding against some that I don’t feel will be as useful for me. It’s hard, but once again I’m learning that lesson, which is apparently one of my life-lessons—“no” can be the friend of my writing and is necessary at times.

Charles Dickens, who was one of the earliest and most successful self-promoting writers, put it best for writers in any age when he said:

“‘It is only half an hour’ — ‘It is only an afternoon’ — ‘It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes — or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day … Whoever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”

Do you find it difficult to tell others “no” when they want your time? If you’re a writer, how do you create ways to balance the promotion and the writing?

Linda Rodriguez's Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, are her newest books. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery novel featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, will appear August 15, 2018. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at


  1. Oh, Linda, I don't know how you can find the time to do all that you do, and you do it so well. Saying no is so hard. Like you, I struggle with the full-time job, demands of home and hearth, writing, and marketing.

    Saying no is hard. Saying no without guilt, harder! Especially if it is a worthy cause or event. I wonder if anyone has done a Dorothea Brande sampler - it should be required decoration for every writer's wall!

  2. Linda,

    The only people who don't have this issue are people who don't know they have the issue.

    NO -- the word sounds so negative, and that itself is an issue for many of us. I have tried (and more often now than not am successful, but it took some time) to turn this on its head. I say YES to the things that I must do or want to do. If the YESes have filled up the allotted time, I can't accept anymore YESes.

    ~ Jim

  3. The people who have attitude because you've said no are those who didn't appreciate your efforts when you did volunteer. They also might be in the camp who don't consider writing a "real" job.

    I was astounded by a woman's pronouncement that I should volunteer--at the time I was present because I was volunteering. She didn't recognize that that's what I was doing. I stopped volunteering for that group because it was very clear they didn't value their volunteers.

    Everyone has priorities. For those of us who have volunteered--we have the right not to volunteer. Those who have never volunteered don't have the right not to do so--if they want the benefits of those who do. Everyone must take his/her turn. But of course it's always the same group of people volunteering wherever you go.

    Do what you must without guilt--you've earned the right.

  4. Great post here, Linda. Thank you for this--hits home.

  5. This hits home, Linda, and should be required reading, especially for parents venturing into the years when their children are in school. And writers. So many people don't understand the invisible (to them) labor that goes into so many endeavors - child rearing and writing especially. I wonder if our publishers even realize the burden they place on writers with all the marketing/self-promotion they expect us to do - plus write!
    Carl Sandburg said "Time is the most valuable coin in your life. You and you alone will determine how that coin will be spent. Be careful that you do not let other people spend it for you.”

  6. A friend once asked me what I had planned for the afternoon. I said "I'll be writing." He said "Good, since your won't be doing anything I'll give you a call."

  7. I had to learn a similar lesson when I worked nights, a midnight to 8 AM shift. Somehow the fact that I really needed to sleep (preferably while my kids were in school) was lost on many people who thought I should be available during the day.

    Balancing promotion with writing is something I find difficult. I fear my promotion efforts leave much to be desired.

  8. Kait, I love your idea of a Dorothea Brande sampler! She has so many great lessons for us. She studied a French psychologist and brought to us the concept of "Act as if..." back in the early 1930s. (Perhaps more familiar today as "fake it till you make it.") She said to ask yourself what you would do if you were the successful writer you wanted to be, and then go and do it. She has lots more that I've copied down through the years. Maybe I'll do a Brande post one of these days.

  9. Jim, that's an excellent way to reframe the whole issue. Smart!

  10. Elaine, I'm a huge believer in volunteering and building the community you want to have. I grew up with those ideals in my blood, but I've noticed a lot of people who complain because the community they want no longer exists--they say because selfish women have gone to work--yet they won't lift a finger themselves to build or rebuild or even maintain that community. It's like the people who want roads and sewers and bridges and fire departments and other public services but don't want to pay the taxes that fund them. TANSTAAFL

  11. Art, you know how universities love to parasitize our time. When I ran a university women's center, they put me on every hiring committee, every task force, every advisory committee/cabinet, every community outreach committee, and loaded me with extra responsibilities for campus diversity training, advising multiple student groups, etc. I hope you're able to draw some lines.

  12. Shari, great Sandburg quote! And I would think that publishers know exactly how much of a burden they place on writers since by shoveling it over to us, they were able to cut staff significantly and saved a great deal of money on marketing expenses. All that didn't just evaporate. Publishers took it off their books and placed it on our shoulders while keeping royalties and advances the same or even lower. It was a smart if unfair business decision on their parts.

  13. Ooooh, yes, Warren! Been there many times--and the fact that those friends are still alive speaks to our maturity and restraint.

  14. Yes, KM, what is it with all these people who think we should be available to help them when it's inconvenient or impossible for us??

  15. Linda I had four babies in less that five years, and a husband who worked two jobs and when he wasn't working he volunteered to help others. I wasn't writing then, but I was painting and would go to my place in the basement where I could paint my pictures after my children were tucked into bed. When they were school age, I volunteered as a room mother, as a Cub Scout Den Mother, a Girl Scout leader for ten years, taught catechism at my church and went on classroom field trips.

    After my oldest son died, I went to college and took overloads of classes in literature, writing and poetry. That's when I turned to writing. My other children were in high school then and helped out a little at home, but I still had horses, chickens and peacocks to take care of when they were busy. When I became a teacher I didn't volunteer as much, and often I'd come home to a meal my son had cooked.

    When I retired, I volunteered to deliver Mobile Meals every other Thursday. I really enjoy that. I volunteered to be on my church's bereavement team that was started, but found I was
    not comfortable with it so I quit. I've pretty much quit volunteering for anything anymore, but I do belong to two book clubs and two writing groups so that uses up some of my time, but I enjoy both of them. One of the things that annoy me most is when my youngest brother says to me it must be nice to be retired and have all that time. Or when someone calls and asks what I'm doing, and I say writing, and they proceed talking as if that's not important.

    I watch very little TV, and because I'm indie published, I don't worry too much about promotion or times lines even though I have a following who keep trying to get me to publish my next book sooner.

  16. Gloria, as far as the folks who call when you're writing and then go on talking, the solution is to not answer the phone when you're writing. Just let it go to voicemail. I check to see if it's one of my family, in case of emergency. If not--or if it's a family member who doesn't respect my time and work--I let them leave a message while I keep on working.

  17. There's a reason that artists often have a reputation for being anti-social. We're just trying to get some creative work done!


  18. My mom used to say that as long as someone is doing the job, no one else feels the need to step up. I deliberately reassigned newsletter and publicity duties for our storytelling group, offered help to get the new person started, and gratefully gave up responsibility.
    One of the Agents at Prudential told the newbies to write family commitments in our calendars in ink, and tell others simply, "I have an appointment already scheduled for that time," no details, as those open discussion of priorities and options.
    One of our busiest and wisest storytellers has meetings with her non-existent board of directors to set the direction of her career. When she receives requests for free performances for "it's such a good cause," she consults her business manager self and reports back that she's already committed to other causes for the full quota of donated performances (causes she has selected and supports), and offers her customary, reasonable rate instead.
    One person can't do it all.

  19. Mary, I tried that technique of delegating volunteer jobs to someone else in the organization with help to get started, only to find that no one was willing to follow through, so I had to ask myself if what I was doing was that important if no one else would do it and left. No one picked up the slack after I left, either, and the organization dwindled. I know those organizations are important, but if the only way they can exist is on my labor, I guess they won't.

    I love your storyteller friend's techniques and think I will adopt them myself. :-)