The other evening, I was having dinner with my upstairs neighbor, E., a dear friend whom I don’t get to see as often as I’d like despite our close proximity. We were catching up on our lives, and I told her about a quasi-recent turn of events in which I’d told someone I wasn’t able to make the commitment they wanted from me and how I’d tried to explain to them why.
She stopped me mid-sentence.
“You don’t need to explain,” she said. At first, I thought she meant I didn’t need to explain to her. I know she often has a full calendar and as well understands how particular stages of life mean commitments are more difficult to make and keep. I knew she could relate to my experience. Then, I realized she meant that I didn’t need to explain myself to the other person. I didn’t need an excuse for my no. As she suggested, I didn’t have to justify my no.
I think this is true in many ways. It’s difficult to say no to others. And so often I say yes to the detriment of my own goals and dreams and time. I put other people’s wants and needs ahead of my own. I do believe there is value in this. I do think there are many times when we are called to go the extra mile for someone. There are times when it’s important to give back, to encourage, to help, to mentor, to volunteer our time and our talents. To set down our own desires in service of someone who really needs it. Still, there is a difference between someone’s real need and someone’s fleeting want. A difference between committing in a way that serves a greater good and getting locked into somethng that is so far removed from one’s own important needs that both parties end up suffering because of it. And there are times when saying no should come not with a justification but with thought and compassion. I know my friend would agree with me. She avidly devotes her free time to volunteer work, to spending time with those in need, to helping the disenfranchised.
Perhaps the difference and the balance comes in not saying an automatic yes to things that hurt one’s own self in the long run.
Often because I am a writer and an editor, people come to me with essays, full-length manuscripts, resumes, and book proposals, asking for my advice, my edits, my time. I love helping people. I love hearing their stories. But I do this work for a living. It’s how I earn my income. There are people who pay me to do this. It’s how I pay for my electricity and how I pay for my subway fare and how I pay for my dinner. And unless it is a real need, say someone who has been out of work for a year and needs their resume reviewed so they can get a job to feed their hungry baby, it is unfair of me to not charge them when I would normally charge others. It’s unfair for my other clients. And it’s unfair for me, as, in a way, I am my own client. I am working on a new book. I spend hours sitting at the computer, typing, deleting, revising. I do this on top of my full-time career. I do this on top of my freelance opportunites. I do this on top of the free readings I give to support the biography I coauthored. I do this on top of smaller creative projects. I do this on top of the volunteer position I have leading a writing group. I do this when others are watching tv. When others are getting together with friends. I don’t get paid to write my book. Not yet. And so when someone asks me to look over something they’re working on, I instinctually want to say yes, I want to help them. But it takes time away from my own writing. It would mean saying no to paying freelance opportunities. Or, perhaps it would mean saying no to spending time with friends I haven’t seen in a long. I am honored that someone would want me to review their work, but I shouldn’t have to justify why I can’t help everyone for free.
I stubled upon Austin Kleon’s tumblr the day after meeting with E. He’s the author of Steal Like An Artist, and he posted about authors and editors saying no. I think I may steal E. B. White’s line:
“I must decline, for secret reasons.”