Our Power to Say No

by Noelle Sterne

January 2018

Saying “No” can take as much courage as saying “Yes.” We’ve all had the experience of squeaking a mousy “Okay, sure” for something we didn’t really want to do – drive twelve kids to the water park in the Mini Cooper, agree to Sunday dinner with new acquaintances when the conversation had already stalled at “Hello,” go with a friend to a football game when we’re allergic to fans in painted faces.

I always take heart from authors who’ve proclaimed an emphatic No to other pursuits or activities in favor of writing. Their difficulties and hardships, and the agonies of their decisions, shouldn’t be minimized. But they had the courage and recognized their power to say No. A few examples:

-- A new writing friend withdrew from teaching middle school to start writing and blogging.

-- A well-known, highly successful woman turned from hotshot attorney to spiritual and career coach and self-help writer.

-- A corporate drone left the cubicle and water cooler to peddle his comedy scripts.

-- A classmate in graduate school stopped after the master’s degree to write novels – and became world famous. (I dutifully trudged on to the doctorate.)

All these people, and many others, had to buck disapproval, friends’ incredulity, relinquishment of prestige and titles, disappearance of steady money (sometimes a lot), and exposure at holiday dinners to relatives’ downturned mouths, dire warnings, and protracted head-shaking. Not to mention the writers’ own fears.

But these writers persisted in saying No to other things and following the call of their writing.

You’ve probably heard the advice to do what you love, as these writers did. And you have also heard of the by-now classic book by Marsha Sinetar titled Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow. The money may or may not follow, but most days, if you do what you love, you’ll really want to get out of bed. You’ll look forward to today, and even when you’re tussling with writing block, you’ll know it’s a struggle you’ve chosen. Some days, for no apparent reason, your heart will leap like a fawn.

How Hard Is It? A Personal Case

How hard it is, really, to say No? Quite hard, as I learned recently. Friends invited my husband and me to dinner. Deep into a late draft of my spiritual self-help book, I was working steadily and well on the way to meeting the deadline without panic. The words and ideas flowed, and I was feeling that priceless blend of winter-air sharpness and creative boundarylessness.

I knew I should have declined.

But they were good friends, my husband enjoyed them, I’d had fun with them before, and I kept telling myself I needed a break.

I didn’t. Or, more accurately, the breaks I did take – a few yoga stretches, a walk around the terrace, a snack, a little cooking – were enough to make me want to go back without losing momentum.

As soon as the date was made – time, restaurant, dress – I regretted it. Maybe to some it wouldn’t have been a big deal. The usual retort is, “But it’s only . . .” an hour, a few hours, a day.

The Cost of Not Saying No

Not so. I recalled a passage from Elaine St. James’ Inner Simplicity about the “costs of not saying no.” She accepted a weekend dinner invitation when she wanted to paint and later realized the huge error: “it’s not just the four or five hours you spend at Jack’s that get lost by doing things you don’t want to do; it’s all the time leading up to it, and often the time and energy you spend recovering from it as well” (p. 124). Just thinking about what to bring, what to wear, getting ready beforehand, maybe what to eat if you’re on a special diet – all take energy from your creative work.

And then, as St. James points out, when you’re actually out, you eat too much, drink too much, sugar too much, caffeine too much. Once home again, you have trouble falling asleep with all the caloric stimulants and Jack’s rather annoying pontifications rattling around in your head. The next day, you sleep too late, wake up headachy, and can’t see straight enough to work. So, the cost of not saying No shoots from a few hours to a full two days and huge sacrifice of precious work momentum.

At that dinner with our friends, before, during, and after I experienced exactly what St. James described, with the only difference that, ungraciously, I was surly the whole time. I answered everyone in monosyllables, didn’t crack my sullen face at their witticisms, responded rudely to the server, and sent back my main dish when everyone else was happily attacking theirs. Once home, I suffered my husband’s reprimand and two-day frosty silence.

I Finally Said No

The next time we were invited out (not by these friends), and I was hot into a piece, I remembered this episode. So I explained to my husband how I felt. If they were really good friends, I reasoned, they would understand. At first, he objected to my lack of flexibility, and I wished I could feel differently. Then he grudgingly agreed. He went without me and had a great time.

As did I, at home alone with my computer, latest draft, notes scribbled that dawn, and classical music in the background (foreground when they played Telemann). Even when I stalled some, jumped up to scrub something, or stuck something in my mouth, the evening stretched out deliciously. Then I meandered back to the work and that matchless open-endedness.

I typed, mumbled to myself, listened inside, laughed, cursed, reasoned, until – finally, finally – a passable first draft emerged!

When my husband came home, flush with satisfaction from his visit, I greeted him, flush with satisfaction from my session. The friends, he said, understood. No reprimands, no vindictive silences.

Saying No gives us power. We gain an unmatchable sense of satisfaction, certain of being on purpose, doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re declaring ourselves to the universe: “This is what I was meant for, and nothing else deserves my best attention.” Doesn’t mean we won’t write for bread, or cable, or take a day job, or fulfill other responsibilities, but our major allegiance and commitment is to our writing.

Beyond questioning, rationalizing, or excusing, we’ve been given the talent, desire, and drive to create with words. We do have the power and courage to say No to all that would threaten and erode and the power to shout an emphatic Yes to our writing.

Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor,·Noelle Sterne·publishes writing craft and spiritual articles and essays in print and online. With a Ph.D. from Columbia·University, Noelle assists doctoral candidates wrestling with their dissertations to completing their tomes (finally). Based on her practice, her new handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties in Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, mid-2015). Excerpts appear before publication in several magazines. In Noelle's first book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go·after Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com.

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