I had the most wonderful experience of saying no the other day. Funny, the cognitive dissonance that sentence immediately sets churning in the mind. We don’t often associate the statement, “No,” that ultimate speech-act of negativity, with satisfaction, even self-congratulation.
Writers of literary fiction naturally recoil from the idea of saying no to potential readers and supporters. After all, we aim to please. We live and die on the number of stars the fickle reviewer awards us on Amazon. We fear the embittered book blogger who found us “aloof” at a recent festival. Ambushed at a book signing, we clumsily decline a reader’s “offer” to “let us read” his unpublished three-volume memoir. And we can just hear the whispers rippling down the queue—“Don’t buy her book. She’s a jerk. And aloof.”
Writers learn early on: the worst thing you can do is displease your audience. We’re a conflict-avoidant tribe in general. We just want to write our books and give readers pleasure. “No” means someone will be displeased, and how can that be anything but bad?
Glad you asked. I learned fast that adopting a professional attitude about what you do means that when the chips are down, you say no. And by “when the chips are down,” I mean “when you are about to be run roughshod over like fresh snow on a playground just before the recess bell.”
Let’s take that wonderful experience of no-saying mentioned above. Currently I’m working at a university as writer-in-residence. This means I’m paid a salary to meet with would-be writers and discuss their literary aspirations. I’ve done this kind of work plenty of times, and for the most part it’s a delight, but there’s always one person in the parade of hopefuls who doesn’t understand the two-part nature of my delight. Part one: I’m working with aspiring writers. Part two: I’m getting paid to do it. If you subtracted part two? That’s half my delight gone right there. And the task abruptly ceases to be delightful altogether, morphing instead into unpaid drudgery.
Yet there’s always that one person who suggests that perhaps, once my time as a paid consultant is up, I’d like to meet over coffee and continue our discussions of his or her work. Because don’t I love writing? And talking about writing? Isn’t that my thing? No.
Novelists generally don’t—and can’t—make a living off the money they earn selling their books. We live off the work subsidiary to book-writing—speeches, readings, workshops, residencies, or writing essays like this one. The running roughshod begins when we’re expected to do this work for nothing, or next to nothing—because it’s not work, not really. It’s just our thing.
Take the anthology editor who asks for an essay but makes no mention of payment. And when you ask for payment, indignantly tells you he’ll share the eventual royalties. And when you ask for a contract, indignantly tells you he hasn’t secured the book deal yet—he can’t until he has actual content to show a publisher and how is he supposed to deliver content if you won’t write him an essay for free, today? So you say no. “Wow,” comes the reply. “I didn’t think it would come down so quickly to the bottom line.” If you missed the subtext, you are a money-grubbing bitch.
And refusing to help someone else write his book for free makes you anti-literature. Meanwhile, your own labour of love—your novel—sits languishing on your hard drive.
Then there was the online workshop that asked if I, as an “expert” on writing, could answer a few questions for their course material. They sent me a list of 40 questions, requesting I respond to every question with “at least a paragraph.” There are 11 paragraphs in this essay.
But with every “no” that’s uttered, the easier it becomes to swim past the breakers of passive-aggressive reproach. (The workshop people replied sniffily that, “All the other writers we contacted were happy to participate.”) Only then do you enter the caressing waters of validation and respect found in more salubrious harbours. I remember the day I decided, when offered a soporific ghostwriting project, to turn down their initial offer and name a rate that would justify putting my novel aside for several months. I thought I was being outrageous. The client agreed to my terms—without batting an eye.
The decision to become a novelist is a deeply unpragmatic one, financially. So the only way a writer can expect to keep her head above water is to be ruthlessly pragmatic in every other aspect of her work. Writing fiction is my labour of love, but writing itself is just plain labour—and highly skilled labour at that. I can never afford to lose sight of that fact.