The Hidden Power of No

photo courtesy of Flickr's Alice Popkorn
photo courtesy of Flickr’s Alice Popkorn

Every two year old gets it—often better than the adults around her. In fact, once a toddler discovers the true power of No, they use it with abandon, muttering it, shouting it, playing with it, experimenting with it. It’s actually a thrilling step in our evolution as a person—that moment when we realize we have power over our selves, our surroundings, and our choices, even if those choices are simply whether we will eat mashed carrots or mashed peas.

What the two year old understands on some primal level is that the very act of saying no begins to define who she is. It’s not about rejecting life or experiences—is there anyone more embracing of life than a two year old?—but rather, it is about understanding on some fundamental level that our choices define us. Our choices create necessary, healthy boundaries. Boundaries that allow us to begin to self actualize and differentiate ourselves from our parents and the adults around us.

The problem is, as adults it is easy to forget that saying no isn’t just about turning people down or disappointing them or feeling like we aren’t giving enough—although that is certainly a big part of saying no. Even as adults, what we say no to defines us, creates boundaries, and, most importantly, gives us the energy to say yes to something else, something that is more important to us and our work here on this earth, whether that work be raising a family, tilling a field, running a business, or writing a book.

For some people, their creative areas align nicely with what society expects of its adult members: a knack for business, a head for numbers, a unique talent for reframing the nature of how we think of the universe and the laws of physics. But for those of us whose creativity does not have a business or scientific application, it can be harder to cordon off the time we need. After all, as a society, we don’t particularly value creativity. Or if we do, we see it as a commodity

But even as adults, we need to remember the power of saying No. We need to say it as loudly as that two year old.

We need to plant our feet firmly in the ground, look the person in the eye, and say No, I’m sorry. I can’t. FULL STOP. We do not need to argue or justify or explain. We are allowed to say no.

I’m not suggesting we should remove ourselves completely from the societal sphere of volunteer work and participation (although on days when I am swinging heavily introvert, it is a pleasant fantasy) but we should be very conscious of our choices—of our yeses—and use them wisely.

There is no question that the demands on us for volunteer work have increased greatly over the last two decades as government and school budgets have contracted and shrunk and corporations have shifted some of the costs they are willing to bear. There is a greater need and higher expectation that people will step up and volunteer to take up this slack. Whether that means stuffing dollar bills into a fireman’s boot at a stop sign, volunteering weekends for repair days at clubs and nursery schools, or organizing the parent teacher group at school—no longer for classroom extras, but often these days to simply maintain standards.

The thing is, all the causes are worthy ones. All the financial needs are real. And all those pressures are nearly suffocating. If you are a conscientious person, it can be nearly impossible to say no to all those worthy causes that clamor at us every day for our attention.

But if you are a writer struggling to carve out time to write, it is essential.

Many, many years ago I heard Laurie Halse Anderson speak at an SCBWI conference and she talked about the concept of being a selfish artist. Frankly, the concept was entirely foreign to me and only the fact that Laurie was a wife, devoted mother, and equally devoted writer allowed me to even hear what she had to say, or else I would have dismissed it out of hand.

And she stressed the importance of creating room in our lives for our writing. Of not letting the daily duties of everyday life peck away at our precious minutes and energy until we had nothing left to give our writing.

She gave us—me—permission to give my writing a prominent place in my life and respect that. She explained that by saying no to the PTA or no to the youth soccer club or peewee football, I was saying yes to my writing.

If we learn to say no to things that aren’t true priorities in our lives or are priorities-by-default, it gives us the opportunity to say a big, fat YES to the things that truly matter to us.

If we can say no to the pressures—and the judgments that others pass when we fail to meet those pressures—we say YES to the idea that what we need and want matters.

An unintended benefit? By standing up to the peer pressure of being everything to every cause, we model standing up to peer pressure for our kids and our readers.

But using No isn’t only about carving out time for our writing. It is also about how we approach our writing. It also means being very careful about what writing rules and advice we let into our life. It means being very careful about what industry and marketing information we consume.

And I think that’s one of the reasons one of my themes here in my columns is about NOT having to jump on a marketing platform, or become a social media maven, or even spend very much time on those things. There are already so very many people telling us we MUST do that, I feel the need to balance that equation a bit by reminding us all that we can say no. Even to that.

The sun will not shrivel.

The stars will not fall out of the sky.

Nor will our careers be over before they’ve even begun.

Last week was a very exciting one for the children’s book community in that the American Library Association came out with their annual awards, among them the Newbery, the Prinz, and the Morris Award.

(You can see the full list of winners and honor winners here, including WriterUnboxed’s very own Julia Baggott whose novel PURE won the Alex Award!)

Here’s what struck me about so many of those listed: None of them have huge social media followings. Most of their twitter numbers were under 1000, often by a lot. They had minimal internet presences all, so clearly they said no to some of those pressures.

And by saying no to that, they created the space to say yes to writing some amazing books. In fact, the winner of this year’s Newbery, Katherine Applegate, said no to a number of things. For one she is a dyed-in-the-wool introvert and has steadfastly clung to a minimal online presence for years. She only just last year got on Twitter.

By all accounts she has had an amazingly successful career and has written over 150 books, including the hugely popular Animorphs and Everneath series. But at some point, she said no to that comfortable mass market road and decided to travel a new one. She began writing an entirely different sort of middle grade novel, including THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, which one the 2013 Newbery.

By saying no to conventional wisdom’s social media demands, by saying no to staying on the same writing career path, she gave herself the freedom to say YES to something else. Something that clearly has touched—and will continue to touch—a number of readers lives for years to come. As a side note—no amount of social media presence will EVER have the impact on her career that this Newbery will.

So I am here to do what Laurie Halse Anderson did for me all those years ago. I want to remind you that you have the power to say no.

Some time this week, sit down and make a list of things you’ve said yes to that don’t feed you. Look through that list. If you changed some of those yeses to no, what amazing thing would you be creating space in your life for?

What writing rules are restricting you? Causing you to stumble or burn out? Pick one and say no. Even better, say no to the entire lot of them and give yourself free reign. If you’re afraid your writing will devolve into a blob of self-indulgent tripe, then give yourself permission to ignore them only for a little while. See what that shakes loose. See what that frees up.

What publishing rules and dictates feel like they’re suffocating you? Is Twitter a chore? Blogging a leaden weight around your neck? Does the sheer amount of visual imagery over on Pinterest overstimulate you to the point where you feel fragmented?

Go ahead.

Say no.

Create that bubble of empty space and energy, and then utter a big fat YES and fill it with what you really want to do.




About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.


  1. says

    Dr. Phil. Who’s that? Ladies and gentlemen- I give you, Robin LaFevers. *Applause*. Robin, I can only nominate for a pulitzer once a year. Oh crap, “Embrace the Naked” was last year, Oh yeah. Robin does it again.

  2. says

    This is such a great post, Robin. My writing suffered for many years while I helped the PTO at my daughter’s grade school and middle school, where they desperately needed help. I’m not sorry I did it and my daughter looks up to me for stepping up and helping as do her friends. But when she went to high school, I did say no to myself and haven’t gone to any PTO meeting because I don’t want to get sucked into that anymore.

    And yes, we do need to put limits on the social networking to have time to write. But I do think it’s great to be a part of the writing community and network by being involved. It’s just finding the balance, which I need to do better.

  3. says


    This is such good timing, because I’ve been rediscovering the power of no, myself. In my case, it’s a matter of being grateful for the office job I have that allows me to bring my laptop to work and, well, write. You can imagine how freeing that is, especially in an 8-5 job. I don’t earn a lot, but I’m glad I have an income, benefits and the time to work on what is most important.

    My parents on the other hand don’t see it that way (even though I’m 27 and they live 50 mi away). They are pragmatic people in the medical field who see “that receptionist job” as a waste, that I could be doing better, and worry (understandably) that I will wind homeless under a bridge somewhere. Mom, for instance, is always pushing me to get a better (paying) job. I had to say no to that this week – emphasizing that the writing path I’m on, however precarious, is the one that makes me happy. Whether or not they truly listen is up to them… but in the mean time, it feels good having finally set that boundary.

    I don’t think there will ever be a way to make them stop worrying, but I can at least be reassured that I’m doing what’s best for me and my writing.

  4. says

    Wonderful post, Robin – as usual. :)

    Over the past few years, I’ve taken more of a stand, respecting myself and my writing, saying no to people who are not all that interested or encouraging. The amazing thing is that once I started doing that, I found more people who did understand and support and inspire.

    Regarding social media, I’m not Twitter or Facebook. I maintain a blog where I talk about writing, books, reading and tortoises. :) Oh, and I just joined GoodReads!

  5. says

    As Natalie posted above, it is about balance. Saying “no” is simply putting a finger on the scales to even things up. I found this post extremely interesting in that I’ve been spending some time with a toddler entering his two’s and am watching the emergence of “no” into his life. It’s been a healthy experience for both of us. I’m going to share this post with my artist girlfriend who sometimes feels guilty saying “no.” Perhaps she’ll understand better her immense gift and talent not only justify but require the time it deserves in her life. It’s not selfish to hold onto the time, it’s just being truthful to yourself, to who you are. Or so I believe.

  6. Carol Phillips says

    Thank you so much — I am just beginning to start the publishing process after deciding on the traditional route. All I hear is that even then I must have an “online presence.” Some agents require it. I am introvert and loathed the idea. I will now happily and confidently say yes only to that I want to do.

    I too will share this with my writing friends.

  7. says

    I love this post, and it is very well timed for me..I’ve been aching, longing, burning for long days spent entirely in my office. My schedule has become peppered with lots of outings and I need to draw boundaries. At least two full days each week. At least.

    Thank you, as ever, Robin.

  8. says

    I agree. At the start of the writing journey I throught it was all about the internet (obviously besides the writing) and considered that 10,000 followers must be the way forwards. Then I realised the more people in a room who aren’t listening to me shout about my book makes it much more difficult to find the ones that are.

    Saying no is a great way to do the things you actually need to do in order to be a great writer!

  9. says

    This is exactly what I needed to read today, Robin! Right now, I’m lying in bed under a mound of covers feeling a bit under the weather. I’m tempted to say, “Oh, but I have SO much to do in the house and I need to go workout and I really should get up from this bed at some point…” But I’m saying “no” and I have for the last two days. I’ve been working on my laptop, but I’ve been saying “no” to all those energy-sucking activities (that are great on non-sick days) and saying “yes” to letting my body relax and heal itself. It’s hard to be sick in this day and age. You have to unplug from a certain level of activity and admit that you need a break. It’s difficult to do. The beauty though, is that without all the extra distractions, I’ve gotten some AMAZING writing done. In some ways, being forced to take this down-time has served me wonderfully! Thanks, again, for such an amazing post!

  10. says

    The power of good, better best. A long time ago I read a book that said there are many good things that demand a time, a few better things, but only a select best. Choose the best. It’s really helped me prioritize all the really wonderful opportunities that could demand my attention and time.

  11. Carmel says

    I say no to Twitter. I say no to a blog. I will say yes to a website and an author page on Facebook (if it’s still around by the time I finish my book ;o) because it’s a very simple way to do a blog of sorts.

    Thanks, Robin. We do need to think about these things.

  12. says

    thank you for re-affirming my decision to stay off Facebook and not worry about the fact that I don’t twitter. Blogging has given me all the social networking I want or need AND it makes me practice even when I think I can’t. And that is quite enough for me.

  13. says

    Great advice! Last week I got a new job with a bitch of a boss and I love it.

    I used to dream of writing full time and yet when I was lucky enough to do it, you guessed it: I was still only writing the the same number of hours and spending the rest of my time doing chores, laundry, baking, errands (not to be confused with chores) and running out to pick up things for other people!

    Last week I hired the bitch (me, when I was an ex-marine lab manager) and work 9-5 in my office, no excuses! And not so amazingly everything is still getting done. I also, enjoy telling my husband, dogs and friends, “sorry, my boss won’t give me any time off” It sounds crazy to pretend you are a separate person who is your boss but I already so that when I write fictional characters, so what’s the big deal? LOL

  14. says

    You are amazing, Robin. You hit the perfect chord again, the one our community needs, a perfect stroke to counterbalance the preponderence of busy-busy-hectic-go-go info/advice. I hope other writers take it to heart, and I will share this piece with my friends. But, most importantly, I will strive to take it to heart. Then I will say no to a bunch of other busy-busy stuff and get to work on the what matters. Thank you for saying yes to being a WU contributor, at least.

  15. says

    What you say is so true. I have been making arrangements with a writer friend of mine to get together to write. We meet at coffee houses, or open areas of the mall, or libraries. We don’t need to speak, we just sit opposite each other and write (although we will brain storm and seek guidance on our WIP’s.) By having these appointments we accomplish two things: 1) we can’t procrastinate the day away, and 2) it becomes easy to say “No. I’m sorry. I have an appointment.” to other people’s requests of our time.
    You make a very valuable point when you say we do not need to explain giving “No” as an answer, but I am still much more comfortable when I can. I have started to use the word “work,” as in, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that…….. because I have to work.” People respect that.

    Now, if I could just learn not to answer the phone!

  16. says

    Just as important as saying no to other people is saying no to ourselves sometimes. I love other things besides writing, and it’s important to engage the world that way — a concert, a visit to the museum, a new recipe that takes more time than making a familiar dinner. But sometimes — and now is one of those times — I have to say no to those impulses. To say “later.” Because now is for writing.

    Thanks for the boost. Back to Ch 5 … .

  17. says

    Great piece.

    I have found to my dismay that the person I have to say No to most often is myself. In the last year I have gotten much better at it; in the last year I’ve been writing more, sending out more, and getting published more. The two go hand-in-hand.

    Will I care anymore that people think I’m selfish when I say No to them so that I can focus on my writing more? NO.

    Will I stay with someone who doesn’t support me and my writing–and the need I have to write? NO.

    Will I focus on my job 24/7, to the extent that I am too mentally drained to even think of writing? NO.

    Will I feel badly anymore about that? Will I feel that I have become worse–or mediocre–at my job because I am not giving so many nighttime hours or weekend hours to it? NO.

    Will I feel that I am missing out on Something because I spend so much time writing, sending out my stuff, or reading? NO.

    Will I feel beaten down by the rejections, or by the agent scam I suffered through in my 20s? NO.

    There’s even more, but you get the idea. You’ve gotta say NO to yourself if you’re going to work on, and complete, a creative endeavor in a very uncreative environment.

  18. says

    In Outlook, my list of tasks includes this quote, which I read daily. I think I’m getting better at applying it. (One reason I’m late to commenting.)

    “A false yes to you is a no to me.” ~ Byron Katie

  19. says

    I feel like you wrote this blog post just for me. Thank you. January 2013 my husband and I came to a mutual agreement to say NO to others to provide time for me to write during the day. Writing from 10-12pm when I was falling asleep on the keyboard didn’t produce my best work.

    Within a week we had two requests from people who wanted to live with us or have extended visits. I said NO, but with guilt. You relieved the guilt and renewed my passion for my true purpose. Thank you.

  20. Kate Klein says

    Following the example of a few religiously observant friends, I have started taking a sabbath day, saying “no” to just about everything–meetings, phone calls, housework, the Internet, and even writing– for one day a week. What fills the space? Marvelous things–books, recreation, quiet activities that allow me to listen and observe, and face-to-face time with real people.

    This one day a week I spend unplugged helps me gather my fragmented pieces, concentrate on one book, walk, or conversation at a time, and gather strength inside my own heart and mind, which is where excellent writing starts in the first place.

  21. Sandra Marin says

    Thank you for writing this. It supports what I tell everyone that what little free time I have left after a very demanding job that can easily turn in 24/7 if I allow it, I have to use for writing my one page a day. I don’t have time for blogging, tweeting or keeping up a website.

  22. Jenny Citron says

    I think this is a great article. And it is important to remember that we can say no. However, I feel that this article didn’t really address how HARD it can be to say “no.” We do disappoint people and while we do need to focus on ourselves other people matter too. Saying “no” to little league might free up something for you but it might also disappoint your son. I find that I don’t know how to balance the two. I am guilty of saying “yes” to many things that I don’t want to do but saying “no” is hard and even if we don’t need to be apart of these social pressures they are still there and sometimes they are awkward or hard to get out of/avoid. My problem with saying “no” is that I don’t want to hurt other people.

  23. says

    Such wonderful, comforting words, Robin. Thank you. My first book is about to come out and I’m running myself ragged trying to say YES to everything that could help this little book find its place on someone’s shelf. My introvert self is crying NO and wants to go live on your blissfully quiet hill. Maybe I should listen.

  24. says

    I didn’t post a blog or vlog in three months from Nov, Dec, Jan! Finally posted one yesterday; seemed easy again. What I did was schedule daily tweets and Facebook posts through that time so I was free from that as well. I took a break then watched my YouTube channel grow organically (over 3000 views per month). It felt so good. I wrote and edited and not that much either, so it could all gel. I read other people’s books. I slowed down on my reading about writing. I am born again. No more crazy, we hope.

  25. Bianca Peterson says

    Some years ago, a friend of mine told me he hated NaNoWriMo (the November challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days) because he felt those who participated shirked everything else in favor of it.

    I didn’t say so at the time, but it stung. It stung because writers don’t see events like this as a just a fun thing to do: it’s a prompt to move forward and actually produce something. It’s something that offers encouragement and forms a community about writing; something us shy and introverted writers need. At the time, I didn’t know how to tell my friend that I felt he was being unfair.

    If only this post had existed way back then. Because this encompasses everything I wanted to say to him, but couldn’t find the words for. Being a writer is tough work and it takes time: a lot of time. There’s no harm in taking one month out of the year to make writing priority number one if it’s something important to you.

    Thank you for sharing this.