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The Hidden Power of No

photo courtesy of Flickr's Alice Popkorn [1]
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 [2], 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 [3]

Robin LaFevers [4] is the author of seventeen books for young readers, including the HIS FAIR ASSASSIN trilogy [5] about teen assassin nuns in medieval France and the upcoming COURTING DARKNESS [6]. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.