by JT Ellison
‘A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.’ ~Lao Tzu
It’s not a pretty word.
It connotes negativity, refusal, rejection.
It is also the working writer’s best friend.
No doesn’t always have to be negative.
No can be healthy. No can mean you’ve made a measured decision that is in your best interest. No can mean you’ve taken control of your life. No can mean you have a solid understanding of your limitations.
So why is it so hard to say no?
I’m a yes girl. I find it difficult to refuse requests, especially when it means helping someone else out. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. There are times, like now, that I’ve said yes to so many things that nothing is getting its fair due. I’m juggling five projects in addition in to launching a book and touring and all that jazz. Nothing is getting done well, thoroughly, mindfully, because I can’t focus completely on any of them.
No is hardest to say when you’re in the midst of promoting a book. No one wants to miss an opportunity, especially when we don’t know what the secret magic sauce is to reach readers. There’s always that little voice in the back of your head niggling at you, saying “If you say no to the wrong thing, a chance could pass you by.” And that chance might have been the one little thing that tips the scales in your favor.
But wow, that kind of thinking can drive a writer mad.
I had to pull out of a project yesterday. It wasn’t one that was earth shattering, but I told someone I’d do something, and I had to write them and withdraw that promise. I hated to do it. But when the email was sent, and I self-flagellated for a few minutes, I looked at my calendar, and suddenly, I found another six things that I could cut from my schedule. And boy, did it feel good. The pressure lifted off my shoulders.
I’ve always been good at telling other people that they need to find balance. That they should weigh their options and choose what makes the most sense for them.
I really need to start taking my own advice.
I read an interesting article last week by Joshua Millburn of The Minimalists teasing an essay he’s written about living three months with no goals. And of course, I immediately set out to read the attendant articles to see if this is something that I could do.
One of my favorite quotes from one of the articles, from Leo Babauta, who I call a good friend though I’ve never met him and he has no idea I exist, simply because so much of what he’s said over the past few years I’ve tried to emulate, follows:
“What do you do, then? Lay around on the couch all day, sleeping and watching TV and eating Ho-Hos? No, you simply do.”
That complements my all time favorite quote, the one I keep in my email signature line to remind me to stay on the path:
“Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda
That’s really a truth worth exploring. I wasn’t surprised to hear it echoed by Steven Pressfield, author of the fabulous The War of Art, this week as well.
The addict is the amateur; the artist is the professional.
At its most basic, all three truths say the same thing. You either do the work, or you don’t.
But can you accomplish all you need, and want, to do, without goals?
The whole concept is intriguing to me. I live for goals. I get a great sense of satisfaction by setting, meeting, and exceeding goals. Hell, I’m the one who will add a forgotten task to a to do list post-completion just so I can cross it off.
So that’s exactly what I’m going to try to do.
I set some seriously unrealistic goals for myself this year – 43 of them. Yes, I just went back to my planner and counted them. Some are realistic – finish book 7, write book 8, start book 9 – done, done, done. Some are amorphous – appreciate more, be open to new experiences, try sushi. Some are more concrete – yoga, running, golf twice a week.
But as I look at my list of goals, and realize it’s the end of September, and there are so, so many that I haven’t accomplished — become fluent in Italian, cut online time in half, carve out ample time to read, write a non-fiction proposal — nor will manage to master by the end of the year, that I start to get upset with myself. I am not meeting my goals.
Joshua’s essay made me realize all I’m doing is saying yes, and I’m not getting anything done.
Yes, I wanted to get better at speaking Italian, and cook at home more, and run three times a week. Yes, I wanted to renovate my kitchen and dining room and lose twenty pounds. And… and… and. But so much of my goals list is just wishful thinking.
And if my wishes aren’t getting fulfilled, even if I’m the one in control of them, something is wrong.
Lao Tzu taught that:
All straining, all striving are not only vain but counterproductive. One should endeavor to do nothing (wu-wei). But what does this mean? It means not to literally do nothing, but to discern and follow the natural forces — to follow and shape the flow of events and not to pit oneself against the natural order of things. First and foremost to be spontaneous in ones actions.
Just what Leo said, and what Steven said, and what Joshua will say when he posts his essay.
Will mastering my to do list and scratching off the goals I’ve set make me happy? Or will striving to meet so many unattainable goals drive me crazy? I tell you what makes me happy. Writing. When I’m not writing, when I’m so focused on all the things I have to do that aren’t just plain writing, I am not happy.
It’s as simple as that.
The pressure of deadlines, the constant go-go-go that happens when I get online, the striving-all of that is trumped when I sit down to the keyboard and create a new world. When my husband comes home at night and I’m bubbling over with excitement at some random plot twist that happens, and he smiles at my exuberance – that – THAT – makes me happy.
I see now that crossing goals off a list makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something on the days when writing becomes work. My friends and family tell me I work too hard. To that I truly scoff—if I was really working too hard, I’d have six books a year or more under my belt, like many authors I know. I’d be mothering a child. I’d be answering to a boss. Instead, I float in that netherworld of getting my writing done, sandwiched between hours of doing a bunch of things that really don’t matter. I work hard, yes. I won’t discount that. But I’m not working smart. And that is not a good thing.
So instead of striving to meet all these insane goals, I’m going to try something new. No goals. My weapon with be two little letters, a simple word, that holds great power.
Tell me, friends, when’s the last time you took control and said no? And did you feel terribly guilty about it, or was it freeing?
Wine of the week – this one is dedicated to the divine Laura Lippman, who I finally met in St. Louis, and was charmed by, not that I expected anything less, but sometimes it’s really cool to find out your heroes are rocking cool people, and besides, it fits the whole theme of today’s post rather well….. Irony Cabernet
And I would be remiss if I didn’t do a tiny plug – the ebook of WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE goes on sale tomorrow, so if you’ve been waiting for the digital version, here you are : )