Think The Shawshank Redemption,
only it's me planning a way out of a dinner party.
— Amanda Kyle Williams
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I made a few flights last month and one of the things the flight attendants always say during the safety talk is something along the lines of, "In the case of an emergency, put on your own air mask first. Then, when you're set, help those around you."
It's a good metaphor for taking care of yourself before taking care of others. Without enough oxygen, you'll just pass out and be no use to anyone — even a burden on others.
It's a hard lesson to learn, though. I think as women (or, OK, I'll just speak for myself, because I do know some men who have the same knee-jerk reaction) we're conditioned to put others first. We have trouble saying no, in order to carve out time and space for our own health, our own needs. I know from hard-won experience that if I don't get enough sleep, eat right, and exercise, I will get sick. Last year I battled four bouts of pneumonia. This year I'm healthier, but recently was diagnosed with extreme anemia and had to have a blood transfusion. The sad thing is, I was so used to being tired that I didn't even realize that anything was wrong before I had a blood test.
Since I'm already taking care of my health (see above), it's now time to cut some non-essential things from my schedule. I'm taking time off from volunteering at my son's school. (He knows why and is fine with it.) I'm saying no to writing most blurbs. We used to entertain a lot — but I've just stopped. There's too much shopping, cooking, and cleaning involved. Now, that's not forever — but until I start to feel better.
I was having a discussion with some other author friends about how to decline things politely, and we found an example that made us laugh. It's from writer E.B. White, known for the writing style guide, The Elements of Style (aka Strunk and White) as well as the children's classics Charlotte's Web and Stewart Little.
September 28, 1956
Dear Mr. Adams:
Thank you for your letter inviting me to join the Committee of the Arts and Sciences for Eisenhower.
I must decline, for secret reasons.
We were thinking that as mystery authors, we could start declining things "for mysterious reasons." So now if you ever see me use this phrase, you'll know why!
Dear Reds, how do you say no? Do you find it hard? (Or not?)
LUCY BURDETTE: Oh I love love love declining for secret reasons. Because who would have the nerve to push that? Since being diagnosed with Meniere's disease last fall, I've had to pare back too. I look at other authors flitting here and there and rounding up tons of new readers, and I do feel sad about what I'm missing. (Malice, for example.)
But like you Susan, if I don't sleep enough and eat my low-sodium food, and try to keep stress low, my symptoms get worse. It's like learning a new language--that I never signed on for! It does help to remind myself what's most important--keep writing, stay in touch with family and friends, and yes, the world won't come to an end if I'm not cooking and baking for big parties the way I enjoyed in the past.
Here's hoping we all rebound with great energy, having learned some important lessons!
HALLIE EPHRON: I have a really hard time saying no, too, and I don't have little kids at home or anemia or Meniere's, just a busy life, deadlines, and it feels as if the finish lines keep moving further away and the bars keep rising. I remind myself to be grateful for this fantastic writing life, and to thank my lucky stars for all the lovely people who have said "yes" to me.
RHYS BOWEN: Oh Susan, this struck a nerve. I'm the original for the song "I'm just a girl who can't say no." When I've been invited to speak I always think they'll never ask me again if I say no. I'm flattered. I say yes. And then months later it hits me: I'm going to Dallas to speak at a luncheon! What was I thinking? But I am gradually trying to pace myself, to leave some space in life for just enjoying friends and activities.
However.....This year I have said yes to fabulous gigs that were just too good to turn down: right now I'm off to Europe to conduct a 10-day workshop in Tuscany. And in August I'm speaking on Mackinac Island, staying at the grand old hotel. And two visits to Sisters in Crime chapters, also fun. And conventions....Sigh.
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: For me, the problem isn't so much saying no as not volunteering to do something that I'd LIKE to do, such as having people over to dinner. Most recently, I offered to help my friend out with the high school musical - she was two weeks behind in rehearsals and needed someone with a whip hand to get the actors into shape. I'm okay with saying no to requests, but if it's, "We must have someone to do X" and no one steps forward...there's something in me that raises my hand and volunteers. How can you not? That, of course, is the $10,000 question.
I've also been dealing with hypothyroidism and severe anemia since this winter (it's the health issue of choice among discerning writers everywhere!) which has forced me to go into me-first mode. I haven't been accepting any appearance offers, I'm not doing blurbs (I know I let some deadlines just pass right by me while I've been ill) and for the first time in years, I haven't taken on any work at my church. For me, it's the family related stuff that's impossible to say no to...like you, Susan, I still have one minor child and my two older kids are (for now, sigh) living at home.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Oh, Susan, I'd love to decline things for "secret reasons." Being a life-long pleaser, I am terrible at saying no. I think it would be rude, or people will be disappointed, or that whatever it is is expected of me. And then I end up committed to things I not only don't want to do and don't have time to do, but that exhaust me and keep me from getting real work (writing books!) done. I am getting a little better at it, by absolute necessity. I've had to cut way down on conferences and speaking events, and I'm trying to be a little less demanding on myself on the personal front. Of course that doesn't mean I'm willing to give up sweeping the mounds of dog hair off my floors...
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: We all seem to have the exact same problem. But really, it's a good thing. I love that people want me to do things, and the only thing worse than being over-scheduled is being NON-scheduled. But like Rhys, some days I wake up and realize: I said yes to WHAT?? (I have already had to turn down things in 2017 because my schedule is filling. Yeesh.) And you are so right, Debs. I HAVE to write, and saying yes to an event is very writing-avoidance enabling.
Susan, with kids, and Julia--I do NOT know how you possibly do it. I can barely do laundry for two.
I had an event (so happy I said yes) with Wally Lamb, and he and I
were discussing exactly t the same thing .He told me he has an index card taped to his desk phone. On it, in black magic marker, is a one-word reminder: NO.
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Lovely Readers, are you yes-sayers? Do you find it easy or hard to say no? When you do decline, what do you say? Are you tempted to start saying, "I must decline for secret reasons?" Tell us in the comments!