Monday, May 16, 2016

"I Must Decline for Secret Reasons"

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.

He writes:

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.


E.B. White

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 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!


  1. I need to retire from retirement. I am almost busier now than when I was working full time, juggling several volunteer commitments, tending to house and family, etc. etc.

    I have the post-it on my fridge that says "NO is a complete sentence." And I'm getting better about it. Nice thing is, as one gets older, it becomes easier.

    But I beg you, ladies of the pen (or keyboard) -- do not say NO to writing. It would be more than your loyal subjects could bear; the thing that keeps US sane.

  2. I am not good at saying "No" and, as a result, hardly ever decline . . . .

  3. I'm so sorry about all these Reds illnesses, and hope you each improve soon.

    I've been working a bit on saying No more, but it's not easy! And you wouldn't believe me if you looked at my schedule...

  4. Wow...this must be going around. Mary Kennedy at Cozy Chicks just blogged about the same thing this morning!!!

  5. Not sure if this is a female thing or a part of the human condition. I certainly have trouble saying no to things I know right off the bat I'm not going to want to do. It makes me think of a "former" friend. She had a habit of saying yes to dinner invitations and then coming up with a last minute excuse. Note I said "former." After ten years or so I stopped issuing invitations.

    (Re anemia, it affects readers as well as writers. It happened to me a few years ago, a side effect of chronic infection. I didn't know how sick I was until both were treated, and I got better. Re Meniere's, I don't have that, but the anemia/infection left me with lousy balance, so I am reduced to using a walker when I, well, walk. )

    However, I am very good at saying no to some things, usually offers of help. I am making a spring resolution this very minute. I am going to say no to things I hate to do and yes to all kind offers. It will improve my disposition a whole bunch.

  6. yes yes to writing! Ann, that sounds like a terrific motto and sorry about your anemia and balance. (Did they have you try vestibular rehabilitation? Supposed to be very helpful.)

    Edith, we are already in awe of your writing schedule, never mind appearances!

  7. I've never done a lot of appearances, or blurbs, so when I went through a stretch of not doing any, the requests went down to a level I could handle. It's arthritis and not being able to drive at night that keeps me from saying yes to a lot of things, but I'm not necessarily sorry about that. I'd rather stay home and write. The big exception is Malice Domestic. I've been going since Malice 3 and would have to be lot less mobile than I am now to get me to stop.

  8. Over-extending myself has been a lifelong affliction. Oh how I wish I had the courage to decline "for secret reasons." I think sometimes our bodies have to scream "ENOUGH" by sending us symptoms we have to pay attention to. I had to wake-up when I had a bleeding ulcer.

    I've also spent a considerable amount of time contemplating whether committing to too many things is an unconscious way to avoid something you may fear doing, which sometimes can be writing, even though I love to write. A real writer's conundrum. I think I think too much!

  9. I thought I was the only one! All my life I've had difficulty saying 'no', and just like Hermione Granger, would sometimes find my arm shooting up in the air to volunteer before even being asked! Despite numerous people warning me to pace myself, I kept piling more and more on my plate until I burned out in spectacular fashion about 8 years ago. My current book is all about recovery, but I'm not sure how it would say if I said "I must decline for reasons of recovery". How about "I must decline, my survival depends on it!"

  10. I so agree that our bodies send us not so secret messages.
    At channel 7, if I am working too much, I lose my voice. I feel fine --I just can't talk. Which is a difficult situation for a reporter!
    And I just realized-- when we are overworked at something other than writing--we might also be risking our "voice."

  11. And I always remember that fabulous episode of Friends when Rachel said "I wish I could help you to move your stuff --but I just don't want to."

  12. I used to think when I was busiest, I was most efficient. Perhaps that used to be true, but the older I get, the more I doubt it.

    In order to really commit to a write-every-day schedule on top of a busy day job, I had to resign from several non-profit boards, or at least decline to renew an expiring term. It was hard. I am so committed to those causes (land conservation, LGBT equality) but I was ready to embrace my writing self and knew I had to say NO to extracurricular commitments in order to make that happen.

    I'm still not great at the NO thing, but better. I'm at a nascent point in my career, so need to take on most writing-related commitments, which is, of course, part of the bargain.

    To Susan, Roberta and Julia, I am glad to hear you are focused on your health.

    We are the only ones who can take care of ourselves.

  13. Well, this blog post certainly rings true for me. Like Hank, I can't imagine how folks with children do it. As so often happens in life, I have come to appreciate all the sacrifices my single-mother must have made for my brother and I. She really is a hero in my eyes.

    With the day job, the blog (which is a whole other unpaid job), family commitments, trips, and the occasional social "thing," I seem to always be going non-stop. And while it was fine for a while, I have come to the conclusion that I am not doing the best by "me." Now that the blog has reached a place where I am happy with the success of the whole endeavor, I just need to scale back a bit on the times I say YES. I am one person, I can't possible review every crime fiction book that comes out - nor do I want to. It's hard for me to say no to those requests - as I want every book to find its readers - but again, I am only one person.

    My solution for the moment is to remind myself that every review does not have to be an extensive analysis of the work and where it fits in the canon. A few sentences will do the trick. Of course, I love writing those in-depth, spoiler-free reviews, so I will continue do so when the book and time allows for it. And I am going to accept less pitches overall. These two things I think will help to keep this experience going for years to come - whereas, this time last week, I was thinking whether I wanted to continue it at all. Fortunately, my fans rallied and got me through those moments (Thanks y'all).

  14. You guys, this is a THING! Who knew so many of us were struggling with it? To those with health issues, my heart goes out to you.

  15. And Hank, that's so interesting about you losing your voice as a TV reporter, and then the concern about losing your "voice" as a writer by overscheduling or saying yes to too much. Fascinating stuff....

  16. I used to be a chronic "yes" person. Especially when I knew that no one else was going to say "yes." Thus, I wound up doing a lot of things I didn't really want to do - mostly leading committees for school activities or things like being the treasurer for The Boy's Cub Scout pack. Urgh.

    But when I was got MS, I also got a built-in reason to say "no." I just physically can't. I need sleep, I need relaxation, and I must try to keep my stress at a manageable level (although The Boy has really tried that this year, his final year before high school and he has me biting my nails that he won't make it).

    I do this so I can say "yes" to the things I really want to do - like Bouchercon this year (I am so excited I got the opportunity to go because I didn't think I'd be able to).

    And I'm dealing with something mysterious in my knee - it might not be nerve damage after all, but it doesn't quite work the way knees are supposed to with that whole bending thing while walking. So when The Boy's class was looking for chaperone's for the class trip, well, again - built in reason to say no.

    But I love "I must say no for secret reasons." I am definitely using that some day.

  17. This is such a button-pushing post - you're right, Susan. Women are wired (biologically, culturally, who knows?) to say yes when asked. I've come up with a strategy that seems to work for me. At the beginning of the year I write out my commitments. Within those commitments I set my limits - for example, at the shelter where I volunteer, I send the director a list outlining what I can reasonably do that year. Then on my list I leave some open-ended items. For example, I will blurb 5 books a year. I will read 3 friends' manuscripts. I will help with 1 fundraiser, etc. Putting this all down on paper lets me see how much time I am giving over to others, and reminds me how much time is left for me (family, writing, feeding my spirit). It also provides structure and gives me strength to say no - I don't feel guilty when I see in writing how much I am already doing. Thank you for this post. I'm now going to spend a few minutes reviewing the list I made at the start of this year and make sure I'm standing firm :)
    I hope your health continues to improve and that you are well and filled with energy when I see you at Bouchercon. xo Kim

  18. I have gotten much better at saying no to events, invitations, and jobs, but I'm still pretty rotten at saying no to dogs. I work full-time at a very demanding job, and volunteer for a border collie rescue group. The job makes it really easy to say no to invitations and committees and such, because I can always say, "I'm sorry, I'm in rehearsal this weekend, and will barely have time to do my laundry." The problem comes when I find out about some beautiful, intelligent border collie, stranded in a horrible shelter and under a death sentence if someone (that would be me) doesn't step up to save her. That's when "I couldn't possibly because I have rehearsal on Sunday," turns into, "I'm free Saturday morning," and I find myself driving off to some tiny town in east Texas or southern Oklahoma to bring another foster dog home to my already crowded house. I try to tell myself the drive is a sort of mini-vacation, but I still don't get my laundry done.

  19. Kim, that's a BRILLIANT idea and I'm off to make my own list!

    Gigi, I can see doing that for dogs and animals. We would have a house full of shelter pets if it weren't for my son's asthma. (Which makes it easy, if not comfortable, to say no to more.)

    Mary, I hope you're feeling better for Bouchercon, yes -- please take care of yourself! It sounds like you're doing a great job.

    Kristopher, I'm one of your blog fans, but I can say with all sincerity, take care of yourself and your loved ones first. We'll all survive and just be twice as thrilled for when you do get back.

  20. Kim, what a terrific idea, to put things in a schedule! Only so many blurbs a year, etc.

    And I'm not volunteering for anything, alas, because I know I just CAN'T, but I feel so guilty that I don't. I've struggled with chronic fatigue issues since I was a teenager, but that's not something you can explain to people without feeling like a real failure. My life is a constant cycle of over-doing and trying to recover from over-doing. If I really stick to my writing schedule, then I spend the weekends, not relaxing, but running around, doing errands and chores, and then on Monday morning I'm exhausted and need at least a day to recover from the weekend. Even writing about it is making me stressed!

    Maybe we should form and Over-doers Anonymous...

  21. Wow, this resonates. I'm in New York City right now because my oldest daughter is getting her Master's at Columbia tomorrow, and she wanted me to be there. It's a costly trip. Her dad, though, who was planning to be here on Wednesday (after I leave), is now weaseling out, as usual. Good old Mom, right?

    A friend is the editor for a division on Cincinnati Magazine, and I have found myself writing to deadlines several times over the last four years, due to my inability to say no to her. I love the writing, and love the topics she assigns, but the deadline thing twists my gut into knots at this point in my life. I do not know how you all manage this aspect of the writing life. I once wrote an entire book on contract in four months; today that would send me into a catatonic state.

  22. Wow, this resonates. I'm in New York City right now because my oldest daughter is getting her Master's at Columbia tomorrow, and she wanted me to be there. It's a costly trip. Her dad, though, who was planning to be here on Wednesday (after I leave), is now weaseling out, as usual. Good old Mom, right?

    A friend is the editor for a division on Cincinnati Magazine, and I have found myself writing to deadlines several times over the last four years, due to my inability to say no to her. I love the writing, and love the topics she assigns, but the deadline thing twists my gut into knots at this point in my life. I do not know how you all manage this aspect of the writing life. I once wrote an entire book on contract in four months; today that would send me into a catatonic state.

  23. I need to remember what PK Dilks posted above, that "No" is a complete sentence. E.B. White's "secret reasons" is good, too. My biggest problem is that when I say no, I over explain why I can't do whatever it is, and, then it sounds like you're making it up, even when you're not.

    Kristopher, I'm so happy to see that you have come to the conclusion that every review doesn't have to be an in-depth analysis. I've been struggling with reviews here lately, feeling like I want to shorten them, but not knowing if that's acceptable. I have also given myself permission not to review every book. Of course, there are those books that not only deserve a review, but ones I gladly want to support in every way possible.

    Sometimes you authors make my head spin with all you do. Hank, I honestly don't know how you don't collapse at some point with all the flying you do. However, we fans are a greedy bunch and want as much of you Reds as we can get. That doesn't mean we should always come first. You need your family time and even a little time for that thing called writing. Please take it.

  24. Like Julia, there are so many things I'd LIKE to do. But I've had to sit myself down and talk to myself sternly about this reality: if you do all of these things that you love, you'll be so stressed you won't enjoy any of them. Also, it's very easy for me to grab onto something and say yes to it when it's just a sneaky way for me to procrastinate about writing.

  25. Kim! Brilliant! Doing it! Thank you ...

  26. Oh kathy thank you -- I count my blessings the whole travel time. It's kind of a lucky problem, you know ? Xx

  27. It's good to know I'm in good company. I work full time. Due to back problems I need to spread out the household chores over Saturday and Sunday. However, my Sunday afternoons are spent visiting my sister in a nursing home in another city, so I try to do as much as possible on Saturday. On Sunday I go to the early church service, have breakfast, go grocery shopping, pack a lunch to eat at the nursing home while visiting my sister, and often find myself falling asleep in the visitor chair! She has some serious cognitive issues and it can be draining to have a conversation with her. She also doesn't always get it that I cannot push her wheelchair. Some Sundays I just want to go back to bed after putting away the groceries. A couple of friends have been good about reminding me to take time for myself, so I'll often meet friends for dinner on Saturday. Last year I planned to take one Sunday afternoon off per month from visiting my sister but she had some health emergencies and I worried about not seeing her. Again, someone reminded me about the oxygen mask recently and I'm trying all over again to take off one Sunday afternoon per month.

  28. One of the experienced agents at Prudential advised newbies to put family and personal events in the calendar in ink, and merely say "I have another appointment then" but not say what, thus giving no opening for discussion. When I got laryngitis, my secretary said it was my body telling me I needed a break. Sending healing Light and hugs to those who need it.
    Storytelling friends set aside a certain number of volunteer performances per year, and choose what causes to donate them for. Others are told they may apply for next year's gift performance, or schedule at the reasonable cost of . . . $ . . . and one has her own imaginary board of directors to keep the business side in line, her artistic self needs time to create and the financial manager makes sure the bills get paid.
    I've settled into retirement at last, not feeling I have to find things to do, coming to earth from teaching six classes a day and trying to get personal business done during the summer to be ready for another marathon school year. Finally, time to read the wonderful books you all work so hard to create. <3

  29. I am getting better at saying no, but it is difficult. I've always been harder on myself than anyone else and consequently tend to push myself too much. About a year and a half ago, I started taking a beginner yoga class one evening a week, and it's been great. The yoga instructor always tells us to listen to what our bodies are telling us and don't push ourselves.

  30. This was fascinating reading for me. I'm a woman who has an easy time saying no. I don't feel the least bit of guilt about saying no most of the time (occasionally with family I will feel that guilt vice tightening around my chest). I like to flip it around when I think of whether I should feel bad about something. If for example, I served food to someone at my house and they didn't like it or were full but ate it anyway to protect my feelings, I would feel badly about that. So if someone serves me food at their house and I'm not hungry or don't like it I don't eat it. As for volunteering, my personal philosophy is that there are unlimited opportunities available for me to choose from so why would I ever say yes to one I don't want to do? In almost every case it's better that I not do it than do it with a bad attitude or do it poorly. Either someone else who likes to do that thing, (or perhaps one of you who can't say no :) ) will volunteer and I can spend my time volunteering somewhere else, joyfully, using my skills and interests that are well-suited for that job. Somehow I escaped thinking that doing things I love to do rather than things I don't is selfish. I also escaped thinking that doing something joyless gets me more "points" than doing something I would love to do. The hardest thing for me to manage is when I have to choose between doing two things that I would love to do but don't have time for. I make my decision, apologize for not being able to do the thing I've chosen not to do and don't think twice about it. Flipping it around, I would not want someone who said no to my request feeling badly for having said "no" so I assume they don't want me to feel bad when I say no. Maybe the rest of you can tell me if you'd be upset if I politely said no to your request.

  31. Deb, I have 2 friends with chronic fatigue issues, and they are the worst, because their are now outward symptoms. And saying you're tired all the time isn't a sociably acceptable excuse for not being able to do something. I feel for all the women out there with any kind of illness that causes exhaustion - anemia being another one, Susan.
    And so glad you all like the "put it in writing" idea. See your commitments written down really does help keep things in perspective - and justify the times when you say no to something.
    XOXO to all!

  32. I frequently say "No thanks". But I usually add "but don't stop asking." I need a level of peace and quiet that some people don't understand, so I hope that when I DO say yes, the asker is pleasantly surprised.

  33. Great Topic !!!

    I have never been able to say no, always one staying late at work, helping those who didn't get their work done, organizing company meetings, parties and hosting them. lost track of how many baby and wedding showers I held at my apts, homes over the years...doing all the cooking, baking, decorating because everyone else was too busy.
    Go with the Flow.........easier than listening to people say, "but you always do this"

    started saying No about 5 years ago around the house after 5 surgeries in 5 years; arthritis and fibro worsening, among other medical stuff. Hubby will do things, but after 37 years he still looks shocked if I say "No, I'm not going, don't wanna make that, fix it yourself, etc" for the past 4 or 5 years.

    Friends, and I say that loosely" would make plans then cancel on me last minute - " I know you won't mind rescheduling, or sorry, or I forgot, are you sure we were doing lunch today, I swore it was tomorrow, or next week etc., get a freaking calendar people" have heard all the excuses out there.

    I'm sure you said Yes when I asked you to do this for me

    I have 2 Friends who are "sisters" to me, others not what I personally classify as a friend. I can deal with occasional "OMG, I forgot" but at least be honest

    Over the years I use to think I must have "walk all over me" stamped on my forehead, only visible to others" ;)

    I truly do not mind doing things for others, enjoy it a lot of the time, but I don't like being expected to do it

    I love, love the "secret reasons" and others have given

    I continue to work on "No thanks or No, not available, etc" "Bad habits" can be hard to overcome

    Have a Happy week everyone :)

  34. One of my favorite episodes of "As Time Goes By" has Jean and Lionel trying to get out of being part of the gang with The Country Set. They repeatedly practice saying, "No, thank you, we don't want to." Then, like me, they completely buckle when the time comes. Sigh.
    All together, now...No, thank you, we don't want to!