It started with reading too many tweets about AWP, the enormous conference that drew 6,000 writers to Philadelphia last month. From my mother-in-law’s Toronto apartment, I saw photos of writers I admire, dressed up for a night out—wait, that author I know well knows that author I know only via her recent book, a favorite of mine? I could have met author B! I could have had a drink with her!
In addition to wishing I’d been in the right place and time for what could have been essential networking (or not), I read tweets from a wider range of acquaintances who agreed we should all meet in Seattle, for AWP 2023.
I like these acquaintances a lot. I hope some of them become IRL friends. But I don’t want to go to AWP. I detest sterile conference hotels and long coffee lines, standing-room-only readings and ultra-mass gatherings of any kind. Invite me to a retreat in a relaxing place with a dozen people or a really well-curated conference attended by hundreds, and I may be tempted. And darn it, I’m not saying I won’t attend a future AWP for the right reason—as I did over a decade ago, when we were starting 49 Writers and I had productive meetings scheduled with other writing center directors.
But fear of missing out is not the right reason. There are other ways to rub shoulders with writers, other ways to make friends, other ways to sell books—we all hope!
(Let me also add that if you went to AWP and enjoyed it—or went there and didn’t love it completely but managed the crowds anyway, making an investment in your career or relationships, then truly, good for you. I not only believe you, I am proud of you.)
As for me: the thought alone inspired mild dread.
Wide awake at 3 AM in my in-laws’ after all that FOMO-inducing social media browsing, I started counting “nos” the way one could count sheep.
Easy to count were the “nos” for things that make my stomach twist and my jaw clench. Harder were the “nos” for things I really want to do, which might give me energy and connection and ideas and inspiration and joy—but which imperil my writing life nonetheless.
Every month, I receive invitations to take on new responsibilities. So do you. The things you’re asked to do may be different than mine, but they probably occupy the same general categories: work that will earn a little money but not enough; volunteer activities that may feel good but are simply too much to handle on top of the volunteering you already manage; promotional or networking activities with low returns; plus lots of family stuff. (I mention my mother-in-law’s apartment in this post for a reason. It was the place I was spending time trying to help an aging family member—something I said YES to, with no regrets, even if it took my mind completely out of my current novel.)
I’m not here to tell you to draw boundaries against the things that really matter, like the people who need us the most.
Nor am I telling you to erect barriers against negative people and ridiculous demands imposed on you—to focus on your own “self-care.” That part’s irritatingly obvious. And can we stop using “self-care” to mean everything from drawing healthy boundaries to washing our armpits?
I’m here asking myself, and you as well, to brainstorm a list of “nos” for the stuff we might want to do, but which will derail us from the hard, uncertain, usually low-paid work of making art.
Stop reading. Grab a pen or just take a breath and focus. I invite you to list five things you could say no to in the coming year that would free you up to write (or read, or think about what you’re writing and reading) more.
Don’t like that “no”-focused version? Here’s a twist. Write down three things you could say yes to that would open up new avenues as a writer—even if they are things that scare you. And then write down the three to five nos that might make those yeses possible.
Are you a person who loves clear analytics? Let’s refine this one point further. Pick a number of hours you’d like to open up in your life—like two to five per week. Decide how you’ll fill it: maybe by starting that memoir or revising that novel you set aside last year. And finally, the essential and often forgotten step, look for the “nos” that could give you those hours. Don’t assume you can do more, or sleep less, or multi-task. You can’t. Time is finite, and so is mental energy.
Don’t have time to brainstorm this now? Next time you have insomnia, I urge you to try. I listed so many new “nos” the other night that I drifted off before coming to the end. Clearly, I had a lot of nos asking to be recognized in my subconscious!
Every day, we face the branching roads of our existence and every choice will have complex consequences. If I double my teaching hours or accept too many side jobs that pay inadequately, I’ll lengthen the time it takes me to write a novel, from two to three years to five or ten. For me, personally, that’s a dangerous interval to stretch out.
If I say yes to a conference I don’t really want to attend because of FOMO, I may not be able to afford the DIY writing retreat that I’ll need next year to do an essential revision. If I clutter my weekends with low-return volunteer efforts, I’ll lose some of that rich daydreaming/brainstorming time I need in order to create.
Often my blogposts run long. Today I’ll keep it shorter. That will give you your first easy no, as in, “No, I don’t need to read more of a blogpost that’s already made its point.”
With this truncated ending, I’m handing you one extra minute you might have spent needlessly. Now it’s your job to go out and find sixty or six thousand more, so you can write that poem/story/essay/book. I’ll be cheering for you and waving a sign that says, “YES YES YES!”
Andromeda Romano-Lax recently said yes to joining the board of an arts council, signing up for a half-Ironman, and starting a new novel that will hopefully be her seventh published, but only if she is very careful not to commit time-management self-sabotage. She is a book coach who loves working with memoirists and novelists. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @romanolax.