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March 7, 2018

Women who say no

The most feminist thing I’ve done lately was send an email including the line, “It sounds like a great event, but to do the job effectively it would take up a bunch of my time and I can’t afford to do that for free.” A line that sounds straightforward in its delivery, not unfriendly, and kind of obvious, even, but to write that line was the result of a whole lot of thinking and some necessary urging to do something that was brave. Because I think that we all need to do a better job of valuing women’s time. People in general need to do this, other women need to do this (i.e. stop sending messages to strangers asking if you can buy them a coffee in exchange for “picking their brains” [and ew!]), and many of us need to do a better job of doing it on our own behalf. Which is to say, we need to start feeling okay about saying no to opportunities that aren’t valuable ways of spending our time. We have to stop feeling obligated to say yes, to help out, to step in, and be of service. Women have to stop feeling grateful to be asked at all, to be noticed.

But it’s complicated, of course. Ten years ago I recall requiring all the opportunities I could get as I was building my writing c.v, and any visibility at all was a huge deal, a confirmation that I existed as a writer. I also am eternally grateful to many people (mostly women) who’ve been so generous toward me with their valuable time over the years, writing guest posts for my blog, reading my manuscripts, having me interview them, who’ve written reviews of my work for pennies or even for free, and who—out of the goodness of their hearts and for community building purposes—have organized events I’ve been lucky to take part in. If everybody was always putting a monetary value on creative work and the hours in their day, I don’t know that I’d have gotten anywhere at all.

And so this is the reason why I’m always happy to repay favours, to support friends, to write effusive blog reviews about a book I’ve no connection to except that I really really love it and I think everybody needs to know about it too. As a blogger, I don’t get paid for my creative work on a regular basis—and I’m okay with that, because I’ve found other ways to make my blog useful for me and also my blog has led to paying professional opportunities to supplement the work I don’t get paid for. (I also really like blogging, and the opportunity to spread the word about books that I love.) And as an author, I’m happy to do anything at all to promote my book—I will write an article, answer your Q&A, rent a car and drive to Durham Region, and even consent to talk on the telephone (which, in my opinion, is asking a lot). I know there is not an abundance of money in the publishing industry, and most of us are doing most of what we’re doing out of goodwill anyway.

But I still think it’s a lot to ask someone to host an event, for example, to launch a book whose author one has no connection to. That’s an evening out of my life, cost of transit, plus all the preparation to make sure I do the job properly, plus all the necessary anxiety that goes with standing up in front of a room full of people (and the matter of hair and make-up, and what I am supposed to wear). It’s also a lot to ask me to read your manuscript. It’s a lot of ask me to be a juror and read the 12 books on the shortlist for your book prize. It’s a lot to ask me to answer your list of questions about how to make it in publishing, or to interview you at your book launch or on my blog, or to blurb your novel by Sunday.

If you are my friend and/or I admire your work, I will probably be happy to do these things, to pay forward the goodwill I’ve been fortunate to benefit from over the past decade. If I have actually agreed to do any of these things for you in the future or the recent past, it was because I wanted to. And I do think that if people want to make these requests of writers, they should feel free to do so—what’s the harm in asking? But they should also be cognizant of just how much they’re actually asking for (a lot!), and be both comfortable and unsurprised when the person being asked declines because of the reality they’d be getting absolutely nothing out of the experience.

I’ve never forgotten Lynn Coady’s 2012 article that pertains to this very issue, about how liberating it is for a writer to learn to say no: “with every ‘no’ that’s uttered, the easier it becomes to swim past the breakers of passive-aggressive reproach.” I think that Coady’s article is also an article that only a woman could have written—valuing men’s time seems more instinctual for many of us; in general too, we tend to ask less of male writers, who have fewer expectations upon them to be available, accessible, because they’re  so busy holed up in their garrets being geniuses instead of relatable; and because of the garrets and not being relatable, they’re probably more adept than women writers are at saying no and then not feeling badly about it for days and days.

Along with all the women who’ve supported me and my work, the women who’ve said yes, I am also grateful for the women who’ve said no, for the example they set for the kind of savvy and self-preserving, self-respectful artist human I want to be.

5 thoughts on “Women who say no”

  1. theresa says:

    This is very important. Yes, there’s lots we do in the world for which we expect no compensation but there’s a limit. Oh boy, is there ever. And you’ve identified some crucial ones. One of my personal pet peeves is being asked to write a piece for a magazine with an honorarium mentioned and then being told, once the piece has been written, edited, and maybe even appeared that many of the writers are donating their honorariums to the magazine. This has happened more than once. (An older writer whose work I think the world of once told me to stand in front of a mirror and practise saying “no” until I liked how I look saying it.)

  2. Sharon says:

    Once again, Kerry, you have written the very blog post I needed to read. I’ve been saying no to things lately and every single time it gets easier. The fact is that sometimes I say no with regret because it’s just impossible to be in two places at once or to do everything and also maintain sanity. But other times, honestly, the no is said with a secret eye roll because wtf…stop expecting artists to do work for free! Things take time to do well. And that’s time we are not spending on our paid work (or you know…the work we do that may or not get paid with royalties). I’m going to borrow this reply and use it liberally: “It sounds like a great event, but to do the job effectively it would take up a bunch of my time and I can’t afford to do that for free.” EXACTLY. Thank you for politely articulating the perfect response.

  3. I appreciate your, ‘It’s complicated.’ I work in a school that has much less money than others because of the TDSB’s rules around fundraising. (IMO, any fundraising done at one school should benefit all schools!) When I ask people to work as guest speakers or workshop leaders at my school, I try my best to get them paid through either the school budget or outside organizations (League of Canadian Poets, Arts Councils, etc). But that is not always possible, and I truly appreciate when writers can give their time — to students who would not otherwise have access to their expertise and talent — for something other than money. I have very mixed feelings about the ways in which our society commodifies art, art-making, and art-sharing; feelings I am still sorting out… And which is related but separate, of course, from women valuing their own work, time, and space…

  4. Victoria Curran says:

    Re: stop sending messages to strangers asking if you can buy them a coffee in exchange for “picking their brains”. That’s exactly how I felt when I was bombarded with these requests (all from women, when I was a senior editor at a major publisher…in a department that was all women). Now that I’m in career transition, networking is being touted as the Holy Grail. And it seems to me that businessmen embrace it more naturally and see it as mutually beneficial. Businesswomen (me) tend to see it your way, as a waste of time. So my question is this…is it feminist to reject networking because women are always put upon to play the helper and it’s okay to say no, or is it anti-feminist to reject it because networking puts us on more equal footing with men in business? Career-transition confusion!!!

    1. Kerry says:

      It isn’t straightforward, for sure! I also think there is a more organic way to go about networking that doesn’t involve cold calling strangers and taking up hours of their time. I am pretty sure that men don’t do this. I am also sure that there is a place for this kind of outreach and successful women should make a point of doing it—but should also have limits and feel comfortable about saying no when they don’t have time for it. The answer is, as usual, both the things.

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