Today I was having a chat with a web-savvy friend who consults, volunteers, and works on several creative projects simultaneously. She mentioned that she has been feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, rushed, drained, and used in the last year.
I could relate. Last autumn I think I slept an average of 4 hours a night, and last summer I think I was home maybe one weekend of four, and perhaps one weeknight in five. I’ve said yes to every convention invitation for years.
The wonderful, marvellous thing about being in a big city like Toronto with a vibrant, sparkling arts scene and amid a community of creators and makers who have so many meet ups, networking events, pub nights, and conventions. It’s fun. It’s inspirational. It’s amazing.
But it’s draining, too.
Come December of last year I was so fried I couldn’t write. I couldn’t think.
I was so busy I wasn’t actually, well, you know… writing.
Which, yeah, is sort of not good for a writer.
Marketing blogs talk a lot about being involved, about social media being a conversation instead of just ad-blasting, about the importance of being accessible and present. And I had grown up in the convention world, so I also loved the thrill of having access to creators and the opportunity for casual conversation with them.
And of course, I’d been supported by so many other artists on my journey to pro, so I was happy to pay that debt forward to other new people in the community. To get involved with the community, to support other artists of other mediums, and to celebrate creativity in general.
But what few blogs talk about is the need to find a balance. I have a full time dayjob. I also have a full time writing job : the writing, the editing, the professional communication, the admin, the marketing, the appearances. I also have an ad hoc consulting job. And an ad hoc acting job.
That’s, like… 100 hours/week. Out of 168 hours. Sure, that’s 9 hours per night to sleep, but when I add in all the rest of the stuff I was doing… yeah, no.
So how do you balance that?
Well, sad to say, sometimes you just have to say no.
I know! I was scared to say no, too. I thought, “If I say no to this convention, this producer, this interviewer now, I’ll never be invited again. I’ll be shunned! And when I have another big book to push, I’ll have no allies and no friends and no one who will want to help me market, no one who will invite me to be at their conventions, or on their podcasts. If I’m not there my fans will think I am snobby and inaccessible and an ass!”
I said yes to everything.
Which, I think, was a detriment. Because if I was out at conventions and pub nights, and saying yes to everything, when was the time to write that new book, that webseries, that audio drama, those things that I was out there to promote and push?
I wasn’t making anything new. I am a creator. I was not creating.
And that’s not fair to me. Or to my readers.
At some point, I had to pull back, make my writing time sacred, and start to say no.
Only I didn’t know how.
Eventually, after many long conversations with creative folk and freelance artists, I came up with the following list. I ask myself these questions, weigh the answers, and then come to my decision about whether I say yes, or I say no thank you.
When Do I Say Yes? And When Do I Say No?
My only hard and fast rule is this: I say “yes” to nothing when there is a drink in my hand. I will consider, and chat, and talk about it, but at no point will I flat agree to anything when I’m not totally sober. Not for fear of being taken advantage of, but because I fear I will overpromise myself or forget a prior engagement. I always request a follow up email, which I can consider in the cold light of morning with my calendar and my schedule in front of me. There’s no point in agreeing to things and then becoming known as the one who talks big but can never make it out. I also ask others to consider projects, but I never ask for a hard yes/no when they have a drink in their hands, and I always allow that the answer might change when they’re sober and don’t get upset about that.
Beyond that, I consider the following:
1) Am I getting paid? Straight up. Is there money for me?
1.a) If there is no money in it for me, will I at least be recompensed enough that I my costs will be covered? (i.e., am I being asked to “Pay to Play”? Or will I come out of the day/event/weekend with a $0 balance? Nothing spent, but nothing lost.)
1.b) If there is no money for me, where does it add value? Will it give me the chance to hang with people I like? Will it be genuinely portfolio or marketing or fanbase building? Will it give me access to a segment of audience that I haven’t had the opportunity access before? Would it just be really damn cool and a lot of fun?
2) Is there a chance that I’m going to be asked to more than I’m agreeing to do straight up? If there is, do I want to be that involved? Do I have the time/money/emotional ability to be that involved?
3) Will it COST me anything but time and presence? If so, is it an acceptable amount (like a bus ticket) or something I can’t swing (like a plane ticket and a weekend of meals and hotels).
4) Will it negatively impact my other projects/reputation/time to write? If it does infringe on my time to write, do I have anything that can be pushed back or can be okay if it has to be ignored for a bit?
5) Did I go last year or already do this event/podcast/interview/convention? Do I have anything new, any extra value to add, from my previous appearances or visits? Is my presence fatiguing and would it be better if I allow the hearts to grow fonder with a little absence? Would I actually gain anything new from participating this year, as opposed to waiting until next year or until I have a new project to market? Do I really enjoy the environment, the parties, and the people and if so, does it really matter if I have nothing new to sell?
6) If I can’t do it right now, can I do it later? Can I do just part of it instead of all of it? Can I offer to go next month, or to the next event, or to just one of the four days, or do a smaller role on the project? Can I still be involved without being involved to the extent that I’m unable to?
Of course, I don’t just wait for people to come to me. When I find out about events, classes, or projects, I also step up and volunteer. I just contacted the public library over an event I read about on Tumblr, and I’m always sending out letters and emails telling people that I’m happy to come do a free talk, do volunteering, etc. I’m always happy to answer emails and writer questions. I do this because I find projects I think are worth supporting and I want to do so.
And in the webseries community, I always let people know that I’m free to be a PA, or do catering, or be an extra or am happy to audition for something if they want me as an actor. Why? Because I find film fun, and cool, and really really interesting. I consider each day on a set a learning experience. There’s no cost there, because I am getting a free education and fun.
When It’s My Turn To Ask The Favour
1) I pay people. Period. We all have bills to cover and rent to keep up. I try very hard to make sure I have the grant money/budget/ savings to pay people what they and their time, product, etc. is worth.
2) If I can’t pay people, I try to find a way to make sure they come away with a $0 balance – I pay for parking, or gas, or food, or accommodation, or whatever.
3) And if I can’t afford that, then I try to do an even swapsies. I offer guest blog posts, or to connect people with other influential people in the industry, or offer to share my hotel room, or I work in their next project for free, etc.
3) I don’t ask more of people than they’ve promised, and if they have to pull out or reduce their involvement for any reason, I accept that.
4) I try to keep our communication professional, drama-free, and understanding. I try to keep our friendship and casual relationship separate from our working agreement so that if the latter crumbles, the former won’t be affected. It’s not always possible, but I try.
Lastly, I try to add value.
1) I ask if the person who approached me needs more people – another author to interview after me, or if they require vendors I can get in contact with on their behalf, or if there’s anything extra or more I can offer while I’m a guest at a convention, like being the masquerade judge or hosting a workshop, or doing a giveaway. I support the crap out of webseries I’ve been involved in. Anything that enriches the event/project/request without costing me anything extra.
2) If I have to say no, but the project is worth supporting, I try to find a replacement for myself. (Recently I had to decline an anthology due to time constraints, but I connected the editor with another academic who met the anthology requirements and who had the time to write the requested essay.)
3) I make a point of saying thank you. I make a point of having a drink and a chat with the ConCom, following up interviews with an email thanking them for inviting me, sending a follow up card or letter, etc.
So, sometimes it’s heartbreaking to have to say no, but in the end, your ability to do that which people are asking you to do is important. If I continued to say yes to everything, I wouldn’t actually have time to write new books. Which… is sort of the whole reason I’m being asked to these pub nights, conventions, interviews, etc. And relaxing and taking self-care time is important, too.
It seems selfish, but I do have to always keep an eye on how much sleep I can get, how much social time with my loved ones, and the state of my wallet, as well as guarding my writing/acting time so I can make good on the promises I’ve made to agents, publishers, and editors.
And the thing I learned? Nobody ever takes a “no” personally. Saying “no, thank you, I can’t right now” this time doesn’t ever mean that you won’t get invited again. Especially if you try to reschedule on the spot.
“No” is a hard word to say, but sometimes it’s the best one.
Because I owe that to my writing. And myself.