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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

Saying No to the Right Things

Like so many women, in particular, I feel compelled to say "yes" to everything. I've written about saying no before, but that doesn't mean it's gotten any easier. I've got major FOMO (fear of missing out) when offered an opportunity even remotely related to reading/editing or writing. I'm convinced that, in order to succeed in this career, I have to jump at every chance I'm offered. What if I say no to my big break? So I try to make everything work.

In the past year, I've written a love letter to someone I'd never met, transcribed an interview with a local comedian, edited friends' books and essays and stories as a favor, started a new job where I've edited dozens of students' books, judged contests, participated in contests, published half a dozen pieces, edited one client's manuscript four times, formatted a biography, attended a residency, and put together an anthology. I've also finished three books of my own (more on that soon!). When I lay it all out, it's kind of a lot. And, for the last six months or so, every time I've finished one freelance project, another one has popped up. I can't complain; I'll take the business. Even when I'm busy. Even when I can't handle one more thing on my plate. "No" isn't in my vocabulary.

Last week, I was feeling good that I'd finally finished two big freelance projects and was on top of reading my students' work, when I heard from NYC Midnight, whose writing contests I occasionally judge. I'd turned them down the last few times they'd reached out (the pay wasn't enough to justify the amount of work), so I felt obligated to accept this time. They did the thing I find so difficult: ask me how much I wanted to do. How many stories could I review? My impulse is to agree to way more than I have capacity for. I could use the money, was my first thought, but it's more than that. Sure, money is nice, but I'm doing alright. I don't need to drop everything for this organization, which has more than a dozen judges who could pick up the slack. I calculated what I thought I could reasonably get done and agreed to read 147 short stories over the next three weeks. Then, not ten minutes later, I got a message from my boss at New Degree Press. One of the other editors was behind (again), and could I please help out by reading some of his students' poems for the second time in a month? I hesitated. This wasn't the first time I'd helped another editor out of a jam, but, I reasoned, it wasn't so difficult. Sure, I could read some more poems, in addition to my ten students' work. I briefly considered that I'd just taken on another project, like, minutes before. But the message was blinking on my screen, that question mark: can you help? and, of course I had to respond, "I'll do it!"

"You can say no, you know," my husband reminded me. But I can't! I thought. Of course I want to help out, even though I'm in no way obligated. Of course I want to say "yes" to everything and make everyone happy. Besides, how could I say "yes" to the contest and "no" to helping out another fellow Developmental Editor? What if I needed a favor in the future? Who would help me out? This is the cycle I go through every time. My impulse is to do everything I can to help. Isn't that what I'd want?

In the end, I said yes to both of these things and I'm on track to get them both done on schedule. So, I thought, maybe it's not about saying yes to everything, but saying yes to the things that bring you joy, like reading short stories and poems, regardless of what or whether they pay. It's about filing your life with the things that nourish you. I think it's about learning what to say no to, and what to say yes to, to the things that will fulfill you, not the things that will drain you. And so, I hope for the wisdom to say no to the right things, and yes to the things that will bring me happiness.

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