1. Cultivate a persona of unreliability.
A handful of years ago, I had a revelation. This was back in the time when I worked very hard to answer all the emails in my email inbox. When I lived in fear of the disappointment of other people. When quelling the impatience of strangers was of higher priority than my own artmaking or sanity. Maybe you live in such a time of your own right now.
I was trying to book a writer I admired for a reading series that I curated, a man some years older than me, who has since become a good friend. In my attempts to coordinate schedules and confirm his participation, I sent many emails to this writer. Sometimes, he would respond immediately, along the lines of: “i think that works let me check on smthing.” Other times, he would not respond at all. I did not assume that he was an asshole. My minor frustration did not strike him dead. I simply learned that he was inconsistent in his responses. I calibrated my expectation to his inconsistency. I was patient and persistent, and eventually he gave a great reading at my series.
Women are not taught to do this. We are conditioned to ever prove ourselves, as if our value is contingent on our ability to meet the expectations of others. As if our worth is a tank forever draining that we must fill and fill. We complete tasks and in some half-buried way believe that if we don’t, we will be discredited. Sometimes, this is true. But here is a question: Do you want to be a reliable source of literary art (or whatever writing you do), or of prompt emails?
I made a conscious decision to model my own communication style on that male writer’s. To sometimes just let things go. The goal cannot be to answer everything, even eventually. If you set very high expectations, the only place to go is down, into disappointment. What if you become a big deal and start receiving an outrageous number of emails? Are you going to write exclusively emails? I am not a big deal at all, and if I responded to every single thing, I would get hardly any writing done.
2. Stop apologizing for taking a reasonable length of time to respond to an email.
Knock it off! You are ruining it for the rest of us (and yourself) by reinforcing the increasingly accepted expectation of immediate response. Immediate satisfaction is only found in a small list of things that includes narcotics, haircuts, and tattoos. Let go of the dream, or sacrifice your art (and sanity and freedom) at its altar. That male writer never once apologized to me for his unreliable response rate and he need not have. A week seems like a perfectly reasonable length of time to take. Or longer. Regardless, stop apologizing.
3. Stop giving it away for free.
Are you a teacher of writing in some capacity? So am I. Perhaps, like me, you sometimes receive emails from very nice strangers who are also aspiring writers or even published writers, who would like your expert feedback on their own short story, personal essay, or poem. After my first memoir was published, I received letters from women writers who had identified with my story in a very personal way. I had written my book for them, and I was grateful they had reached out to let me know. So, when they asked me for feedback on their own work, I felt I owed it to them, despite being over-employed and underpaid and having plenty of writer friends to whom I owed feedback.
It feels good to have a stranger believe that you are an expert, especially if you have grown up in a patriarchal culture that insists that women cannot be experts in anything, particularly intellectual and artistic pursuits. Institutional sexism (like racism, ableism, and other isms) teaches us to feel indebted to anyone who acknowledges our value, because they also have the power to take it away, because our value only exists in the esteem of others. Your job is not to repay the people who acknowledge you by giving them what they want. Your job was to write the thing they read, and you already did that.
You wouldn’t ask a tax accountant to do your taxes for free, would you? Maybe you would expect your very close friend who is a tax accountant to give you a discount on tax preparation, but you wouldn’t dream of emailing a strange tax accountant to say, “I really love your tax accounting and I’m attaching all of my 1099s so that you can do my taxes at no charge. Thank you!” This is what strangers who write to ask you for feedback on their writing are doing. Say no to them, or say nothing at all.
4. Decline invitations.
This is tricky. We are encouraged to say yes to everything—blogging, readings, guest editing—because it will make us more visible, help us network, and so forth. It is true that early in a writer’s career, to a certain extent, you have to give it away for free. However, that phase need not last forever.
No is a very hard little word. I have such a difficult time saying it that in some cases, I have to roleplay this with my friends (or therapist). It can be helpful to have a go-to line. If I freestyle at this, I cave almost immediately. Here are some lines you can borrow that have worked for me:
“I would love to do this! Unfortunately, I can’t possibly add another thing to my plate right now.”
“I’m so flattered that you’d ask, but I’m much too busy critiquing the work of my students. I can recommend someone wonderful who charges a very reasonable consultation fee.”
“I’m sorry, I cannot afford to take on any assignments that do not pay.”
“Oh, thank you! I really wish that I wanted to do this!”
5. Steal time.
I schedule writing time on my calendar. This is a good practice. The problem was that for many years I had no respect for those appointments. A friend or colleague would ask a favor or invite me to lunch (Lunches: They ruin perfectly good days of writing), and I would stand up my work without hesitation. If I bailed on any friend as often as I bailed on my own work, I probably would no longer have that friend.
Then, one day, someone asked a favor during a time I had saved for writing and I said that I had an appointment. This was technically true, but in my mind I pretended that it was a doctor’s appointment. And it worked; I wrote that day. If you struggle with this urge to be “good” and give people what they want, then perhaps you can jerry-rig your own bad boundaries as I have.
I have applied this method in other ways. Going on a vacation? To a residency? Set a vacation responder for at least one extra day before you leave and after you get back. Set a vacation responder when you’re not going anywhere but out of reach. Most useful? Learn to respect your own time and simply say, “No, I have to write.” It gets easier every time you do it.
6. Stop trying to get an A+ at anything but writing your best work.
Again, this speaks most specifically to women, POC, queers, and other “marginalized” folks. I am going to repeat myself, but this shit bears repeating. Patriarchy (and institutional bigotry) conditions us to operate as if we are constantly working at a deficit. In some ways, this is true. You have to work twice as hard to get half the credit. I have spent most of my life trying to be perfect. The best student. The best dishwasher. The best waitress. The best babysitter. The best dominatrix. The best heroin addict. The best professor. I wanted to be good, as if by being good I might prove that I deserved more than the ephemeral esteem of sexist asshats.
Listen to me: Being good is a terrible handicap to making good work. Stop it right now. Just pick a few secondary categories, like good friend , or good at karaoke . Be careful, however of categories that take into account the wants and needs of other humans. I find opportunities to prove myself alluring. I spent a long time trying to maintain relationships with people who wanted more than I was capable of giving. The truth is, I do need to cancel plans regularly. I need to disappear for a few days or even months to attend to my writing. Friends or lovers who resent this, who interpret it as a personal rejection, are often angry with me. And feeling at a deficit makes me want to work harder to make it up to them. In recent years, I’ve learned the relief of letting go of this debt. It is possible to do so with love. Being a good friend doesn’t mean adhering to your friend’s ideal of a good friend. It means devising your own ideal, and then applying it to friends who share that ideal. This application requires a working knowledge of “boundaries.”
7. Stop thinking of “no” as “no.”
Get comfortable with no. This requires shifting your relationship to no . You are not saying no to an event where you might make an important connection, you are saying yes to your work. You are saying yes to the sleep you need to make good work. You are saying yes to the real relationships you already have and need to nourish and enjoy so that you can be strong enough to withstand the very hard parts of writing and living. You are not saying no to an opportunity; you are saying yes to the revolution. You are not saying no to that person who might be disappointed in you, you are saying yes to a life in which you are not in bondage to the fear of other people’s disappointment.
Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet , tells the young poet that he must ask himself if he would die if he was forbidden to write. Dramatic! But true. If the answer to that important question: “Must I write?” is “Yes, I must,” then do not die at the feet of others’ expectations. Do not die of emails. Live as if you do not care about being rude. Indeed, when you are actually dying, I suspect you will not care if they thought you rude, only if they thought of the things that you wrote and found in them beauty or hope or some mirror for the unsayable aspects of being human.
Feel free to write to me if you need to be reminded of this, but do not expect a speedy response, or any response at all.