I published the last episode of The Sex Beat on Sunday. The last episode for a while anyway.
I don’t see myself having the time to produce and record new episodes in the coming months, and it’s something that I’m saying “no” to for now.
I’ve had to say that word a lot lately – to things from social gatherings to new projects to exciting business opportunities.
It’s not an easy word to say. Especially when you know that there are so many things that you can do.
Getting out of the bell jar
When I first read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, I was still in university and about the same age as Esther, the protagonist.
I felt as if the novel was describing my life, my feelings, my fears. Esther is brooding, melancholic and wants too much out of life.
The Bell Jar was my cautionary tale. “Don’t wait until all the figs go black,” I’ve said to myself, over and over again.
In the book, Esther likens her life to a green fig tree, with its branches leading to different futures.
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.
One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.
I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
It was a narrative suggesting that to say “yes” to one future meant saying “no” to all the rest. I told myself that I would not let the figs go black without eating at least one.
In perpetual motion
So I grabbed and grasped, and found it difficult to stay still. Every time I felt any sense of stagnancy, I wanted to move on.
I wanted to say “yes” to something new. I wanted to grab another fig within my reach, even before I had finished eating the one I had.
While that has resulted in an interesting medley of experiences – I’ve done lab work, worked in finance, followed ministers around and been a corporate slave – I hadn’t built anything that was my own.
I was a commitment-phobe and found, that after close to five years out of university, I had yet to put down roots.
Planting your own trees
The thing is, the story of the fig tree isn’t the only narrative when it comes to seizing the day or choosing a life.
Why settle for sucking the marrow out of life when the world is your oyster? What if I don’t want any oyster?
And since we’re thinking about it — what if life isn’t about plundering and seizing, but rather, planting and building?
The thing about the latter is that it takes time, and it requires patience. It means possibly staying put in one place, and perhaps saying “no” to new adventures that might come your way.
Saying “no”, even, to things that you might desperately want to say “yes” to.
I guess it’s okay to press pause.
In June, I started working full-on for VC International.
Prior to that, I had been working on brand and content projects with my agency, as well as on web development work. But in June, I said “no” to all of those.
It was hard to say, even though I did want to say it. Because “no” is a word that’s taken to mean more than it sounds.
In his article on Medium, Kevin Ashton writes that we are not taught to say “no”.
We are taught not to say “no”. “No” is rude. “No” is a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. “No” is for drugs and strangers with candy.
Creators do not ask how much time something takes but how much creation it costs. This interview, this letter, this trip to the movies, this dinner with friends, this party, this last day of summer. How much less will I create unless I say “no?” A sketch? A stanza? A paragraph? An experiment? Twenty lines of code? The answer is always the same: “yes” makes less. We do not have enough time as it is. There are groceries to buy, gas tanks to fill, families to love and day jobs to do.
Working on a client’s landing page copy/blog article/[fill in blank] could cost a short story in my upcoming collection. An episode of The Sex Beat costs a video I could produce for VC International.
I didn’t realize it then, but by mid-May, I knew that I had to hit the pause button.
The worst part was that besides missing out on social activities or my own creative writing sessions, I also only did my laundry once a month and sometimes ate cereal for dinner.
And then I read Anything is Possible if You Pay the Price. In it, Benjamin P. Hardy writes: “Are you moving one step in 20 directions or 20 steps in one direction?”
So I began saying “no”, and then said it some more. By the start of June, I had stopped accepting paid work (unless there was something compelling enough about the client – rare!). Occasionally, I provide free consultations if it doesn’t take up too much time.
Austin Kleon, the writer of Steal Like an Artist sums this up well:
Be as generous as you can, but selfish enough to get your work done.
There isn’t enough time in a day. There’ve been times when I envied Hermione’s Time-Turner. But I’ve realized that there is a way to increase the time I have.
The magic word is “no”.