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Midweek Notes from a Practicing Writer

On Saying No

I receive a lot of writing-related requests. Within the past week, for example, two authors have asked me to blurb their novels. Someone else asked me to recommend a Yiddish translator in a certain part of the country. Another person wrote to request that I check out his website and maybe recommend it to all of you. And an author asked me to recommend where to submit his just-published book for reviews (and also, for post-publication prizes).

Here’s how I responded to those requests.

I told the novelists–both of whose books fall under the description of “Jewish writing”–that since I’ve begun working for a publisher of fiction on the American Jewish Experience (AJE), I’ve stopped reviewing and blurbing similar books.

I advised the translator-seeker to check with the Yiddish Book Center and/or YIVO.

Regarding the website, I responded that a quick look showed me very little; one must create an account to access the site in full, and I’m not inclined to do so.

And I told the nonfiction author that I’m very sorry, but I simply cannot provide individualized advice of the sort he was seeking for his book.

It’s difficult to say no, especially when people ask for favors politely. And I appreciate that others value any insights I might have. But I have to draw the lines of literary citizenship somewhere. Sometimes–as in the case of the translator query–I so lack expertise that the response is simple. Other times, I’m more conflicted/regretful.

On Saying “Yes”

I did agree to one request I received this past week. And it’s a biggie.

Briefly, the request was an invitation to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming volume. It came from a literary scholar I respect, so my first reaction, frankly, was that I was honored that she’d thought of me for the project: a collection of new essays, tentatively titled Third-Generation Holocaust Narratives: The Intergenerational Transmission of Memory, Longing, and Loss, that examines third-generation Holocaust narratives and the intergenerational transmission of trauma and memory.

As I considered the offer, however, I couldn’t help thinking: Do I really need to write 7,000-8,000 words, in “academic” format (with those pesky endnotes), for no pay? Do I really need to wrangle the (potential) permissions issues involved if quote extensively from some of my own past writing? Do I really have the time to take this on, especially without any financial compensation?

Yes, I understood the editor’s explanation that this will be a “scholarly” volume (read: no money to the writers involved). But the other contributors are university faculty members. They’re essentially paid to do the research and writing these chapters will require; their publications count when it comes to their reviews and tenure/promotion cases. One or more of the might even have a sabbatical (not to mention the entire summer) to dedicate time to this work.

Such is not my situation.

Ultimately, I decided that for this subject/project, I would accept the invitation. (Besides, there’s one plus of an academic project–the deadline is, at the moment, far in the temporal distance.) I’m telling myself that it’s an act of literary citizenship–and an act of Jewish citizenship. And this time, that’s going to have to be enough.

Other Work-in-Progress

I’m happy to report that I’ve managed to secure an assignment to review that nonfiction book that I mentioned wanting to read and write about. So that’s good news!

I’ve also made some notable progress with the essay, that at last report, I was struggling with. It may be ready to go out soon. I have some doubts–I’m glad that I wrote it (finally), but I’m not sure I really need/want to publish it. We’ll see.

What about you? How are you managing saying yes, saying no, and your own work-in-progress?

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9 Responses »

  1. Loved hearing an update on your openings and congrats all those well-thoughtout new projects. It can be hard to say no, but it’s so important.

  2. Hello Erika,

    So glad you chose to address this issue today, as it is important for all of us and so timely for me. I teach per diem at the Maine Women Writers Collection and I have been pretty casual about requests for looking at projects, dropping courses after early attendance (no fee paid yet) and so forth.
    I honestly don’t consider myself of any real stature in the writing community as yet, with barely a dozen publications and one book of poetry out. I do have an MFA, though, and perhaps that is one of the reasons I get asked to ‘comment’ on other people’s work.
    I have a soft spot in my heart for any struggling writer and I am still learning to say no. I make it a point never to ask friends or colleagues to read for me. If they offer and it seems they are serious, then I might do it.
    Finding that graceful, fair and professional ground to stand on in such instances can be very difficult but I am learning not to cave in every time. We writers can be needy people, but I am finding that I can take care of most of my own needs. It took me time to learn and believe that. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. For some reason, it can be very hard to say no. But your explanations did a good job of explaining why yes isn’t always the right answer.

    The yes you gave brings up an interesting side issue though, the whole aspect of literary citizenship. The key here is that YOU decided to say yes…no one was guilt-tripping you into it. I’ve heard people say, “Well, you should write that unpaid blurb/contribute that unpaid article/coach a new writer without pay/etc. because it’s your duty to do it.” THAT is not okay, in my book.

    It’s almost like a literary form of tzedakah — you are the contributor, you get to decide which cause you want to contribute to. With limited resources, you can’t say yes to everyone.

    • Rebecca,
      I have to agree. For myself, as a Native writer I often feel pressure (from newer Indigenous writers and myself) to do that extra event gratis, review pages or say glowing things about someone that I don’t always feel are warranted given the competency or caliber of the work.
      It’s a sticky situation, and the truth is that we do indeed have limited time and energy and have to strike a balance on how much goes out and how much comes in. Writers do need to be selfish at times and also nurture themselves. Only now, years after my MFA and getting a foot in the door, can I truly appreciate the finesse and judgement calls required to navigate my writing life effectively.
      I really appreciate you speaking to the guilt aspect of things. It’s a difficult truth, and I applaud you for that.

      • Your soft spot might be generating guilt for saying no, but it’s probably also generating a lot of your creativity. I like what you said, that we “have to strike a balance on how much goes out and how much comes in.” I think that’s a great way to describe the totality of Erika’s post.

  4. I’m so grateful for these comments. Thank you all!

  5. Erika,
    This is so helpful not only in how to say yes/no but in educating on making requests like this. It’s a benefit to have you share your process and reasoning on making these decisions. And for some reason, when you write about literary citizenship I can’t help but smile!
    All the best,


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