This morning I read an article in Catapult by Melissa Febos titled Do You Want to Be Known For Your Writing, or For Your Swift Email Responses?; How Patriarchy Has Fucked Up Your Priorities. This is an article about how to be a writer in a world full of other people’s needs. It’s an article about how to juggle the dual and often contradictory pressures of being both a woman and a writer; to be a writer often requires long un-interrupted, inexplicable periods of solitude, whereas women have been taught to be sociable, to be available.
Maybe you are thinking that this all sounds a little pretentious. You’re thinking: “writer schmiter, don’t flatter yourself Jacqueline”. Or you’re thinking: “I’m not a writer, I’m not even an artist of any kind, how does this apply to me!?!” If you are a woman, it’s likely this applies to you, because if you are a woman you have likely been taught, by parents, by tradition, by the media, by the patriarchal culture at large, that other people’s needs come first. This is not to say that other people’s needs are not important, they are. I fundamentally believe kindness is the way. But it is only to say that your needs deserve your time and that you deserve to shape your life the way you want.
Febos is talking about writers doing what they need to do to be writers, but more importantly she is talking about women”getting comfortable with the word no”. I’m still getting comfortable with the word no. I’ve spent my entire life feeling uncomfortable and guilty using this word. I think growing up in the age of smart phones and social media has been particularly challenging on this front, since every day presents a plethora of inquiries, shout outs, and demands on your time, all begging to be answered. On the other hand, we are often able to shut down a request for communication or a bid for connection with the tap tap tap of a few buttons.
That sounds cold, and that is how I have often felt about my need for solitude, cold. I have never found a kind way of refusing social invitations, which has resulted in overcompensation; committing to too many things, saying yes to too many people, doing everything half as well as I’d like to, feeling resentful, ending up with not enough time for the things I really want to do. Which all too often is not socializing. Again, this sounds callous, and yet, I know I am not a callous person. I am a person with a particularly acute need for solitude, but I am also a caretaker with bad boundaries, and this is a toxic combination. Particularly where art and writing are concerned.
Febos writes that we must change our relationship to the word no. So instead of saying no to an invitation to shop for new couch upholstery with your best friend, you are “saying yes to your work […] saying yes to the sleep you need to make good work […] saying yes to the real relationships you already have and need to nourish and enjoy so you can be strong enough to withstand the very hard parts of living and writing […] saying yes to the revolution […] you are saying yes to a life in which you are not in bondage to the fear of other people’s disappointment”.
In the past year I have felt an increased urgency to assert control over my time. Maybe this is just a consequence of growing older, of nearing 40, of truly feeling-not merely knowing in the abstract-that my time on this earth is limited. I want so many things and I have accomplished so few of these things. I want to write every day, I want to write something of consequence, I want to be recognized and paid for my writing, I want to create a stable life for myself and my family. I’m not saying these are noble goals, but they are my dreams. None of these dreams has anything to do with being socially available or reliable by email or text message or even (gasp) likeable. In fact, a preoccupation with the aforesaid qualities could directly threaten the things I want so badly. I’m getting better at saying no, which might sometimes look like becoming worse as an overall person. I still constantly struggle with the niggling worm of guilt at the bottom of the bottle, but I’m writing more and feeling happier.