On saying "no": creativity, self-care, privilege, and knowing your limits

Austin "Steal Like an Artist" Kleon has posted a fantastic meditation on the idea that "creative people say no" -- the idea that you have to say no in order to get your work done. The piece includes a bunch of amusing, funny, sometimes a little smarmy form-letters that famous artists have used to rebuff correspondents, and I share Kleon's horrified, tempted fascination with these artefacts.



I say no all the time, probably more than I say yes, even though I say yes all the time, too. Every time I say no, I feel terrible about it. Once, while I was on tour and literally not getting meal or sleep breaks (napping between stops and staying up half the night trying to keep up with email and blogging, shoving anything not completely inedible from the minibar into my face while I typed), I got an email from a kid who wanted me to answer lengthy essay questions related to his homework. I briefly, politely declined, telling him I was on tour and just not able to give it attention, but thanking him for reading the book, and ten seconds later the kid's father (who apparently reads all his son's email) tweeted me to call me a stuck-up asshole for not helping his kid do his homework. I still think about that guy.

Kleon quotes the quite wonderful Ian Bogost on the subject of saying no:

[Y]ou have to say ‘yes’ for a long while before you can earn the right to say ‘no.’ Even then, you usually can’t say 'no’ at whim. By the time you can say 'no’ indiscriminately, then you’re already so super-privileged that being able to say 'no’ is not a prerequisite of success, but a result of it.

And he recommends Alexandra Franzen's form letter for saying no graciously:

Hey [name],
Thanks for your note. I’m so proud of you for ___—and I’m flattered that you’d like to bring my brain into the mix.

I need to say “no,” because ___.

But I would love to support you in a different way. [Offer an alternative form of support here]

Thank you for being such a wonderful ___. I am honored to be part of your world.

[A few closing words of encouragement, if you’d like]

[Your name here]

This feels like a pretty good way to say no, but it also feels like more work than I can do while still keeping even the minimal time I reserve to my family intact.

How do you say no?

Creative people say yes until they have enough work that they can say no.”
[Austin Kleon]