Making Choices Beyond Fear

Q. You’re so excited by all this. I guess I’m wondering what made you suddenly at 60 say, “I’m going to say yes to anything that comes along and see what happens.”

No, it’s not that I say yes to anything — and in fact, I say no to a lot of projects but what I’m doing is I am pursuing my own creative projects. When they come to mind, if they really engaged me I’m going to go for it. And the first thing I do is I call my agent or email my agent and I say, “I’ve got an idea, what do you think?” and she’ll say, “I don’t think it’ll sell but if you love it, I’m behind you” or “It’s a great idea, let’s pursue it.” I’ve got somebody there I trust and we’re partners in everything that I do and I couldn’t do it without her. She’s a remarkable young woman and having her in my life, my professional life and my private life, my friendship life, is extremely important to me, and she knows it. I cannot tell her enough times how important she is; it’s wonderful, it’s just wonderful.

So I do turn down a lot of projects, because after five anthologies and teaching my courses, I get contacted a lot. I would say at least twice a month where people want me to edit a book and unless it’s something that I find very well written and totally engaging, I don’t do it. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about doing it, of course I would have done it, how can you say no? But at 68, you can say no.

Q. That’s why I asked that question because your response was wonderful and I think there’s a lot in there for women who are operating out of that kind of fear and that I have to say yes.

Absolutely and that fear is like turning down a date. When somebody calls and ask for a date and you’re busy you’re afraid to say I’m sorry, I’m busy because you’re afraid he’ll never call back and ask again. It transfers over so much into our lives and especially I think for women. Men probably have the same insecurities but they don’t discuss it as openly but with women, we are programmed not to let people down, not to say no, not to disappoint people. You’re being the good girl and you get to a certain age where you say, you know what this doesn’t work for me. I’m not infinite, I have a finite time on this universe and I’m 68 I may not live to be 69, who knows?

And so I don’t want to take on projects that I find tedious or the projects that don’t fascinate me and don’t compel me to move forward and I’m also very fortunate that I live not lavishly so I’m able to say no. I have friends who cannot say no because financially they can’t afford to say no. I have other friends who have become wildly successful as novelist, as writers, as speakers and they still don’t know how to say no because they’re always afraid that all of that is going to disappear one day and so they are not looking in terms of what their lives are like, now they’re looking in terms of protecting themselves in the future. And there’s not much you can say to somebody, even a New York Times best seller, who’s afraid of having it all disappear. It won’t all disappear. You’re work is too good, you’re fiction is too compelling but you have to have that sense of confidence too that there will always be something out there will provide that income and it’s wonderful. When I tell people how much I love what I’m doing they — some people look at me a little bit strange because they see their lives and careers winding down and I see my career as taking off. I figure I’ve got another 10 years, maybe 12 years of really strong creative energy, maybe not the physical stamina but the creative energy and I intend to maximize that.

This conversation, part of the 50 Over 50 interviews, made me think about choice and fear. I think Victoria nailed it with the dating analogy. It brought me right back to my college dorm room, sitting there wondering if he’d call. (In the mid-60’s, yes, we still generally waited for the guy to call.) I wonder that about recurring projects. I wonder that as I drop off a proposal. I wonder if anyone will sign up for the class or buy the book. Certainly, anyone who has their own business has these moments.

Over time, though, I find myself getting much better at doing what Victoria describes – I no longer automatically say yes. I have a running list of all the projects I’ve agreed to and absolutely hated. I don’t keep this list (it’s in my head, by the way) to beat myself up or to feel regret. I use it as a filter. When a new project comes my way, I stop and think:

  • are these people I want to work with?
  • is this something I’ll enjoy doing or feel satisfaction in having done it?
  • is this time well spent?

Your list may be different. Still, it’s helpful to have one. If the answers to those questions are no, I pass on the project and perhaps suggest someone more suitable. Then, I sit and wait for that moment of panic to pass. Something else will come along. And I’ve left space for it.

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