Never Take Yes For an Answer

Never take yes for an answer. Yes comes with conditions. Yes stakes ownership. Yes is the devil whispering “you can have everything I show you” while it cups one hand gently to your ear and with the other draws a veil over the most beautiful, untrammelled, unimagined parts of the landscape. Yes is the sweet hit of heroine that shrinks your horizons to the size of your eyeballs.

Whether I have achieved a lot, or a little, or something in between, is a question to which there will never be a simple answer. It’s the same for you. And that’s because it’s not a single question. Against what are you measuring yourself? For every different answer, there is a correspondingly different question about your success. But only one of them actually matters.

What do you want from your writing?

You think you know. Good. Now take a pause, and a pen, and a piece of paper, and write it down. It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds. The interesting thing I’ve found is that whenever someone asks me that, I think “yes, of course I know.” And then I try to put it in a sentence. And I end up with a thousand word article that throws up a hundred tangents. And the easiest thing to do is shrug, convince myself “I know really, deep down” and carry on.

Which is the opposite of what I should do. This isn’t like a toothcomb edit that’s best put aside till the first draft’s fully down. If you don’t know what you want from your writing, what on earth are you doing writing anything? How can you possibly tell whether your words do what you want them to?

It’s actually not that hard a question. It rests on a more fundamental one. Why do you write? Only we think it doesn’t, because in our head we think we can separate them out. “I write because I have to” is what most people will say, continuing that “but I’d like to make a living.” That won’t do. Why you write is always the key to what you want from your writing. So take another pause. A longer one. As long as you need. And really figure that out. And write it down. In one sentence. And pin it over your desk. And make it into a decal that you can stick on your tablet or your laptop. Because until you’ve done that you shouldn’t do anything else. And you certainly shouldn’t open an online writing site. That sentence is your deep sea keel, the one thing that will keep you afloat and on course when you are buffeted by waves and winds from every side ripping you off course, or more dangerously gently nudging you in a different direction.

After a long pause, too much caffeine, too much time thinking in the rain, and way too much time “getting my thoughts straight” on the rowing machine, this is my sentence (an apt term!):

Help those whose identities are marginalised or confused to figure out who they are, and then to be that person and no one else.

The way I measure my success as a writer is very different from the way other people look at it. For someone who writes lyric poems about death and experimental novels and strange, transgressive short stories, I’ve had far more than my fair share of what might generally be reckoned to be success. One of my self-published novels sold more than 7000 copies and was one of Blackwell’s’ staff picks of the year (contrast with… for all these examples). I have become a semi-regular contributor to the Guardian Books Blog. I started a collective that was singled out by Writers’ Digest and Nylon Magazine. I’ve put on over 100 live literary shows, and we get invited to bigger and bigger venues each year. I am part of several high profile authors’ groups and have represented them as well as speaking in my own capacity at a number of prestigious events in the literary calendar.

Ask most people, including Google, about me and these are probably the pinnacles peeking above the skyline. But each one of the things on that list has taken me further from the direction I want to take. Far further than the rejection letters I have blu-tacked to the wall from the days when I was looking for a publisher, or the conferences who said no to me or never even answered my emails, or the one star reviews on Goodreads (actually, the best review I ever had was a one star review on Goodreads),

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or the writers’ groups and magazines and professional bodies that told me to go away and come back when I’d found a proper publisher.

The carrot is always more dangerous than the stick. The most damaging thing anyone has said to me in my creative life is yes. All those “achievements” have been the result of some kind of a yes. Yes, we’d love to feature your book in store. Yes, of course you can put a show on here. Would you like to come and give us a talk/read us some poetry? I love what you did over there, can you come and do something like that over here?

This kind of validation, praise, affirmation, this kind of yessing of the world to your work, it makes you want to do Gene Kelly dances on rain-sodden rooftops. It’s what you live for. It’s the sign you’re doing it right. It’s.

It’s the most dangerous thing you’ll face in your writing lives. Yes does two things to you. As the most addictive substance known to science (actually that’s not just a garbled metaphor – yes is the endorphin releaser par excellence and endorphins are nature’s private crack pipe), yes makes you want more yes, and to get more yes you do more of what got you yes in the first place. And so the cycle of more of the same sets itself running and the quiet inner voice that’s been whispering that key sentence to you all the way through (if it was ever there at all) slowly starts to choke in the sea of yes-endorphins.

  • Yes is the reason I spent six months blocked and flailing trying to write a sequel to a book I didn’t ever like in the first place.
  • Yes is the reason I spent a season running a series of events, slowly getting more and more exhausted thinking of new, appealing angles and speakers, at a truly wonderful art gallery with a great mailing list but for an audience that would never connect with anything but the most superficial simulacrum of me, only to come under increasing pressure to make everything performers said and did available for scrutiny beforehand so as not to offend.
  • Yes is the reason I have taken beautifully formed ideas for an installation or an event and slowly prised them open at the seams to be more disparate, more inclusive, more appealing, more attractive and through those gapped stitches the souls of those ideas have stolen silently away.
  • Yes is the reason I have fallen willingly into the bosom of wonderful groups of fellow writers to willingly pursue their wonderful and worthy agendas, devoted weeks to promoting, editing, reviewing, bending my words to fit their manifestos and sharing the joy of triumphs whose heart is just an echo of an echo of anything I hold dear.

As well as pulling you towards all manner of things miles away from what you set out to do, yes takes attention away from your real achievements, those achievements measure by the metre stick of your mission statement. Yes is the reason that when people scan google for the mountain tops of your creative career, they see only the things furthest from the reason why you create.

  • Yes is the reason one of the world’s most famous bookstores invited me to take part in an author panel discussion to talk about a book that was a million miles from my heart whilst poetry and a novel I adore went unmentioned.
  • Yes is the reason another of the world’s most famous bookstores had me travel, without expenses, to London to interview two of the darlings of the literary underground  and never even mentioned to the audience that I’d just published Evie and Guy, one of the best pieces of work I’ve ever done.

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  • Yes is the reason I was invited to be part of a collective of some of the book world’s highest profile bestselling self-published writers – provided that when they asked for my best short story to go in an anthology I didn’t actually give them my best but rather the best I had that fitted with their ideas of taste and decency.

And beyond all that, yes makes us truly believe that we have achieved not just something but the thing, the one thing we longed for, strived for, deprived ourselves for, pushed our boundaries for. Because when we take yes for an answer, we throw mission statements, passion, and principle out of the window and measure success only by the amount of yes we subsequently attain.

And then one day, when we’re aimlessly clicking refresh on the YouTube of our life, we come to that Bob Dylan bit, the video where we’re standing in front of us tossing out cardboard placards with their slogans, and then we stop. And there we are. Freeze-framed, staring through the screen and into our souls, our fingers clutching the edge of the cardboard and pointing at the words:

Help those whose identities are marginalised or confused to figure out who they are, and then to be that person and no one else.

Yes is the door the world opens to all those hungry for affirmation and acceptance, and as artists we all stand with a foot each side of that threshold. Our bodies, minds, sensations, perceptions, conceptions are porous surfaces through which a constant exchange takes place, and the product of that exchange is our art.

But the door remains open, the lascivious arm of affirmation beckoning just the one way, offering everything it tells us we want if we would only take the second step, submerge ourselves completely.

Indeed, we mustn’t cut ourselves off completely. The world is the raw material that, filtered through the infinite complexity of creativity and experience, becomes our art, released back out into that world. Stepping into the world needn’t mean taking yes for an answer. Not if we journey as engaged strangers, playing, communicating, watching in horror and delight, learning, observing, but always the outsider, our artistic integrity stamped like the mark of Cain on our foreheads as we tramp through the Land of Nod.

And when those travels, filtered and synthesised, are spewed back out as art, it is we who must hold the door open, offering ourselves to the world so that it may change, by however little, through its encounters with us, just as we were changed by it.

Never take yes for an answer. Issue your invitation to the world. Write it in your own words and leave it in traces on walls

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(photo by Veronika von Volkova)

 and  on walls

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Leave it in liminal spaces and ask the world to RSVP, not with a yes, but with a genuine encounter. With your art. With you. If just one person takes that step and has their lives changed or their voice freed in even the tiniest of ways, I will have succeeded. If I don’t sell a single book. If I don’t speak at another conference, receive another invitation or perform a single poem ever again.

What success means for you will, of course, be different. But the way you will come by it remains the same.

  • Stay true to that single sentence scrawled on card and pinned on your wall.
  • Never take yes for an answer because yes leaves the world unchanged and you irrevocably different.
  • Filter the world through the prism of your hope and your history and offer it back to the world as art, inviting an encounter that leaves it still fundamentally itself and outside of you but changed, and you changed but fundamentally yourself and outside of it.

And never be afraid when no one seems to listen to you. Be far more afraid when all of a sudden you find you have everyone’s ear.

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25 thoughts on “Never Take Yes For an Answer

  1. My sentence is easy – Write the stories I want to read but can’t find 🙂 sounds simple, and the writing part is, always . . . It’s what happens to the words after you write them that gets so twisted. Why, well, in large part because those that read and agree stay silent, while those that disagree are violently in your face about it. It has been a week of epiphanies for me, the most important, and most saddening, is that it would probably be best if I just went back to writing for me. Fighting the majority tears the desire to write completely out of you after a while.

    • “Fighting the majority tears the desire to write completely out of you after a while.”
      True, and it’s been a terrible week for it – every time people “stand up for self-published authors” their comments are prefaced with “of course I don’t mean…”

    • Absolutely life gets in the way – and in many ways it should – the real problem is when other writing things get in the way of what our writing is really about, and that’s where staying centred is so important

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  5. Loved this post Dan! So excited to have found your work through Jane Friedman. I always thought it was ok to know vaguely “deep down” why I write but I find your idea of reducing it to a sentence very helpful. I feel like I will have a touchstone now that keeps me on purpose. I love your sentence by the way – thank you for sharing.

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