If You Can’t Say No, Your Yes Means Nothing

Before we get to the heart of today’s post, I’d like to mention that I have a guest post up over at The Sharp Angle.

Lydia and Joe publish consistently great material week in, week out, so please take the opportunity to wander over and have a look around.  And thanks Lydia for letting me share my thoughts about good story structure!

Now on to the business of the day.  Perched on the dusty edge of desk in the far recesses of my mind, next to the rusted filing cabinet that contains the titles of Eighties hit songs, mental postcards of travels in Japan and Europe, and snippets of dialogue from old M*A*S*H episodes, sits a much-thumbed Rolodex chock full of sayings, euphemisms, one-liners and fragments of wisdom.  I keep it handy and pop it out from time to time to quote a blurb or two in conversation, or to share a shred of knowledge on this blog. 

In some cases, I recall with great clarity exactly when and where I picked up a specific insight; for others, I haven’t the slightest clue about the details of that particular morsel’s origin.

One saying that falls into the former category is the title of this post: “If you can’t say no, your yes means nothing.”  I first heard that gem on a bright July day in 1988.  Sitting on a blanket in the grass in Zilker Park in Austin, Texas, sipping cool lemonade and munching peanut-butter dipped cucumbers, the girl I was dating at the time read the line to me from a book of poetry.  The minute she uttered those words, they lodged themselves firmly in the sticky stuff in that Rolodex and there they firmly remain to this day.

I remember neither the name of the poet nor the title of the book of poetry.  Recent-year library searches have yielded negative results.  A Google query this morning delivered web pages on marketing prowess and teenage abstinence–not exactly what I was looking for.  The original source of the quote is still a mystery (if you can shed light on the matter, please let me know!).

But no matter, I still find this aphorism a useful idea to consider–and even more useful after a recent viewing of the 2008 Jim Carrey film Yes Man. The movie is an adaptation of Danny Wallace‘s memoir detailing his six months of “saying yes where one would have said no.”

In case you haven’t seen the film, Yes Man relates the tale of Carl, a man who, after attending a New Age-style seminar, must say yes to absolutely every question–and thus opportunity–presented to him.  As a result, he embarks on a series of new activities like bungee jumping, learning guitar, learning Korean, and learning to fly a plane, among a host of others.  Not surprisingly, Carl’s behavior eventually gets him in trouble with the female lead and love interest, charmingly played by Zooey Deschanel, who questions his sincerity after she learns the details of the philosophy.

I’ll not tell you how the movie ends, but I thought it was relatively well constructed.  In fact, despite my not being a huge fan of romantic comedies in this vein, I really enjoyed the film and found its message on the value of positive engagement with life inspiring in a funny, upbeat way.  Still, I think there is a troubling lesson to be learned from the film–particularly for folks like us who want to be successful writers.

In the story, Carl’s troubles relate to the sincerity with which he makes his decisions, but as my wife the Furnace Girl so adroitly asked during the viewing: “How on Earth does Carl have time to accomplish every activity depicted?”

“How?” indeed.  The careful viewer will note that the screenwriters did not give Carl an over-arching passion or artistic Raison d’etre, probably because doing so would have wrecked the story.  If Carl had been given one true calling, one goal in life to which he had committed himself, then adoption of the “Say Yes!” philosophy would have seemed foolhardy.  For that reason, I submit to you that it is impossible for us to imagine a Hemingway or a Bach or a Picasso waking up one morning and deciding that they needed to embark on a multitude of new endeavors, primarily because doing so would undermine the great purposes of their lives.

After all, doesn’t true commitment–the kind that builds pyramids and puts men on the moon and yes, even writes and publishes books–mean not only loudly and firmly saying “Yes!” to a specific set of tasks, but also learning to say “No!” to a bevy of other activities, some of which may be important to us?  My own feeling is that in order to succeed, we must sacrifice a lot, we must learn to set aside many desirable ventures if our dreams of real writing success are to be achieved.

So say it with me: If you can’t say no, your yes means nothing.  To me, that saying rings truer with every passing day.

What about you?  What life activities do you have trouble saying no to?  What activities are “repeat offenders” when it comes to getting in the way of writing?