The Joy of No



What is Christmas all about? Getting what you want, of course! Doesn’t everything in the larger culture point that way, insist on dropping hints (or throwing fits if you’re a kid), snuggling up to Santa to parade your yearlong goodness and thus suitability – undeniability! – for everything that’s on your wish list? If there’s no oomph in the stocking, whatever is the holiday for?

But may I suggest that, sometimes, “No” is a better gift than “Yes”? May I suggest that not getting what we want is at times the best possible gift, itself a kind of Advent door behind which waits something more lovely, more suitable, more nourishing, something we didn’t even know we wanted, or needed, until it was given to us?

Speaking from my own experience as a writer, I’ve learned that when a project, a novel or a story’s not moving, when the words aren’t flowing, that’s a “No” I’d better respect. Push harder, you only get more of what you’ve already got: frustration, and lots and lots of disconnected sentences, and big grooves on the floor from twirling the desk chair in vain. There are three unsold novels in my hallway closet that testify eloquently, and forever mutely, to this fact. (One of them took an entire calendar year to go nowhere. I took a lot of walks, that year.)

But . . . Bow your head, let go, let “No” be the answer, and the real story steps out from behind the wall you’ve built, the words that don’t quite work together, the idea that seemed so wonderful but in the end was no idea at all. All the energy wasted in trying to force to written life what could never be, becomes the high tide on which the story that is rides into being, alive and energized and complete. You look at it there on the page, it seems so right it’s inevitable; but it wasn’t at all, without that No.

Supply your own examples from literature itself: who should have listened when the answer was “No”? Romeo, Juliet, I’m looking at you . . . Emma Bovary, you too. Sometimes “love” isn’t love, and the signposts of desire are really pointing at something else: witness the cautionary tale of Dorian Gray. (Witness Oscar and Bosie, sadly, as well, for another cautionary tale.)

You'd Better Not Pout...

And at times we ourselves supply the “No” when the answer is really a resounding “Yes” – Annie Proulx’ Jack and Ennis can testify to that. Whether it’s censure or society, “morals” or mores, that descend on us, as has happened so many times throughout history, gay history foremost, that’s not at all the same as the resounding, gentle force of the true “No” – then we must push back as hard as we can, and let no one keep us from who we are and who we love.

Our hearts are mysteries, as are, at times, our hearts’ desires. And we write the story of our days every day – Christmas, too, and every holiday that seeks to give us gifts enough to please us, to raise us, for just those hours, from the humdrum everyday. Yet when the gift seems denied, when we’ve done all we can and loved our hardest but still can’t have what we seek, then let’s know that “No” is not the final answer, that something better waits inside it, wrapped in what might look like limits but is really an enlargement of the landscape, a gift from life itself to help us become more – always more – of whom and what we’re meant to be.

My holiday prize is a package of incense (and a burner to use it), as scent is so often an inspiration to the mind as well as an invitation to pleasure. All throughout the writing of Under the Poppy and its sequel, The Mercury Waltz, I used incense for just that dual purpose. Hope you enjoy!

Comment to be entered into the draw – winners will be announced on Christmas Day

Kathe Koja’s novels range from award-winning YA (Buddha Boy, The Blue Mirror) to contemporary dark fiction (Strange Angels, The Cipher) to gay historical Under the Poppy. The Mercury Waltz, the sequel to Under the Poppy, will be published in 2012. Find her online on Facebook and Twitter, or and

And yes, she has cats, but no, they don’t have literary names.

Image sources:
“Better Not Pout”
Gift box: Public domain clipart

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)

14. Which US President banned Christmas trees from the White House?

11 Responses

  1. Gah, self discipline! This is a very pertinent post to read when tussling with my conscience over the choice between plugging away at stories and tackling the preparations for Christmas. I think a gentle ‘no’ is very much in order to the characters who don’t want to shut up. They can wait until January, the Christmas shopping can’t.

    • Or … could the gifts wait? Or maybe everybody on the list gets one of those nice tins of jalapeno popcorn? The relatives will always be there, but characters can be fickle. 🙂

  2. Mm, I agree that sometimes, when the words won’t flow and writing feels like pulling teeth, it is better to walk away and await inspiration.
    Yes, as Elin says a very pertinent post, for me too at the moment. And a very good one. Thank you.

  3. Very well written. I’ll always keep this in mind!

  4. Having a “no” in your pocket to pull out and use is also handy in raising the young (you insert the species). All need some boundaries, especially when growing up, no matter the age. A good “no” is useful in so many ways. Thanks for the thoughtful post. And great picture.

  5. “No” is such a troubling word. How often have we each heard “no” said not in wisdom but in distrust or censure or some other painful reason. Not the “No, you can’t have another pieve of candy” but rather “No, you can’t play with us” or “No you can’t choose your path for yourself.”

    Is that part of why we are so bad at saying no to ourselves and others when in fact that is the wise thing to do? We know how “no” hurts or frustrates. Or is it that we think if we say “no” the other(s) will say “no” back?

    Perhaps one rule of thumb is to get in touch with what is ture for oneself and say “yes” or “no” as befits that turth.

    This post reminds me of the whole concept of “express your desire, then let it go”. Certainly that works in creative work. You can’t force it. The way I put it, and so do several other authors i know, is that you hand the story over to the chaaracters who will tell you what’s right for them. I have no explanation of this.. it just feels true.

    Thank you for this sanity, Katie!


    • Please forgive my typos.. you knew, I hope, that was supposed to be true and truth.


    • Nan, you are so welcome!

      The more “no” is like physics – the natural, if unseen, limits of a situation, a creative project, a relationship – the truer, perhaps, it is. And the more it’s like imposed “authority,” why, the hell with it.

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