How a volunteer job gave me freedom to say no

Remember how I helped judge a short story contest for a literary journal? It was a great experience. The top three selections were powerful stories, and I’m thrilled that I got to play a small part in honoring the writers’ hard work. The journal containing the winning selections comes out in mid-March.

Well, around two weeks ago, the editor-in-chief emailed me, asking if I would be interested in volunteering as an associate fiction editor for the journal. I jumped at the chance.

My job is simple: read all the fiction submissions and vote yes, no, or maybe.

Simple doesn’t mean easy or short, though. I’m jumping in at the middle of their six-month reading period, so I’ve had to play catch up on November and December submissions.

Now I’m down to the January and February submissions. 106 at my last reading time, which was this morning.

There are several benefits to me taking this position.

Number one, of course, is the chance to read and think like an editor, and to understand what they’re looking for in a manuscript or story.

Number two is different. It’s about priorities. Having multiple stories to read each day, every day, takes time. Blogging takes time. Commenting on other blogs takes time. Writing the first (shitty) draft of a novel takes time. So do laundry, cooking, sleeping, cleaning toilets, helping with homework, driving to sports practice, listening to my children and husband. All of us have twenty-four hours in a day. (God doesn’t grant the extra-busy a twenty-fifth hour.) So if all of these activities are essential, what activities are thrown out?

The non-essential. The things that don’t jive with my goal of being a writer. The things that aren’t part of God’s calling in my life.  

I’ve already turned down another volunteer position, saving myself a months-long migraine and more interpersonal drama than a soap opera contains in a year’s time. It wasn’t a position I wanted to do or felt called by God to do. But in the past, I have had a hard time saying, “No, I don’t have time,” because “all” I’m doing is writing.

I’ve found that (at least in my area) people view my writing as a nice little hobby. (I’ve been told this before.) It doesn’t matter that I show up for work every day at 8 a.m. and write for several hours, break for lunch, and return to writing. For a lot of people, particularly technical people who move from point A to point B, what matters is the proof: proof in book form.

I don’t have a book published, nor do I have a contract and deadlines and evidence that I’m doing more than amusing myself by banging keys like a trained chimpanzee. The typical publishing-outsider thinks, if she’s really serious, she should be published by now. After all, that’s how it works in a  technical/ scientific/ engineering environment:

2 + 2 = 4.

Activity A + Activity B = Predictable result.

If I tell someone that I write fiction, here’s the typical conversation:

Why aren’t you published?

It’s hard to get published.

Then the conversation goes one of two ways. Either I get to hear (again) how many times J.K. Rowling or Kathryn Stockett were rejected, or I get to hear (again) that I can be self-published and how they’ve heard about this person who did that and made a million bucks.

Either way, I want to scream, but either way, I have to be polite. “Yes, I’ve heard. Yes, I know.”

Any wonder why I want to avoid a reprise of this conversation?

So having a volunteer position helps tremendously. People understand prior job commitments, even if the job is part-time and voluntary. They understand words like priorities and schedules, deadlines, supervisors, and obligations. So I feel free to say, “No thanks,” without having to endure questions that make me want to scream.

Really, I was free to say no before. Sometimes, though, I just need a little encouragement to embrace that freedom.

And if that encouragement takes the form of literary journal submissions, then, hey, I’ll take it.

So what encourages you to prioritize your activities?





17 thoughts on “How a volunteer job gave me freedom to say no

  1. re: “Really, I was free to say no before. Sometimes, though, I just need a little encouragement to embrace that freedom.” Yes. I am always searching for the appropriate reason or excuse, but in reality there doesn’t need to be one. But I do like the idea of volunteering in that capacity, where can I sign up?


    1. Any kind of volunteer job probably works! I landed this one after being asked to volunteer as a reader for a short story contest, which was the result of applying for yet another volunteer position at this journal (as blog editor) and being turned down. Kind of a convoluted route!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s really neat about the short story prize, Laura. I know and work with the woman who won that prize last year, and I have entered a few times myself — no success yet 😦 but I keep on working & trying to improve my writing.

    It is always a challenge, isn’t it, to decide whether to say yes or no to a particular request. I’m currently pretty busy with a work project (revising my online course) and am trying to find time for my own writing and being there for family etc. And don’t even get me started on the housework I’m neglecting! I’m in a study group at church and was asked to lead the worship music (2 evenings a month for the next 3 months). Although it would have been easy to say I’m too busy, I said yes because (1) I’m already attending the group so it’s not extra time out; (2) I always enjoy choosing songs and leading singing; (3) it’s a way to use one of my God-given gifts that also gives me the most joy. But I totally agree with you — sometimes we need a little push to exercise the freedom we already have.


    1. Keep trying, Jeannie! I’ve never entered this particular contest (writing short fiction isn’t as natural for me as writing full length novels) but I’ve submitted to this journal multiple times. I’ve gotten some encouraging rejections, which helps me to keep going.

      I’m so glad that you get a chance to lead the singing in your group. (Music isn’t one of my talents, so I usually make my characters musical just so I can experience being able to sing/play music vicariously.) Saying yes to something that uses your gifts and brings you joy: what a wonderful way to honor God!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Embracing the freedom to say no is a powerful tool, Laura. Your writing is real work, even if it hasn’t yet led to a publisher saying they want to put it out there for you. And who knows what connections you’ll make with people in the writing world through this new editing gig.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this post, Laura! What encourages me to prioritize my activities? Fear of relapsing with bipolar disorder, to be totally honest!

    I’m so proud of you for the assoc. fiction editorial work you’ve been offered and I’m even prouder of the fact that you’ve taken it on, full-throttle. I’m sure it will lead to some very valuable connections, and I hope you’ll blog about it. 🙂


    1. Thanks, Dyane. This job has been intense so far, mostly because there were so many submissions (dating from November) and I had to play catch-up. Lots and lots of reading. Fortunately, I love to read! (Imagine that.) Sometimes making a decision on a particular piece is hard, too, and having been on the receiving end of a rejection letter, I want to make certain that I’m making good choices.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Becoming a freelance editor did that for me. Even in months where I didn’t pursue new clients and was mostly working on my OWN writing, I felt free to say I had work to do. I no longer feel guilty about working and I take my work more seriously.


    1. Good for you, Liz! I had to turn down the same volunteer job again today, this time offered to me by a different person, and I felt horrible about it because it put her in a difficult situation. But between the blogging/reading/writing/editing, I couldn’t do it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Liz, a mutual friend of ours in Davis told me long ago that when someone asked her to volunteer for something she usually asked for time to think it over. If they insisted they needed an answer right away she’d say, “If you need an answer right now, the answer is no. If you have time for me to think it over, I’ll let you know if the answer changes.”

        I’ve adopted her wisdom on more than one occasion.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That is great advice. In the situation I was just telling Liz about, I did feel very pressured to answer immediately. Thankfully, I’d already posted on here about saying no to the position, so I felt a bit like ya’ll were backing me up in my “no” (even though none of ya’ll knew it!)

        Liked by 2 people

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