In true Elizabeth Gilbert style I’m sobbing on the bathroom floor, feeling the cold tile beneath me, clutching my towel to my face. Then I sit bolt upright, stunned by a realization. I stagger to my feet and rush to my laptop. Before I can give myself a chance to rethink my epiphany, I dash out an email with the subject header: QUITTING.
I don’t like to think of myself as a quitter. No one does. But what if we have that wrong. What if quitting is the answer?
Four years ago John and I both quit our jobs in London. Handing in that resignation letter was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I remember the shakes, the adrenaline scoring through my body as though I’d just gone cold turkey. The feeling of elation followed by abject, mind-bending terror. The what the hell have we just done? feeling which made my throat close up and my heart pound violently. It was like jumping out of a plane. That nano-second after you pull the cord and don’t know if the chute is going to open. That moment was our life. Permanently. That still is our life in many respects.
Our idea back then, more an inkling, was that there had to be more to life than the 9-5 grind, the daily commute, the constant juggle of parenthood and full time work and paying bills and trying to see friends and family. We took a loan for a new bathroom, packed two backpacks and, with our three year old tutu-wearing daughter, took off on a round the world trip. Our intention: to find somewhere new to live, somewhere hot, somewhere we could thrive as a family – live healthier, happier lives. Our travels took us to Bali where we’ve lived for the last 3 years. And all those things we wished for have come true.
In the months after we resigned from our jobs in London and packed up our belongings we went through spiraling rollercoasters of emotion though. Fear, panic, joy. Did I mention panic? In its most pure, unadulterated form? I had never been unemployed before. John is a designer, used to the freelance lifestyle. I was working as Head of Projects for a non-profit. I had no discernible skills other than an ability to write very convincing, utterly fictional funding reports.
Swimming one day in Beckenham Public Swimming Baths, five months before leaving, I turned my attention to money-making ideas. I came up with a list of people who were rich to see if I could somehow emulate their success. Stephenie Meyer, who wrote Twilight, sprang to mind. She’d become a gazillionaire, all for writing about sparkly vampires. Hah! I shall do the same, I thought. Except without the sparkly vampires. Four lengths later I had the kernel of an idea. Being naïve I never bothered to Google how much authors earn or I might never have touched pen to paper.
That night however, in a state of blissful ignorance, I went home and on a borrowed laptop from work I began writing the story that would become Hunting Lila, my first novel. Four months later I finished it. The day before we left on our round the world trip I sent it to agents. Three weeks later, on the beach in Goa, I received two offers of representation. I signed with a great agent and within a month I had a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster.
I was in ecstasy. I was an author! By then we were in California. I started writing my third book, having already completed the sequel to Hunting Lila. That too got bought. I’m now onto my seventh book with Simon & Schuster. I know. Mind-boggling.
When I tell people my story, their jaws hit the floor. I’d never taken a creative writing course in my life. When I was 18, my English teacher told me not to bother reading English at university. Hah.
The day I handed in my resignation letter, the day I said I quit, was a pivotal moment in my life. Bali is full of bliss ninnies. Some call them sparkle ponies, soul seekers, Elizabeth Gilbert types here to find themselves. I live next door to a girl who professes to be a Priestess of the Goddess Gaia. She holds regular sound healing sessions where dozens of people primal scream en masse. I will never be one of those people. In fact, I’m the one yelling out my window at them to shut the hell up and pounding Eminem on full volume right back at them. I even admit to having launched some wrinkly jicama from my vegetable box at their house (I was never going to eat them, just peeling them seemed like way too much effort). But living here has opened my mind up to the possibility of magic, to the idea that if you are following your passion and doing something you love, if you are bold and brave and dare to follow your dream, you’re rewarded. I am the poster child for this surely?
But the fact is authors earn diddly squat. And Bali ain’t cheap. In the first two years I pounded out books at a rate of knots hoping I’d hit the jackpot and make enough money to not have to worry any more. And worry I did. I lived in a constant state of fear about being broke and not being able to pay the bills. Then one day, through a friend, I got freelance work writing copy for a content company in Australia.
It was boring, soulless work, but it was money. Easy money. I felt relaxed once more. My bank balance was once again in the black. Then the work became more and more SEO focused. ‘Please could you use the phrase ‘health and fitness 14 times in the first 200 words, a further 27 times in the remaining 600 words’ – that sort of thing. I’d sit there, tearing my hair out, screaming at the stupidity of clients, frustrated at having to write about cosmetic surgery and male breast reduction when I wanted to be writing about girls with mind powers, evil government military units, car chases, hot boys and kissing.
Until yesterday that is, when I found myself sobbing on the bathroom floor. The day before I’d been chairing a session at the Ubud Writers’ Festival. I was mobbed after by a group of girls afterwards who wanted me to sign copies of my books. I’d had a great chat the same day with Japanese film-maker, and expert in happiness, Eiji Han Shimizu, about how, if you want to take your career to the next level, you have to learn to say no. We spoke about Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech where he talks about always moving towards the mountain, keeping it in your sights and not getting distracted by jobs that take you off your path.
It felt like the universe conspired to test me on that very thing. The very next morning a difficult, exceedingly bitchy editor pushed me over the edge. I’d had enough. I was sick of saying yes out of fear and accepting work that I hated. I’d had enough of feeling like I had no choice. I wasn’t going to be made to feel bad by some girl who hated her own job so much she was taking it out on me.
So I wrote an email telling them I was done with copy-writing. That from that moment I quit to focus on what I did love doing. I hit send on the email, then collapsed on the floor wondering how I’d tell John. Eventually I emailed him. He sent me this response:
Yes, do it. I’m here and I can see the mountain, it’s next to my hillock. Love you always, especially when you say ‘fuck it’.
I’m still shaking. Hoping what I did was courageous and not stupid. Praying that the universe takes note of my bold leap and pops the chute.
But in the meantime I’ll just keep moving towards the mountain. I said that our life was full of uncertainty. But I would never choose to go back. I would always choose to leap into the great unknown.
7 thoughts on “The Power of No”
Right on, you tell em where to stick it! P.s just quietly your books are ten times better than the twilight saga and I’d certainly prefer to watch your stories in the cinema any day.
I teared up when I read this. You are so brave. Often I’m too afraid to open my eyes to look up at the mountain. I’d love to sign off saying something like I will look today or take a step, but not all of us have your balls. If I did, I’d probably in Bali too. Please keep sharing
always knew you could do it Sarah…inspirational…
Just wish i could do like you … Just wish … Well done …
Completely and totally awesome. You have my utmost respect. Well done. We only have one life to live and how much better it is to live one you can be proud of.
This is a nice post for real.. Love Elizabeth Gilbert. Love your post too!
Thank you for posting this! I love your story, and I’m glad I red this.
I’m feeling a bit like you sitting on the floor, realizing that something in my life goes the wrong way. And I really hope to be brave enough to do same you did – but I’m in my last year at University, maybe I should finish and then work to not start with nothing. I also thank you for being honest with the writing/ author-thing! I think it’s hard getting started with it (not writing books but getting connections and that stuff).
And I totally unterstand your panic – I get it even just THINKING about living after the fuck it- methode (what I already do, but not related to work or university stuff). It’s always the struggling between “I should do this first, then maybe I can pack my bags and go – just go and, well, hopefully end up somewhere where it feels like home 🙂 – but I should do this first.. finish that.. ” well, maybe that’s the wrong way. or maybe not? I don’t know.
Just wanted to say thanks for sharing your experiences both with saying no and being/ becoming a writer (what I wish to become, too someday).
Greetings from Germany =) (and sorry for mistakes with the english language)