Archive

the art of no

As promised…more “If you’re ‘not allowed’ to say no to someone, they are not acting like friends” content. I have kept the Letter Writer’s subject line as the post title so that readers too can have the “Wait, where is the part where this person is an actual mom” “Oh wait, phew, this person isn’t anyone’s actual mother, that would be even more horrifying” realization that The Goat Lady (my trusty inbox sorter) and I did.

Dear Captain,

I (she/her) have a friend, “Mary” who is, by her own admission, a “mom” friend. Mary is very kind– but emotionally overreaching. She feels responsible for making sure her friends are well cared for. Mary has even joked that if it weren’t for her, her friends would buy nothing but junk food and toys at the grocery store, instead of groceries. When we get together, Mary will insist on cooking, even when somebody else volunteers to cook instead. If one of us DOES cook, Mary will hover, or “help” by essentially taking over the cooking–adding ingredients and more or less pushing the other cook out of the kitchen. Mary will consistently cite any accident or mistake any of us have made as an excuse to swoop in. Then she will complain that she is always the one stuck with the cooking.

Mary also feels very much–if she thinks her friends are upset or potentially upset, she will become upset for them. (For example, I have been very stressed at work and with personal projects, and Mary started crying because I “am going to burn out” and that I am “such a perfectionist that you are going to hurt yourself!”) If I complain to Mary about anything, be it annoyance over traffic to a problem with a coworker, it becomes a “problem” and Mary is quick to give me unsolicited advice, get defensive for me or otherwise volunteer to help me solve this “problem.”

If she knows I am struggling with something, Mary will constantly bring it up (probably in an attempt to reinforce what she thinks is the “positive” message), or turn even a casual comment (“I wish could sleep for five years,”) into a big referendum or discussion on my mental health. If we have a difficult conversation or discussion, it will end with Mary crying, clutching me like I am some sort of child and even kissing the top of my head while I am just feeling frustrated. If I try to establish boundaries (“This isn’t a topic I am willing to discuss with you, let’s talk about something else”), my boundaries are immediately overridden. In fact, it seems as if my attempts to establish boundaries are interpreted by Mary as a further excuse to involve herself in me and my life!

I know that Mary is coming from a place of love and care. What reads to me as “manipulative” and “immature,” aren’t necessarily that–it’s just that it is to me! (Ed. note: IT’S NOT JUST YOU) I care very much about Mary but I am reaching the end of my rope. I understand this is part of the “mom” friend aspect, but Cap, I HATE being mothered. My own mother doesn’t even “mother” me. It has never worked on me, and will never work on me, no matter how many times Mary tries to become my surrogate mom. I’m trying hard not to become a hallmark-movie-style troubled teen and start yelling “You are not my real mom!” at her.

Sometimes, I just need to vent or talk about my issues without needing a “solution” or it turning into an “argument.” I feel like I have to walk on eggshells around Mary because even a casual joke (the kind that everyone in our generation and friend group makes!) becomes an emotionally exhausting exercise where I am left feeling emotionally infantilized and I start to resent Mary’s lack of maturity.

On top of this, Mary is attending therapy and seems to think herself the authority on all matters now–she declares herself an expert on conflict resolution but her form of “resolution” is to cry until she gets what she wants or can manipulate the narrative to seem like she was correct (in case it wasn’t obvious by now, Mary has an INTENSE martyrdom complex.)

I don’t want to lose Mary as a friend, and I can’t really get away from her for now. I don’t know how to explain to Mary that I don’t need a “mom” or a “mom friend,” and that her “mothering” is making it impossible to just be “friends.” How do you get a “mom friend” to stop “mothering” her friends?

I don’t know how to ask Mary to emotionally detach herself from me and my problems without making it seem like I am asking her to get out of my life. I also don’t know how I could possibly have these difficult conversations with Mary without it turning into an emotional meltdown on Mary’s part that she then projects onto me, as further evidence that I “need” her. Can you help me find a script to deal with Mary?

Thanks,

She’s not my mom (friend)

Optional P.S. Neither of us are parents, apologies if it was confusing!

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This is going to be the first of a two-part series on how people who can’t hear the word ‘no’ are not your friends.

Hey Captain!

I (she/her) just moved out of a group house. I lived with five other people in the house, including a couple (Elsie and Jenna). Elsie (she/her) and I are pretty good friends and have known each other for a few years. I met Jenna (she/her) through Elsie when they started dating. before we lived together, I would have said we were low-key friends and that I thought she was cool, but I had never hung out with her without Elsie and we only ever saw each other in group contexts.

Elsie and Jenna’s fairly stable, two year long relationship became super rocky during the year we all lived together due to a lot of factors. During this period, both Elsie and Jenna, but especially Jenna, deeply relied on me for a lot of comfort/help/emotional processing. I like helping people and I think of myself as a comforting person, and I don’t mind helping, but this got out of hand incredibly quickly and soon I was spending all my free time processing Jenna’s emotions. This only got worse when they eventually broke up and Elsie moved out. Jenna would wait for me to get home and immediately come to my room to process for hours. I work two jobs that both require a lot of emotional labor and was struggling with depression and did not have the bandwidth for this. It made my living situation a personal nightmare for me, and I dreaded coming home. I attempted to set up boundaries (telling her I wasn’t interested in talking about it anymore! saying I was tired! locking my door!) but she was pushy and I didn’t stick to my guns enough. She also did a lot of unrelated things that made me uncomfortable in the breakup aftermath, such as trying to date a bunch of my friends/literally anyone I brought to the house to hang out, which made my friends uncomfortable so I felt like i couldn’t have friends over (a whole separate weird issue). Eventually, I just moved out of the house because I couldn’t take it anymore. I now live in a much better situation and feel much happier.

Since my move Jenna has reached out to me constantly about hanging out/spending time together. Three times in the last week, she has asked me to attend an event I was already attending with other friends, invited herself, and then brought a date along and made a HUGE deal about the fact that she was bringing a date (which is a part of her whole weird “I’m single and horny” thing she’s doing right now). She talks constantly about how much she misses me and is always asking to spend time together. I suspect part of this is because I’m a connection to Elsie (every time we hang she asks me about Elsie/talks about Elsie and I try to shut it down, but she just does it the next time anyway), and the other half is because she wants to keep using me as free therapy. I want out! I need space! We are not actually friends, she just uses me as therapy. I thought it would stop when I moved, but it hasn’t.

How do I nicely express to this girl that:

A. I refuse to process this breakup with her anymore
B. I wish she wouldn’t invite herself to plans I already made with other people
C. Its weird and unnecessary to bring dates to every interaction we have
D. I need her to hang out with her actual friends and give me some fucking space already

Thanks!!

Sincerely,

I’m not your personal live in breakup therapist

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Hi Captain!

Low stakes question here regarding the delicate situation of my housemates’ generally lovely parents. I live in a house with several people, including a couple with two kids who are also my landlords (the couple, not the kids). I’ve been here for five years and I love it! The situation is wonderful, the dynamic is relaxed and positive, and we’re all on the same page re: cleaning, respect, visitors, whatever. The couple (I’ll call them Fred and Joe) will sometimes invite Joe’s parents to stay and look after the kids while they go on vacation, a situation which we are all generally fine with.

However, I am becoming increasingly annoyed that Joe’s parents completely take over the house when they are here. For example:

1) Joe’s mother has a predilection for cleaning, rearranging and reorganizing the house. I’ll come home to find dishes reorganized, things put in different places, etc. I realize she is trying to be helpful, and I don’t mind (and am in fact grateful) for the fridge to be cleaned or the shelves dusted, but I find it annoying to open a closet and find things completely reordered. It’s my stuff too, not just Joe’s — though I have to say, even if it were just me, and MY mother came and reorganized things without asking, we would have words!

2) Things get loud, especially in the mornings. Loud talking, Facetiming, playing with the kids (it’s a big house and usually Fred and Joe move the kids away from the bedrooms in the mornings so others can sleep), etc. I work late and have a night-owl schedule. I have a white noise machine and ear plugs, but last night the noise in the morning was loud enough that I woke early anyway. I addressed this once and it briefly improved things, but time passes and maybe they forget…?

3) They don’t seem to realize that I am an actual member of the household and not a guest of their son. For example, I left a note out to inform everyone that my friend was coming to stay for a few days. They insisted that I call Fred and Joe to ask permission. I believe Joe’s father’s exact words were, “Please text Joe — it’s not my house, so I can’t say yes or no.” Captain, I’m a grown woman who pays rent, utilities, and groceries at a home I’ve lived in for years. I realize not everyone can be privy to a group dynamic of which they aren’t a member, but is it weird that I find it deeply insulting that they, who are themselves guests in the place where I live, are treating me like a child? Am I being oversensitive here?

I’d like to find a way to preemptively deal with these things, either internally for myself or externally with Fred, Joe, my other housemate, and Joe’s parents, without causing friction for anyone. Joe’s parents are actually really nice people, and I’d like to have a cordial relationship with them. I also don’t want to jeopardize the dynamic of the house. What do I do? Do I just put up with this because they are only here a few times a year (though it is usually for a week or more)? Do I say something? If so, to whom, and how? What do I do preemptively and/or in the moment? If they were my parents it would be one thing, but they aren’t. I realize this is low stakes, and maybe I should just deal and try not to be around much, but it feels shitty to be made to feel this way in my home, however well-meaning they are.

Thanks, Captain! Love your site and look forward to your take.

Signed,
The dog treats are on the low shelf for a reason kthx
(she/her)

P.S. As of the time I’m writing this, Joe’s mother has moved the Tupperware to the place SHE wants it for the SECOND TIME THIS WEEK — after I moved it back to its home *again*. Please help.

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Captain, my Captain!

I’ve looked through the archives, and while you’ve answered similar-ish questions, this one hasn’t come up before, so I’m hoping you can help! I (she/her) work as a freelance editor and am in a fairly privileged position––I have enough clients that I can afford to be somewhat choosy; I’m white and cisgender, so while I certainly object to racist content, it doesn’t actually trigger me when I come across it in the works I’m editing.

However, I’ve been running into more and more works with racist content from new clients, whether stereotyped characters, cultural appropriation, or micro-aggressions in their prose (and I’m *sure* I’m missing problems content-wise). Often times, it’s content that’s hard for me to screen for before taking the job–there’s no easy search for racism in a manuscript, unfortunately–and furthermore, I also know with my relative privilege, I’m better-placed to give feedback that these authors may at least listen to.

What I’m struggling with is these sorts of clients are taking up more and more of my time and mental energy and space. I know I need to find a better way of “screening” clients and balancing the ones who slip through the cracks with the ones I actually enjoy working with, but in the meantime, do you have any script suggestions for telling people that their writing is terribly racist? Alternatively, any scripts for “breaking up” with clients whose works are too terrible for me to work with them in good conscious? (All my contracts have break-up clauses, so that’s not a concern––it’s the giving the criticism part I need help with!)

I don’t want to condone these authors’ works, but I don’t want to be mired down in fixing unfixable content either (especially if the author isn’t inclined to listen regardless!). Since it’s a client-freelancer relationship, I feel the boundaries are different–we can work with each other at will and there’s no HR to report to–so I’m at a loss. Any help would be much appreciated!

– No, Your Book isn’t Misunderstood; It’s Racist

Hi there Not Misunderstood:

DIRECTNESS IS KINDNESS.

Here is my suggestion which I think will cover both “Honest Feedback For Clients” and “Fix This Right Now Or We Have To Break Up” bases. I am writing a blanket script that can be adapted, please use what is useful to you however this works best with your existing process for contracting for edits, ok?

FYI, here are my goals for the proposed script:

  • Directness is kindness. These people NEED to hear this feedback from someone, today you’re the “someone.” They hired you to help them make their book the best it can be, it can’t be the best it can be until this gets fixed, sugarcoating it or avoiding it is unhelpful.
  • Be specific about the nature and scope of the problem to the extent you can. You don’t have to include every detail, find a few particularly telling ones.
  • Make it clear that you cannot work on the project until/unless substantive changes are made. “Can’t you just clean up the text like I hired you to do?” Nope!
  • Strongly disinvite the person from arguing with you about the nature of the feedback – They can fix it or don’t, you’re not touching this again until they do.
  • Direct them somewhere that might actually solve the problem.
  • For now, grant them the fig leaf of “I’m sure this is unintentional, and confidentially between you & an editor is the right time to fix these problems!” which hopefully they will take as the giant gift that it is. For the record, I do not think most or all of the people who write and say racist stuff are doing it unintentionally, but when you are trying to persuade someone to do better, it might help them rise to the occasion if you don’t immediately shame or punish them. If they double-down, argue, counter with abuse of you or try to invoke that One Black Friend Every Racist Definitely Has But Never Actually Listens To, strip that white fragility fig leaf right off and add them to your “Nope, Never Again” list.

And here’s the recommended script, which I imagine delivering as soon as you’ve completed your initial read-through. Write your prospective/new client an email that spells out your feedback about the content, including the problematic content, and the next steps for editing the book, like so:

“Dear [Author],

I’ve completed my initial read of [Your Book] and I want to share my initial feedback and outline next steps for the editing process if we’re going to continue working together.

While some elements of the draft are very strong [mention one or two], I’ve identified some content that needs serious revision before I can commit to another round of edits.

Unfortunately, there are some examples of [common stereotypes][cultural appropriation][outdated language][misuse of dialect][racist, transphobic, homophobic, sexist, ableist tropes or attitudes, and go ahead and use these words, no ‘racially charged’ euphemisms][for fuck’s sake stop redeeming slaveholders and Nazis through the power of luuuuuuurrrrrrveeee] throughout the draft, for example:

[List out some of what you found and briefly spell out what is wrong with it, i.e. “Spirit Animal” is a term that is sacred to specific indigenous religious traditions, a white woman of Swedish descent from Minnesota categorically does not have a spirit animal.]

[OPTIONAL – I’ve tried to flag and highlight problematic passages in the text as I found them], which you can see in the attached draft which I am returning to you. I did not make edits in these passages since changes on this scale would constitute a rewrite of the material, and the issues go deep enough that in my opinion some authorial re-imagining and revision that falls outside my scope is the right fix].

Additionally, while I know enough to spot some potential problems, I am not the right kind of editor to get this where it needs to be, so I must bow out of working on this project further until substantial revisions are made.

I know this was probably not the feedback you were hoping to hear, but I hope you will take this to heart: This has potential to be a wonderful book, you’ve got such strong [worldbuilding][characterization][sense of place][addictive plot][idk think of something you can sincerely compliment and throw it out there!] that I think it is well worth investing some more time in making sure that it finds the widest possible audience and doing due diligence to make sure it is not unintentionally causing harm and making you come across as [racist, homophobic, etc. etc.].

I wish you well with making the necessary changes and I hope you’ll get back in touch when you have a revised draft. [If you don’t actually want this, don’t worry, this is like promising to be friends the second after a breakup, time will tell].

Best wishes,

[Your Sign-off]

Attachments: 1) A document with your draft with my initial highlights and comments. [OPTIONAL, obviously] 2) My invoice for X hours for work completed so far, due [DATE]”[YES, GET PAID FOR WHAT YOU DID SO FAR]

Hopefully that does the trick. People are either going to get it or they won’t, and you’ll know VERY QUICKLY which kind you are dealing with. A person who can sit with feedback like this, realize it is A GIFT meant to HELP them avoid harmful (and reputation-destroying MISTAKES) is someone you can possibly work with in the future.

Edited To Add: I had initially mentioned directing the person to sensitivity readers but, as several kind people correctly pointed out, sensitivity readers don’t want to read racist books, they want to read really good books and catch unintentional small stuff that slipped through other edits at the very end. Here are some resources about sensitivity readers, the first piece is a good one about the ethical choice to pull a book that couldn’t be revised.

Additionally: You mentioned looking for a new process for screening projects as they come in. I detailed one I used to use for writing screenplay coverage here that might be adaptable. I think you absolutely should spell out, in advance, some stages of how you work and lay out expectations, and one stage can absolutely be something like:

“The right author-editor collaboration requires trust and a large investment of time and energy, so part of my process is making sure that we will be the right fit. For new clients, I do an initial read where I give some initial reactions to story, characters, setting and suggest some starting points for the next round of revisions [spell exactly out what this involves, possibly incl. a basic template & time-frame]. Since this process reflects X hours of work, I charge a non-refundable fee of $$$ [this can be pretty nominal , and it’s also ok to base it on length of submission, so you’re not agreeing to read a freaking dictionary out of hand], payable at the time you submit your manuscript. Should we sign a contract for ongoing editing services, this fee is applied toward the first X hours.”

When you’re first hanging out a shingle, you want lots of clients, right? But when you’re established, you want the right clients, and it’s possible that charging a fee will also encourage people to polish their work as much as possible before investing the $.

A kind reader suggested the following additional language: “Content that reinforces racist stereotypes and oppression may be returned unedited and may be reconsidered for acceptance after significant revisions are made, entirely at the discretion of the editor” that you could include on your website and in your materials.

No comments today I have 10,000 things to do/write/do/write. Hope this helps!

 

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve met somebody lovely and we’re getting married in the summer. (My pronouns: she/her, my fiancee’s: they/them) I’m thrilled to celebrate with all my family and friends…except one person.

My uncle has mainlined Fox News for longer than I’ve been alive and has selected me, his queer, liberal niece, as a prime audience for his rants. He’s also an aggressive alcoholic who has sent me crude conservative memes on Facebook.

If it were just me involved, I’d probably invite him and assign somebody to make sure he couldn’t make trouble (or have too many drinks). But I’m marrying a Latinx immigrant, exactly the sort of person he spent my entire childhood ranting about. Our wedding is going to be catered by a taco truck. I don’t want him to say something horrible to my fiancee’s family.

I can’t invite him. My father is lecturing me on forgiveness. My mother is brokenhearted and fears this will cause a rift in the family which can never be repaired. My uncle is a proud man and will quite probably never forgive me. But the whole point of a wedding is that I’m starting my own family – and I refuse to have our first day as family marred by somebody who hates the very idea of my future in-laws.

I’m not always a forgiving person but I think this is a very reasonable boundary. Am I wrong? Is there compromise to be had? And how do I stand it throughout the months until the wedding, fighting this invitation fight over and over again with everyone my mother recruits to talk to me about it?

-Wish We’d Eloped

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Hello Captain,

Two years ago, a friend paid me to critique her novel because I studied writing and know the publishing industry. I agreed to read three drafts of the work. We did not sign a formal contract.

Then I got the manuscript, and it’s terrible on all levels, from prose to plot. I’ve tried addressing the issues tactfully. I’ve suggested good examples in her genre to emulate. She is unwilling to analyze WHAT makes stories good and apply those lessons. From unrelated conversations I know she doesn’t respect people who think about why they like what they like (i.e. my partner). “They take the fun out of things.” She also thinks “time invested=value to others” regardless of the quality of her efforts.

To date, I have read 1.5 drafts and given one in-person, intensive critique session. I have (unprofessionally) delayed talking with her about the work because I suspected (correctly) that even saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m not finding improvements or good technique,” would upset her. I’ve been there, and I know how much it hurts. However, she tunes out anything she doesn’t want to hear.

In my professional opinion, the manuscript is unpublishable and her attitude/ego will not lead to success.

When I finally was direct, like I would be with a non-friend client, she became upset because in her words, I don’t “like” the work. I’ve explained that it’s not about “liking,” but whether or not the work communicates effectively (It doesn’t). I’ve asked what her ideal outcome is, and how she wants me to handle feedback I think she won’t like. When I did, accused me of not taking the project “seriously,” again, because I don’t “like” it.

I realize that delaying so long has eroded my credibility/professionalism, but I feel like we’re at an impasse. I’ve told her I care and want her to succeed, but I can’t help her do that if I can’t be honest.

At this point, I think the best I can do is offer her a partial refund for the incomplete work, with the latest marked-up manuscript and an apology for the delay, then walk away. I don’t know that our friendship will survive. I’m not sure if I want it to.

How should I resolve this, Captain?

Sincerely,
Never Crossing the Streams Again

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Hello Captain Awkward –

Please forgive me if you’ve done this one before. I’ve looked into the archives and I haven’t found one specifically about this.

Basically I (she/her pronouns) have been unemployed for a year. No matter what I do, I have only had three interviews in that time despite going to three job fairs. Now I am staying with a friend in a different city from my husband to see if I can find a job there/see if we can move there. It is scary. I’m not sleeping well and I keep feeling a nagging doubt in my stomach but I move on.

There is only one problem. I feel like I can’t hear my own voice and make my own plans because of the advice of others. My mother in law thinks I should be a home health nurse/carer. My mom believes I should try to find a forever job. My husband believes I should pick a job that I can see myself staying in for five years. My best friend thinks I should find a job right away. It is nuts! Everybody has their own opinions and they bombard me with them all the time.

What happened to talking about the weather or asking me about the books I’m reading? Seems all anybody can ask me about lately is whether I have a job and have I tried X,Y,Z? I would ultimately like to have some time, while I’m in a different city, to figure this out on my own. To find my own plan and my own way.

I guess what I’m asking is a) how do I stop the good advice from turning into a non-stop barrage of “have you considered ________” and b) how do I listen to what I want?

Thank you for considering this or even just reading it. Writing this has already helped a bit.

Sincerely,

Jobless Wonder

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