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Boundaries in Writing




Boundaries are a good thing. They serve to protect things that are new and delicate. We put cages over young tomato plants to keep them from being nibbled by the wildlife. We ask relatives and neighbors to call before dropping in. We learn to say “no” to events that clutter up our calendars and drain our time and energy.


It’s a harder task for some of us than others. I know it’s hard for me. I’ve been guilty of being a doormat in the past, allowing the tide of demands to wash over me, until I was thoroughly resentful. Learning to say “no” to people and things was a difficult process for me in my daily life.


Writing is no different. It’s a precious thing that deserves to be guarded from incursions. To be certain, most of the things that encroach upon writing are benign, like that pile of laundry that I really should attack before bedtime. That last volley of e-mails that we ought to finish for work. Facebook updates. The phone. Twitter. Television.


Writing can slide to the bottom of the to-do list, becoming the last thing I hope to accomplish before we fall into bed at night, thoroughly drained from the people and tasks of the day. Days slide into weeks without tangible progress on a project. I let the easier things on my to-do list take priority. And also the ones that are more visible to other people. It’s somehow easier to be prouder of a presentation or a freshly-painted room than something that’s for my eyes only. There’s immediate positive feedback, a pat on the back right away. Progress on writing is so often invisible to the world, and it’s easier to mitigate the importance of it.


But it’s important to protect the work in progress, especially in the beginning stages of writing. A book, or a grain of an idea for a book, is fragile. I’ve got to plant it in a safe place, away from wind. It needs the right amount of sunshine and water. I have to put it first on the to-do list – first thing in the morning, before it gets a chance to get pushed off.


I’m not much of a morning person.  I always dreaded the standard writing advice of getting up an hour early to get writing stuffed into a day. I’d much rather pull the covers over my head and finish up with dreaming. But…even though it’s common advice, it’s good advice. We do first what we deem to be most important. And I was letting writing slide to the back of the list, rationalizing that I’d get to it around midnight because I was a night person. More often than not, I’d throw in the towel and want to just veg in my jammies in front of the TV.


I had to learn to create not only priority boundaries, but also time boundaries. I have to force myself to sit in a chair and not surf the internet, check-email, or mess with a host of other distractions. No television. It’s only then that I seem to get the really good stuff done. And…it feels pretty darn good to have that to-do crossed off my list. The rest of the day feels lighter. I feel sort of virtuous. Charged. Sometimes, I squeeze in an extra session of writing during the day because the momentum is so good.


And I have to defend writing in other ways, too. A new idea may or may not work. I need some time and space to explore it, so I don’t really talk about it. It’s too easily bruised and can wither under too much judgment and scrutiny. When asked, I’ll talk about it in the vaguest of terms: “Oh…it’s a YA story.” “I think it’s gonna be UF.” But I don’t really know. Not until it’s grown up, and I can see if it’ll become animal, vegetable, or mineral. Mostly, I don’t need anybody poking at it, at this stage. I may decide to go through with the project, or I might not. I don’t know if it has the shiny yet. It may not make it past thirty pages. If so, I want to quietly bury it in the backyard without having to explain myself with a full post-mortem.


There’s a time for editing, critique, and the harsh polish of good scrutiny. But not until I’ve worked with it for a while. Not until it’s grown up under my wing and I’ve had a chance to enhance its strengths and diminish its weaknesses. I don’t want to subject anybody to a first draft. As I work through a manuscript, I keep notes of things that need to be fleshed out or fixed. Once it’s complete, before it goes to any beta readers, I do a round of editing to repair the things I know need work.


There’s also an odd thing about being a writer: defending the process. To outsiders, writing can seem like a really self-indulgent process, where not much seems to be happening. I get to close myself off in a room and stare at a screen for a long time. Kind of luxurious, hmm? Isn’t there a better use of my time? Shouldn’t I be going out with friends or scrubbing my grout with a toothbrush?


I’ve gotten much better about saying “no.” This is work. Just as much as any other. I have to respect the process and respect myself in doing the process. I have no problem turning down social invites by saying that “Gee, I’d love to, but I’m working.” And I am. I have no issues anymore dodging intrusive questions about what I’m working on or when I’m going to share it. “Soon.” “Someday.” “When it’s done.” “Not yet.”


So…boundaries. They are a good thing. Because that tomato plant needs a cage to protect it from the garden nibblers. The nibblers are many and varied: time, guilt, demands from others. I’ve got to put these boundaries in place to allow the project to produce some good fruit. And that’s not going to happen if I neglect to water the project or let other people pick at the flowers.

Someday, I’ll have tomatoes to show. But not yet.

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