Boundaries for Writers: What are they and why are they important?

Boundaries for Writers: What are they and why are they important?

I will never forget that week. After a speaking engagement that had been draining in every possible way, all I wanted to do was catch a quick flight home and lay in bed for weeks. Instead, I sat through a 13-hour layover in a city only 2 hours away from where I lived, and then caught a late-night flight home.

As soon as I got in the door, I found an inbox full of seemingly urgent matters. Among other emails was a reader who had written me twice on Facebook before somehow getting ahold of my personal email address and contacting me there as well.

My exhausted mind quickly spiraled into resentment. Why had the conference organizers insisted on such a demanding schedule? Did they really have to saddle me with such a long layover late at night? And didn’t this reader realize I can’t always respond as quickly as they would like?

In the coming days, though, I realized I had no one else but myself to blame for how lousy I was feeling:

  • I had agreed to the terms of the speaking engagement;
  • I had consented to the crappy layover;
  • And I had also made it possible to find my personal email address with a few simple Google searches.

More than that, though, I had been operating for too long under the assumption that my needs were not as important as what I perceived others needed/wanted from me.

“Good fences make good neighbors.” –Robert Frost
… And resilient writers.

We don’t often think of creative work as an area that requires good boundary setting–that is, until we sense our boundaries have been violated. Let’s face it, whether we like setting them or not, boundaries are what allow us to function in the world without losing ourselves–to others, to misplaced priorities, and to our own self-sabotage.

What are boundaries and some common myths about them?

What are boundaries?

The concept of “boundaries” was popularized in a 1992 bestseller by Henry Could and John Townsend. They wrote:

Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options. Boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out. Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences. And you are the one who may be keeping yourself from making the choices you could be happy with. We must own our own thoughts and clarify distorted thinking. (Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries)

Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life

Boundaries often get a bad reputation, as though we will come across as pushy if we stick too firmly to them. But there are three important things to remember about boundaries:

  • Good boundaries do not require being mean. Boundaries are as much about what you allow in and make yourself available to as they are about what you keep out. And there are plenty of ways to enforce boundaries without being rude (indeed, without others even realizing you’re doing so).  
  • Good boundaries mean good work. You simply can’t produce your best creative work when everyone else and their dog have an equal say in how you spend your time, energy, and efforts.
  • Good boundaries are unique. I can’t function after red-eye or late-night flights, therefore I no longer accept engagements that require them to fit into my work schedule. Maybe you love red-eye flights (in which case: WHY?!) and they pose no problem for you. The point is, everyone’s boundaries are different.

I can’t tell you what your boundaries should be, but I can give you some questions to help you zero in on areas that may need your attention. I’ll provide a bunch in the next blog post, but if you want to think more about all of this in the meantime, listen to our most recent podcast episode here.

What do boundaries mean for you? Has there ever been a time you needed to set or reinforce one for the sake of your writing life? I’d love to hear about it! Comment below or join the discussion on Facebook.


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