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Can’t Finish Writing Your Book? You Need Better Boundaries

You have to say no to others so you can say yes to your work

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

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It’s a plan: Work has been exhausting, so you’re going to write over the weekend. You have a morning blocked off. You’ve made a pot of coffee. You put on your favorite Alice Coltrane record (Huntington Ashram Monastery, plz). It’s time to rip.

But then your phone goes off. It’s a friend who needs to vent about their shitty boyfriend. And this isn’t the first time, either — you’ve heard all about Mr. Shit’s questionable DMs and flirty work friend. You’re beyond tired of being the receptacle for this misery, and turn the ringer off. But your phone keeps buzzing with each new text, and you remind yourself, “Friend has been having a hard time lately, they don’t have a lot of other support,” or “They were such a good friend to me in college, I owe them.” You don’t want to be unsupportive, or a cruel person.

So you pick up your phone. Well, what do you know — Mr. Shit has done something even more unbelievable and horrible than last time. (You suggested once that your friend consider dumping him and she acted like she simply didn’t hear you, how strange.) You take in about an hour of your friend’s venting. You try to change the subject or even suggest some vaguely upbeat possibilities, but you can hardly get a word in. Do they ask about how your book is going, or inquire into your general health? Not at all. It’s a one-sided conversation, and by the end of it, your friend sounds downright refreshed and vibrant, signing off with a “love ya” and nary a backward glance.

You, on the other hand, feel sort of cruddy. Your jaw is tight. You try to go back to your novel, but your thoughts are simultaneously too shallow and far too rapid. You still have the whole day to get back to your book — you just need a reset. So you’re going to watch the newest prestige drama on HBO and maybe play a little Candy Crush. No big deal. And definitely eat some pizza.

But then… it’s 5 p.m. somehow? And already getting dark. You have no idea how it got so late, but you’ve hardly moved from the couch, and now you feel all grouchy and shitty because you haven’t even gone outside yet, and it’s too late to do much now, and then you’re thinking about your book again — what a hopeless mess! Why are you still not done with it? Everybody you went to school with is done with their books. They’re all probably skiing in Gstaad or something. Your book isn’t any good anyway. Nobody will want to read it. It’s too strange, or too boring, or too much like something else. What a hopeless mess. Your writing plans are a wash, yet again.

And anyway, now you have to bake a pie for your nephew’s bake sale. Which you very much don’t want to do, but you felt like you had to say yes (or maybe you said yes before even registering how much you hate baking).

I’ve had many days like this — entirely too many. I know them well. They were especially frustrating because they kept happening and I had no idea why. It wasn’t until I started going to Al-Anon and learning about boundaries that I realized there was an off-ramp for this unfortunate pattern, and it was entirely within my control.

Photo by Rana Sawalha on Unsplash

Protecting my writing time meant making boundaries with people, especially the people who — in complete innocence — would probably keep talking about their lives and TV habits even if my head was on fire. I used to resent these people for running roughshod over my day. Couldn’t they tell that I had someplace to be? Well, the thing is, they couldn’t. And I wasn’t telling them, either.

It also meant making boundaries about what emotional stakes I would take on. It used to be that hearing a friend or family member was in crisis would throw me into crisis, too. I felt like going into chaos mode alongside someone was the best way to show my care for them. So I stayed on the phone with anyone who wanted to dump their emotions because I thought I had to if I cared. (And I thought I could actually help everyone with everything, even though I’m very much not a therapist or social worker.)

And it also meant saying “no” when I didn’t want to do something, as well as giving myself firm boundaries around when I would allow the distractions of social media, etc., etc.

If you find the idea of boundaries a bit exciting and a bit bewildering, you aren’t alone. It took me years to recognize that I had a say in where my energies were spent. And it took me years more to begin, ever so tentatively, to actually communicate my needs and boundaries to other people. It is legitimately scary — what a risk, to possibly displease people. What a risk, to be seen as the person you actually are. What a risk, to find out what happens when you make the time for your desires instead of blaming your avoidance on other people.

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Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith

Novelist. Tarotist, poet, lazy Virgo. Nothing is real; magic is real. Writing is a way to see in the dark. sarahelainesmith.com, @braindoggies

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