Thursday, May 16, 2013

Boundaries for Writers: review of a new e-book by Kristi Holl

My husband and adult son are on vacation; I am not. Now it’s true that they are spending the precious days of their vacation painting the front porch, and I thank them for that. It’s a wonderful albeit belated Mother’s Day gift. But the other day, as we all took advantage of the glorious spring weather to be outside—them scraping and painting, me sitting outside with my iPad Mini and notebook—they couldn’t resist teasing me. “Pick up a paintbrush,” they said. “Why aren’t you working?”

And even though I knew they were just teasing, I admit that my blood started to boil, just a teensy bit. Because I was working. Perhaps they are to be forgiven. As the late E.L. Konigsburg said at an SCBWI conference many years ago, “Sometimes writing looks a lot like doing nothing.” But after more than two decades of seeing me pound away at the keyboard in the corner of my living room, you’d think my family would recognize me working when they see it. Yes, I was outside, and yes, I had what may have looked like a toy to them. But the fact is that I was studying a book and making notes to write this review; and I was also researching and brainstorming and drafting not just one but two freelance articles.

Fortunately, the title I was studying at the time was Kristi Holl’s new e-book, Boundaries for Writers. So even though there was a little voice inside me whispering, “Well, maybe you are slacking off. Maybe you should pick up a brush and start helping them with some real work,” I resisted. I remembered what she said about boundaries, about guarding my writer’s heart, and I just smiled and said, “I am working.” And I went back to my notebook with a smile.

Kristi knows her stuff. She is the author of 42 books, both for kids and for adult writers. Though we’ve never met, I came to know her about a dozen years ago when, as a rookie instructor at the Institute of Children’s Literature, she asked me to do a web chat with students about the craft of writing. Since then, I frequently refer my ICL students to Kristi’s books and articles about what she calls “writer’s first aid.” She has some great tips for time management that can really help those of us fighting to squeeze writing time into lives already crowded with a host of obligations, commitments, and responsibilities.

Her latest book is in one sense a sequel to her first aid books, but in a way that plunges deeper into the problem of finding time to write. Sure, you can look at this as an issue of time management. But in this book, Kristi goes far beyond that. Her brilliant insight into the problem of why writers can't write is that it is an issue of faulty boundaries: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. This was a revelation to me, a moment of clarity.

In her opening chapter, Kristi talks about how walls—far being divisive or isolating—are the key to “guarding your writer’s heart.” I found myself hearing this line from Robert Frost’s poem as I read: “Good fences make good neighbors.” For writers, they certainly can.

In order to be more creative and productive, Kristi advises that writers repair their broken walls—or boundaries—whether those have to do with protecting your writing space or shielding yourself from the sting of rejection. She gives specific advice about how to deal with people and situations that are sabotaging your writing time. I still can't get over the story of one writer whose wife deliberately gained fifty pounds to punish him for "neglecting" her so he could write.

Resistance from family and friends is usually more subtle than that, to the point where sometimes we don’t recognize it for what it is. Kristi prepares writers for that, and also for the sneakiest of adversaries: ourselves. On page 24 she writes, “Sometimes we are our own worst enemies when it comes to damaged boundaries.” We allow ourselves to get distracted when we’re supposed to be working, or fritter away our writing time with a nonstop barrage of worries. I especially liked Kristi’s solution for dealing with what I call the Panic Bird. Make a fifteen-minute date with yourself during which you are allowed to worry. Then whenever your thoughts drift from your characters to whether any editor on the planet will ever buy the manuscript on which you are working, remind yourself sternly, “Nope, Mr. Panic Bird, you aren’t on my calendar until 5. I’m writing until then.”

She is also sensitive to the fear of many of us have that we are being selfish or neglectful of our families when we set boundaries so that we can write, and she deals with that, too. For Christian writers, she even has an entire chapter devoted to biblical references that support setting such boundaries.

Like so many others, I always seem to be struggling to carve out and safeguard my writing time, but I never before thought of this as being the result of boundary issues. Kristi’s book provided me with fresh insight and resolve that I think will help me, along with many others writers, to spend more fruitful time at our desks.

Note: this book is only available in PDF format as a direct purchase from the author's website. Click through on the book title above to get there.

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