“L'enfer, c'est les autres”… or “Hell, is other people.”
So wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, back in the first half of the twentieth century. The quote comes from an existentialist play that takes place in Hell.
Although I haven’t fact-checked this, I feel fairly certain that Sartre wasn’t referring to that moment when you’ve set aside time to write, and are well into your work with your mind deep in the longed-for flow state, when your partner of many years interrupts you to ask if you are in fact out of mayonnaise or wasn’t there an extra jar somewhere from your last trip to Costco?
And suddenly, there you are…popped in an instant from deciding whether and how to kill off your protagonist’s sidekick to plotting a different kind of murder entirely.
To be clear: I live alone. And I often tell my married friends, when certain subjects come up, that they should not be taking marriage advice from the divorced woman.
And yet, this is a subject about which I have many thoughts…
If I had a dollar for every time a female writer asked me this question, we would all be very happily drunk together on some very fine wine right now.
Because it comes up all the time, with the writers in my First Book Finish program in particular, as they try to hunker down and finally finish the book that has been lingering with them for years. The question that arises repeatedly is this:
How can I get my loved ones to leave me undisturbed when I’m writing and establish boundaries that they’ll respect?
While the issue most often arises with husbands [ahem!], it’s also a challenge with children or others we live with as well. One of the writers in the last round of First Book Finish lived with her brother, who seemed to need her most just when she sat down to write.
Can you relate?
I can tell you this for absolute certain: we will not finish the books that only we can write if we have to stop every twenty minutes to tell someone where to find the mayonnaise.
(Also, I hold certain truths to be self-evident, and one of them is this: leave a grown man alone long enough and he will either find the damn mayonnaise or eat his sandwich with mustard.)
No matter how it often seems, you are NOT anyone’s housemaid, you are a writer writing a book. And you can’t do that if you’re interrupted every ten minutes over condiments and dish detergent.
So, how to manage the loved ones so they’ll respect the boundaries you establish?
Here’s the process I recommend to the writers I work with, followed by some utterly unsolicited advice from a divorced woman. (Caveat emptor!)
Negotiating Writing Boundaries: Share Your Dream and Ask for Support
You know you want to build a writing life and finally finish your books, but do your loved ones know?
You might think they know, or think that naturally they should have come to that conclusion for themselves as they watch you buy lots of notebooks and sneak away from them with pen in hand, but have you really had the conversation?
Time for a family meeting, my friend. Get your loved ones together and talk about your dream. Tell them about the writing life you want and how you are going to set up your current life to make it happen.
Ask for their support — actually use your mouth to form this sentence: “This is really important to me, and I need your support.”
Then tell them specifically what that support looks like. Let them know when you plan to write and for how long and ask them to leave you undisturbed for that time unless the house is on fire.
If you need to take over the guest bedroom or rearrange some furniture to make a place to write for yourself, tell them that too.
Tell them you’ll need space in the family budget for writing workshops and notebooks.
Whatever you need to build the writing life you desire, TELL. THEM.
You may think you’ve told them, but I’m guessing you haven’t really properly had the discussion.
I firmly believe that this world will be transformed for the better when women learn to ask for what they need and desire. It all starts here — no one can give you the support you need if you haven’t been clear with them about what that looks like.
And while you’re at it, ask about their dreams too and how you can help support them in achieving them, because the whole household will be happier if everyone in it is living a life they love.
Recently, one of the writers I work with traded a writing retreat weekend with her wife, so now they both get a weekend away with no childcare duties so that they can focus on their dreams and support each other by offering some time away.
Negotiating Writing Boundaries: Set Yourself Up for Focus
I’ve written about how to deal with distractions before, but there are ways to signal that you are writing now and not to be disturbed.
I recommend the following:
If at all possible, write in a room with a door that closes.
Put a Do Not Disturb sign on your door.
You can always put a Post-It Note on the door to tell them when you’ll be done writing for the day.
Wear a pair of bigass headphones. Not the small AirBud type things that disappear in your ears but the big ones that act as a visual “Do Not Disturb” sign.
Go to your writing space consistently, at the times you’ve agreed. We’re training people here, ourselves included.
Negotiating Writing Boundaries: You’ll Have to Remind Them
Once you have this conversation and ask for support, your people will remember how to support you…for a while.
And then they’ll forget.
It’s magical, really — their minds will be wiped clean just as you start in on Chapter 12 and the urgent need for mayonnaise arises once again.
You’ll have to remind them. Do it gently, and assume good intentions. A smile and a soft voice goes a long way.
You’re training puppies here…just gently guide them back to where you want them and reward them for good behaviour. When you come out of your writing space, say thanks for the uninterrupted time and support, and give them a hug or kiss.
Be prepared to remind them a few times, and keep thanking them for their support. Continue to be supportive of their dreams in return.
Negotiating Writing Boundaries: When It’s Not Working
The first thing to do when you’ve set it up with the “I need your support because this is important to me” conversation and it’s not working…is to have another conversation.
This is the “remember when I said this was important to me?” conversation.
Remind them, ask again and problem-solve around any real issues that arise. Maybe you have to shift your writing time around to work for everyone in your house.
Keep focused on the creative life you want and problem-solve to make it happen.
If you’ve had the conversations and done the problem-solving and you’re still not being supported in creating uninterrupted writing time at home, then you have a couple of options…
a) Remove yourself from your people, temporarily.
This can look like…writing in a coffee shop, or at the library, or in a friend’s guest bedroom.
Or just get in your car and drive somewhere lovely and write in the car. Leave your phone off so you can’t be reached during this time.
b) Remove yourself from your people, permanently.
Haha! Joking, just joking!
Remember: never take marriage advice from the divorced woman!
But if you have had the “This is important to me”conversation, set up your space for Do Not Disturb, gently reminded your people, had the hard “why isn’t this working?” conversation and done the problem-solving needed, and your loved ones STILL aren’t respecting the boundaries you’ve set around your writing life…
Then you are in relationship with people who don’t respect your boundaries. Unless your loved ones are all under the age of 12, then my friend, this is now therapy territory.
Get some professional help and work it out. You absolutely deserve to have the creative life you desire and a healthy partnership is one where both parties can be supported to grow and reach for their dreams.
But really, what’s the other option? You don’t want to live your entire life only to realize on your deathbed that you’re about to die with your stories still inside you. That way lies a miserable and depressive life, I promise.
Setting yourself up to build the writing life you need is important work, and you will need the support of your loved ones to achieve it.
And it will be so much sweeter when you can share and celebrate with your loved ones that you’ve just typed “The End” on your manuscript or published a new poem.