Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about boundaries this week.

Maybe it's because Child #1 has recently started hugging me while I'm doing things like the dishes, cooking or trying to extract myself from her bedroom at night. She wraps her arms around me, virtually immobilizing me until I stop whatever it is I'm doing.

This is not Child #1's way of saying she needs more affection.

Instead, it's her ingenious method of exerting some control over her mother. She knows I'm always happy to give her a hug and is testing the boundaries of my willingness to drop whatever I'm doing and hug her. Testing for example, whether the affection card works as a way to avoid doing homework, cleaning up her room or whatever else I've asked her to do.

The boundary issues at home made me think about boundaries in writing.
Are there things I would never write about? Words I couldn't even bear to hear even through the mouths of a fictional characters? Or is everything fair game?

I've heard other writers talk about keeping things locked up. They have life experiences that are either too uncomfortable or painful to be fodder for a book. They steer carefully around their writing boundaries, choosing subject matter that, at most, touches at the edges of the things they can't bear to talk about.

But is that the best policy when it comes to writing?

Lately, I've been wondering if boundaries, like certain rules, aren't meant to be broken. Although we experience life on an individual level it seems egotistical to assume our touchy subjects are unique to us alone. As writers, do we owe it to ourselves and others to push past our boundaries and deal with the truths we'd rather not tell? If we play it safe how can we expect to touch anyone else, make them understand what we're feeling through the two dimensional page?

And in the end, aren't most boundaries about trust? Child #1 is pushing my hugging boundaries because she trusts me enough to let her know when she's gone too far.

Maybe trust is the essential piece of the puzzle writers need to develop to push past their writing boundaries. They need to trust themselves enough to let their work go. And once they've started to trust that their work is fit for other people's eyes, then they need to trust that pushing past the boundaries of their innermost thoughts, painful moments and deep confessions will take their writing to a new level.

At least, that's my working theory this week.

What about you? Are certain emotions or experiences off limits or do you push past all your boundaries because you feel like it allows you to better connect with your readers?


Angela Cothran said...

I use all my life experiences especially the uncomfortable ones. I think writing them in some form helps me process them. But I do have boundaries when I come to swearing. I really hate to read it, so I keep it out of my books.

Weaver said...

This is an issue where my tender-hearted hubby makes things difficult for me. Bad guys need to be bad--not one sided bad or simply irritating, but bad. He hates that kind of stuff. When a bad thing happened in one of my WIPs he was traumatized for days. And it wasn't that bad! lol

Emily R. King said...

I've recently learned how beneficial it is to push past my writing boundaries and explore uncharted territory. It isn't easy, but it is fun!

Alison DeLuca said...

What an incredible post! I remember reading a line in an Irish romance that made me uncomfortable. It was so much past the boundary that I couldn't even retype it. However, I've never forgotten the image that the writer evoked.

I think that pushing those boundaries takes real courage - courage to lift the stone in the lovely, green lawn and look at the nasty things that lurk underneath.

And I think it can be done. For me, I have to wear a bit of a disguise when I do it.

GREAT column!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Creatively there are new things I need to explore for my third book, but there are places I won't go, not out of fear but because I won't go that far past my own moral boundaries.

only said...
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Jenny S. Morris said...

I know that I will test my boundaries. In one of my WIP's the dad dies and I used one scenario first but I ended up changing it to one that hit closer to home. Geez, when I write those scenes I can barely see the screen.

Great post. I love how kids test our boundaries. (Sometimes.)

Johanna Garth said...

Angela, I know a lot of people feel the same way about swearing.

Donna, that's sweet that he's so tender-hearted.

Emily, definitely agreed.

Thanks Alison, I agree, it's not easy.

Alex, that's such an interesting comment. Now I'm very curious about the moral dilemma!

Kristen Wixted said...

I think when you're ready, you should push past those boundaries. But you have to be ready.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Interesting. My Daughter #1 has been giving me immobilizing hugs as well, mostly at inconvenient moments. Are they in cahoots on this?

I'm going to try pushing a boundary (I think) by attempting a manuscript in a genre outside my comfort zone. Dare me to do it?

Copyboy said...

Wow! I never thought to think of it that way.

Carol Kilgore said...

I'm willing to explore almost any subject, some more thoroughly than others. There is one word I won't use, and it does not begin with F. Hardest for me is writing the emotions I do know and really digging deep. Tough, most of the time.

Excellent post :)

Kimberlee Turley said...

The problem with pushing boundaries is if it's not socially acceptable, it might have poor sales and that could hurt a writer's career. Publication is a business,but writing is not.

We set boundaries for ourselves because we know there is a point when mom is going to say "No more hugs, go to bed," and that would be very sad for everyone involved.

Talli Roland said...

Hm... interesting question. I would never write about abuse, personally. And I can think of a lot of other things, too, but that's probably specific to me and my experiences.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hey Johanna,

Congrats on 200 followers!

In my latest novel I REALLY pushed the boundaries for Y/A, featuring a teen army brat abused by his alcoholic father.

It is a ver disturbing situation. Dark and emotionally charged. Do readers want to know about abused kids? Many do, since many were abused themselves.

Topics like this help in he healing process, plus it helps those teens who are in a similar situation cope with knowing they are not alone.

T. L. Cooper said...

My most praised work has been that where I've broken my boundaries and allowed my vulnerabilities to show in the writing whether directly or indirectly. I think when we push past our boundaries, we open ourselves to heal as we help others find comfort and direction. I can't say I've shared all my deepest, darkest secrets with the world, but I have allowed those secrets to inform my work in ways I hope will bring comfort, inspiration, encouragement and support to others even if the only thing that happens is they feel less alone in their own struggles in life.

Sarah Tokeley said...

I'm revising a book in a genre that I've never written before. There are two scenes in it that I can't believe I wrote. They have to be there to show why things happen as they do, but where this stuff came from I don't know. I also know they're going to put a lot of people off reading it. Before that, I would have said there were lines I wouldn't cross. Now, I don't know.