On setting boundaries as a female writer

Advice from author Elizabeth Gilbert at the 2022 Bendigo Writers’ Festival

Are you a female writer who struggles to find time to write?

At the Bendigo Writers’ Festival this week, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert (interviewed from New York via zoom by Claire Flanagan-Smith)  spoke of her own struggle to break free of expectation in order to live a life that protects her health and creativity.  

The discussion was prompted by an audience question about whether women can “say ‘no’ too much”.

The answer, of course, was no. Women need to say no more often and set limits in order to protect their creative time.

“I have to be honest about my limitations ,” she said.

Her approach is to tell people, “I understand why you want that from me, but I can’t give you that right now.

 “I cannot prioritise what everyone wants me to prioritise and still hear the voice that only I can hear.”

It makes sense – to anyone without children or other dependents. As all mothers know, raising children is a creative project in itself. Personal creativity has to be fitted around that – or after.  

Gilbert has been frank about her own decision not to have children. In a 2014 interview with Oprah, she famously identified three types of women: “There are those born to be mothers; those born to be aunties, and there are women who shouldn’t be allowed within 10 feet of a child. And it’s very important you figure out which of those camps you belong in, because tragedy and sorrow results from ending up in the wrong category,” she warned.  (Gilbert belongs to the “auntie camp”, as does Oprah.)

My own view is that setting limits is difficult for most women, not because they aren’t assertive enough, but because they understand that behind the decision NOT to take responsibility for something or someone is the assumption that someone else WILL.

Setting personal limits means having the courage to accept the consequences if others don’t step up. Sadly, that cannot always be guaranteed.

Gilbert acknowledged that she spoke from a position of privilege: she has a room of her own, success, income and the solitude to allow the mystical collaborators, as she calls her muses, to visit whenever they choose.

But “privilege” these days is a loaded word that comes with the assumption of luck and the whiff of the undeserved.

As any writer knows, even when you are able to set limits, success still requires 10 per cent talent, 90 per cent hard work, and the courage to try – and fail.

Here’s some more great writing advice from Elizabeth Gilbert, as told to the eager audience at the Bendigo Writers’ Festival on Saturday 14 May 2022:

Find your sacred writing time

“Find what time of the day your brain works best. Mine is between 6am and 10am.

Find your sacred writing time and defend it with your life.”

Clarity is vital

 “I don’t want the writing to interfere with the work. When you open the book and read the first sentence. I want you to relax.”

Gilbert says that with Dickens, for example, the feeling is that the reader is in good hands and that they are going on a wonderful adventure together.

Know when to let the story take over

“My weakness, and the most difficult part, is figuring out what the book is about.”

For Gilbert, setting and time come first, followed by the who – or character.

She usually makes a detailed outline. Sometimes she uses notecards – and she can spend years on research.

But even a plotter can get to the point when the story has to take over.

“There are parts of the book you can’t know till you get there.”

Don’t worry about writer’s block

“The way it feels to me, is that creativity has sentience. They are living forms that circle the world looking for human collaborators to bring them into being. But that’s just the start. You have to show up and commit.”

But what happens when the mystical collaborators don’t show up?

Relax.

“In due time, you’ll be notified.”

Roe vs Wade: the battle to control women’s desire

Elizabeth Gilbert’s most recent book is At Home on the Range (2022), a cook book first published by her feisty great-grandmother Margaret Yardley Potter in 1947, and revived and celebrated by Gilbert.

But it was her 2019 book City of Girls, pictured below, that she spoke about at the festival. City of Girls is a novel “celebrating female desire – not just for sex but for life ” – championing the lives of a group of women in New York in the 1940s who, in the absence of the men who had been called to war, suddenly and briefly found themselves with jobs, income and personal autonomy.

The recent threat to Roe Vs. Wade in the USA was “a battle for control over women’s desire”, Gilbert said.


For more about Elizabeth Gilbert: