Julia McGuinness - Article: Balancing the Boundaries

Balancing the Boundaries

Boundaries can be a contentious issue. For some, any sort of boundary is an imposition. The sight of a Keep off the Grass sign is an invitation to trample all over the lawn. Others find too few boundaries disorientating, as in Empty Car Park syndrome, where too many options for where to place our vehicle has us driving round in aimless indecision.

’Writing,’ said a wise friend, ‘is always an interplay between space and pressure,’ the creative tension between unlimited possibility versus the constraint of a framework. It’s a dynamic that holds true for writing for wellbeing. Whatever we do, we want to exercise as much freedom as possible, but true freedom involves the capacity to reckon with boundaries and work with them creatively.

Between Pen and Page

The most limiting boundary for any writer to overcome begins before we even start writing. It’s the one between us and the page. This boundary can show itself in an ongoing procrastination or reluctance to write.

We need to investigate what lies underneath. Perhaps we carry some difficult memories of writing in our schooldays. Perhaps we feel that our writing has to be good or correct or literate enough. Fearing we are not up to the mark, we are paralysed by a ‘hardening of the oughteries.’

We disarm this boundary best by giving ourselves permission to start writing just as and where we are. We might take the sentence stem ‘I am reluctant to write because’ and complete it, perhaps even finishing that sentence in different ways down the page. As we do so, we are using the boundary itself to energise us forward by challenging its assumptions.

Outside Edge

Writing for wellbeing ranges from spontaneous free-flow writing to following very precise forms, and encompasses a whole spectrum of frameworks in between.

Free-flow writing does not concern itself with technical accuracy or staying on-track with a set topic. Its initial prompt is merely a springboard to launch the writer to go wherever the writing may take them, releasing discoveries, insights and creativity on the way.

But even this sort of writing is not without limit. A clear boundary needs to be set at its outside edge. This may be a time-limit on how long we spend writing; it may be a limit of space. I find it helpful in journalling to set myself to fill one page and then stop.

This is a creative boundary. It offers the protection of containment. As we write for wellbeing, we want our words to be a tunnel that brings us through to new light, not a a pit that entrenches us further our difficulties or overwhelming emotions. Setting a limit at the outside edge ensures we put down the spade before digging ourselves in too deep a hole.

We may also find that the pressure of limited writing time or space can squeeze out some useful, underlying material to reflect on at our own pace later. This is similar to what counsellors call the door-handle comment - that most valuable disclosure that emerges in a session’s final moments, with the sort of ‘now or never’ feeling.

An outside edge boundary can sometimes work by its pressure to keep going even when we think we have run out of things to say. Those moments of writing beyond ourselves can sometimes generate the richest insights. I’m learning not to panic when my mind tells me it’s short on ideas. Often my heart and gut beg to disagree!

We most gain the value of this free-writing approach when we re-read it, noting what strikes us as significant, and clarifying how we want to respond to what we discern.

Tightening the Frame

The dynamics of space and pressure operate in other approaches to writing for wellbeing. We might tackle a particular writing form, such as dialogue, letter, list or poem. We might structure the framework within it even further. The discipline of added boundaries limits our options, but can also liberate our creativity. We are pushed to write out of the box in order to find the words to fit. This can release insights through fresh angles undiscovered if we simply had free rein.

A good example of this process is the alphabet poem and its sister form, the acrostic. In an alphabet poem, each line - whether a word, phrase or part of a sentence - must begin with the next letter of the alphabet in sequence. The acrostic follows the same principle of starting a line with a pre-determined letter, but here, the poet chooses the sequence, based on a the poem’s subject. We might write an acrostic poem on our own name, or on a season or topic such as CHALLENGE or FUTUREPLANS.

Probing the possibilities for different lines can lead us our thoughts and reflections on a subject down fresh paths. Sometimes the greatest inspirations emerge slant rather than from tackling an issue head-on.

Writing to a framework, like solving a puzzle, can also be fun. The satisfaction of completing it is therapeutic in itself. When I introduced the alphabet poem to a cancer patients’ writing group, one of them returned the following week delighted with the alphabet poem she had written about dogs. She combined her love of canines with listing their different breeds, surprising us all with the existence of the Malti-poo, Vizmaraner and Xoloitzcuintli!

Keeping the Balance

As writing for wellbeing exercises follow a continuum from free-flow to tightly structured, which approach benefits us most? Some suggest that the safe course for the beginner is to start with short, highly structured exercises such as the sentence stems mentioned above. However, a writing group often opens with a free-writing activity as a way of helping everyone into the process of putting words down on the page.

Different approaches can meet different needs. I know that sometimes I need to let out whatever is locked up inside straight onto the page, just as it comes. I may need to express something I have not been able to say, even if it does not yet make sense. At such times, I find some free-flow writing is the most helpful way forward. Sometimes, however, my mind feels in a whirl in a disordered world. I need to find some way to arrange things and find a focus. At those times, a more structured activity helps ground me with some clarity and shape, at least on the page.

Writing is indeed a dance between the space and pressure, the open-ended and the structured. Being aware of boundaries and how they can contain and liberate both our writing and ourselves is part of the journey.

Julia McGuinness


Julia McGuinness is a writer, counsellor and writing practitioner based near Chester, where she runs writing workshops and counsels. Her particular interests are poetry and journalling, and she is currently filling a part-time volunteer role as Chester Cathedral’s Poet-in-Residence. She also runs Write for Growth workshops exploring writing for creativity and wellbeing as well as a journalling group Way With Words. Her publications include Writing our Faith (SPCK) and a poetry collection Chester City Walls (Poetry Space). She is currently developing her workshops online. Find out more at:


How writing has affected Julia's wellbeing: "Whether creative or expressive, I have instinctively turned to words to support my wellbeing over years. I still have the journals that companioned me through tough times, where I found relief by pouring my heart out on the page. Writing enables me to express feelings, explore possibilities and clarify direction, track patterns, remember dreams and become absorbed in the adventure of creativity. It is my mainstay."

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