Tonight, I will be sitting in a huge auditorium, pounding cough drops so I don’t disrupt the focus of one of my favorite writers – Margaret Atwood. She’s the keynote speaker at this year’s AWP Conference in Chicago, and I’m thrilled to be able to hear her speak.

After her talk tonight, Atwood will sign books, as is common for most keynote speakers here. However, this year, AWP has used a lottery to decide which of the 10,000 people at the conference will be able to get one book signed, and Atwood will only sign for an hour.

This seems quite reasonable. Potentially 10,000 people with one or more books a piece . . . she could be signing all night long.

However, some folks are a bit upset over the lottery, and I can understand disappointment. I really can.

Yet, I can also understand Atwood’s need for boundaries, just as I could understand why Annie Dillard has stepped largely out of public life when Shawn Smucker blogged about her website statement. Writers have to have boundaries.

If you are a writer, you know this scenario. You’re at a dinner party or a church service or a elementary school play, and someone asks what you do. You say, “I’m a writer.” If the other person doesn’t roll her eyes, there’s at least a 50% chance that she’ll say something like, “Oh really, maybe you could take a look at my short story/resume/son’s college application letter sometime.”

What do you do there? Do you say, “sure” because you want to be nice? If you do say “sure” every time, how do you get your own work done?

A healthy writer who values her own work (and I am not always this healthy writer) will say, “Your project sounds fascinating, and I’d love to take a look at it. However, because I make a living from this work, I do charge for reviews like this. Here’s my card – you can get some information about my rates here. If you’re interested, please let me know. I’d love to help you out.” That’s a maintenance of boundaries. That’s valuing what we do. That’s asking people to respect us as artists and craftspeople, as professionals.

So do I mind that Margaret Atwood will only sign one book for a certain number of people for one hour? Not at all. I hope someday I have to set boundaries just like hers, and I hope that this schedule leaves her the time to go out for a drink with friends, get a better night’s sleep, and wake up ready to write more books for me to read tomorrow.

What are your thoughts about writers and boundaries? Do famous writers have an obligation to greet all their fans? Why or why not?