For Writers Only - A Review

For Writers Only
By Sophy Burnham
Ballantine Books - 1994

This book started out on the wrong foot with me.

I don’t relate at all to the first chapter because its description of the highs and lows of writing is almost bipolar. Yes, I have unproductive, down times when writing, but if I felt the way she describes hers, I’d make sure I was medicated.  As an example, she writes:

Creative anxiety…must be treasured. Like its destructive sister, it crucifies the writer. It carries with it real suffering and physical distress: migraines, backache and especially the anguish of an aching soul.

For those who share this sort of distress, this assurance that you’re not alone might be just what the doctor ordered, but for me, it’s just depressing. Why would anyone do this to themselves?

It does get better. Somewhat.

The book is largely written in snippets that are then grouped by a common theme. Some sections were worth more than others (IMHO) and this may true for others as well, though there may be no correlation between the what I find valuable and what someone else likes. The snippets vary from the author’s own truths to those of other authors. Throughout the book, on the left-facing page, the author offers one to four quotes from artists (mostly writers). Keeping in mind that this book is only 200 pages, this format greatly decreases the reading time required to finish this book.

I suspect that this would, in some ways, be a different book if it were written today, but because it came out before the ebook revolution, some of the things it says about working in the industry are dated, but of course, this is a book, not of marketing advice, so much as it is intended as an inspirational, which is probably why it misses the mark with me. I'm far more interested in craft books (possibly because I find them inspirational?)

What advice there is in the book is focused more on how to motivate yourself and to keep you from stifling your muse. As an example:

You cannot think of audience when working. If you allowed yourself to think, as you were writing, that anyone would read your words—would judge and criticize and view your inner heart—your brain would go blank in self-defense. You could not move.


When I’m having trouble I write by hand. There is some connection between the mind and the fingers that draws out words.

That’s advice that may work for someone. Or it may not. Either way, it may be worth a try if you’re stuck. It costs nothing to try it at least.

There is a section where she talks about other writer’s processes. These aren’t “in general” observations but rather information about specific writers. This is one of the places where the book feels dated with talk of typewriters and word processors, but because the information is author specific, I enjoyed this section the most, even though, as practical application goes, I’m not sure it has any great value.

The places where my outlook differs from the author's primarily involve her bleak outlook about being an artist. For instance, she starts one of the last chapters, Alcohol, Drugs, Depression, Suicide, with this statement:

So hard is writing, this creative endeavor, so much at the mercy of loneliness, rejection, stress, or that horrible feeling of being “blocked,” that the seduction of drink or drugs is nearly irresistible; for as critic Alfred Kazin put it, alcohol, the lubricant, “cuts the connection that keeps us anxious.”

That may be true for some writers, but it’s not my truth. So the things that resonate with the author don’t resonate so much with me, and the way she sees her writing life doesn’t have much overlap with the way I see mine. I don’t need an extra dose of the struggling artist angst, but if you can take that with a grain of salt, or if the angst rings your chimes, you may like this more than I.

1 comment:

  1. Good review.

    I don't think it would resonate with me either.