"The Writer’s Survival Guide," Rachel Simon

Pros: Evocative, practical, handy, knowledgeable, compassionate
Cons: More abstract than some might want
Rating: 5 out of 5

First posted 9/23/2002

Now that I’ve worked my way through my case of writer’s burnout, I feel in much less need of books such as Rachel Simon’s “The Writer’s Survival Guide.” Thus I allowed this book to languish on my shelf for a while–and such a shame that I did!

Most writing books try to be heavy on practical stuff – these three steps to pull yourself out of a funk, these five steps to bolster your confidence, try one of these six things when you’re suffering from writer’s block. In contrast “The Writer’s Survival Guide” is rather “soft,” or abstract. Yet this in no way prevents it from being helpful!


This book is broken into three parts: The Basics, The Process, and Becoming an Author.

Part I, Chapter 1 covers “The Big Questions.” Questions such as: why should you write? How can you tell if you have talent? How big a commitment should you make to your writing? Ms. Simon addresses these questions with compassion and considerable insight, providing perhaps not the answers that you hope to find – but the ones that you need to find.

When we ask ourselves if we have talent, we are asking the wrong question. Success is not predetermined.

Chapter 2 moves on to “The Big Emotions and States of Mind.” Writing can be a much more emotions-oriented career than many; your feelings will have a huge impact on how and how well you write and deal with the consequences of your writing. Ms. Simon talks about competitiveness – how it can be our enemy, and how it can be our friend. She discusses confidence, contemplativeness, ego, energy, envy, euphoria, feelings of failure and inferiority, frustration, guilt, insecurity, inquisitiveness, laziness, loneliness, love and hate, meaningfulness, nimble-mindedness, paranoia, passion, pride, shame, and spiritual connectedness. She talks about their places in our writing lives – positive and negative – and how to cope with them. Her beautifully evocative writing makes it difficult not to understand and relate to what she’s saying.

I am not convinced that laziness per se really exists. I see it as yet another form of fear.

Chapter 3 is called, “The General Antidotes.” Ms. Simon believes there are several things which can aid most writing ills. One is the establishment of boundaries for ourselves and others; another is the willingness to stop and celebrate each of our accomplishments. Commitment and discipline follow, as does humility. She discusses our ability to cultivate and heed our inner voice, and our willingness to develop patience. Physical exercise, risk and a willingness to have fun, tenacity, and an ability to cultivate “writing friends” have their moment in the spotlight as well.

When writers are trying to produce a story that won’t work, many of them end up wailing, ‘What’s wrong with me? … I just don’t have any talent.’ Almost always the reply could be, ‘You’ve got talent. What you lack is patience.’

Chapter 4 covers “The Big (and Small) Logistics.” This is where you really start to get into concrete, practical advice. If you’re one of those zillions of people that talk about how you’d love to write if you only had the time, this chapter might just help you find that time. The suggestions are extensive, and they cover both attitude-related problems and logistical problems of all kinds. The subject of where to write finds its space as well. Ms. Simon also discusses how you can balance writing with all of those “extra-writing activities.”

Part II, Chapter 5, covers “The Education of the Writer.” Do you need to go to graduate school? Should you take classes? What should you read? Should you find a writing mentor?

Your education will be incomplete if you don’t learn how to sort out your own thoughts from what other writers suggest.

Chapter 6 moves on to “Before the Draft.” What’s the right mindset? How can cognitive therapy help you? (See also Write Mind, by Eric Maisel.) What about those little superstitions and rituals that many writers say help them? How can you warm up and get started?

Chapter 7 follows, logically, with “During the Draft.” How can your inner voice help you here? Where do writers find their ideas? How do you maintain your faith in your writing, and how do you handle criticism from others? What are the delusions of the creative process, and when can positive delusions actually be good for you? How do you cope with writing alone?

Chapter 8 is the writer’s block chapter: “When You’re Stuck.” How do you figure out why you’re stuck, and what do you do about it? What does it mean if you’re blocked before you even start, as opposed to in later drafts? What about when you can’t write at all?

Why do we get stuck? There are many reasons, but almost all of them come down to fear.

Part III, Chapter 9, moves into more concrete areas: “Stepping into the Publishing World.” What does it feel like to get a rejection slip? What does it mean for your writing, and what should you do next? Ms. Simon’s attitudes and suggestions are practical and extremely valuable for any writer to learn: “All people experience failure at all stages of their lives. … And it helps not to take it all so seriously.” Did you know that Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was rejected 121 times before it was accepted? If that’s the case, then surely you can survive your stack of rejection slips! Next Ms. Simon addresses what it means for you to be a businessperson, as every writer must necessarily be. She has some wise words about networking, and a couple of handy tips on agents.

Chapter 10 talks about “Success.” How will it change your life? What will make it difficult? What will make it wonderful? And how can you cope with all of these changes, anyway?

Why Every Aspiring Writer Should Buy This Book

This book covers issues I haven’t seen dealt with anywhere else. Where else can you find out how your friends are likely to react – good and bad – when you get your book published, and how to cope with that?

The book has a fantastic amount of wisdom to offer aspiring writers who really aren’t sure of what they’re doing yet. It has some handy advice for writers who are on their way but still experiencing difficulties, as well. If writing is still a roller coaster ride for you, rife with depressions and difficulties and confusions, then you owe it to yourself to read a copy of this book. If you still aren’t sure whether you want to be a writer, or under what terms (full time? Weekends? The occasional weeknight?), then this book should be able to help you find your answer.

The writing is rich and evocative; it would be difficult to read it and not connect with what the author is telling you. Normally abstract concepts are beautifully conveyed in ways that apply to your everyday life and work. Ms. Simon provides interesting and surprising insights into why we do the things we do, and why we feel the things we feel. She also takes into account both the heavily dedicated die-hard writers, and the “weekend warriors” – something that few writers do. The book is presented in a conversational and friendly tone that makes it easy to absorb its lessons.

I feel as though I should walk out on the street, find an aspiring writer, hand them my copy of the book, and make sure they read it. Right now.

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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