Book Review: Pen on Fire

Book Title: Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within

Author: Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

 To say I happened across this book would be an understatement. This book nearly strangled me when I absentmindedly scanned the cover while walking by a tent at the West Hollywood Book Fair last year. I whipped around and made a beeline to pick it up, nearly taking out a few other browsers in the process.

I’ve read a number of writing books, both in college writing classes and for my own benefit, but I hadn’t actually seen one catered to people exactly like me – a busy woman who needed a spark. I read the back and the first few pages and realized this could be the book that would light a fire under me and get me to finally pound away at that keyboard with some enthusiasm. And I was right – this book kicked me in the ass as soon as I started reading.

The book is aimed at women who are juggling hectic lives and who, despite having a desire to write, struggle to find the time to actually sit down and do it. While DeMarco-Barrett refers frequently to the task of balancing taking care of kids and/or home with writing, I found nearly everything she wrote also applied to me – a twentysomething with a demanding and high stress job that struggles to find free time to sit down and put words onto paper.

The first two sections of the book are about getting started and finding those pockets of time in your life to write. The chapters are short and always include a 15 minute exercise afterwards to get you going. 15 minutes is the time frame that the author encourages you to start with each day, as it is certainly easier to find 15 minutes to dedicate to writing each day than an hour, or even half an hour.

In one chapter, “Stolen Moments,” DeMarco-Barrett writes, “It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that once you finish whatever it is that eats up your time, you’ll get to your writing…..Instead, what will more than likely happen is you will have forgotten about your own needs – notably, the need to write.” Later on, she says, “Whether you’re published or not, feeling like you haven’t gotten anything done unless you’ve written even a paragraph is a good indication you are a writer. If you are in love with writing, or simply committed to it, you will take the time. When something is important, you will find a way.”

I felt like these and other similar passages really hit home – as I’ve written on this blog before, I tend to beat myself up when I don’t get to the task of writing, even if I spend my time doing other things that seem productive like cleaning my apartment or answering work emails late at night. It greatly affects my mood and energy level, weaving a thread of guilt into my otherwise happy (though very busy) life and making me feel like I’m not making progress towards my ultimate goal of being a full-time writer. After reading that passage, I realized It is about making the time for writing, not finding it, as my very happiness depends on it. It’s those kinds of revelations that made this book completely worth reading for me.

The rest of the book is structured in the same way – short chapters followed by writing exercises – and covers topics like writing tools, craft, and obstacles that you may face as your pen starts burning up the page. The exercises are useful and I found myself using my daily journaling time to try them out. I usually aim for 5 minutes of journaling or writing practice a day (because I’m an overachiever like that) and the exercises always ended up inspiring me to write longer, so I guess that means they were effective.

What I really liked about this book was more than just the inspiration it offered. The best part was the amount of outstanding writing advice that DeMarco-Barrett includes from other writers, including a large amount of material from her weekly radio show, Writers On Writing. Hearing from published authors and successful writers about their struggles with the same obstacles that I face was the most motivating part of the book, and is what sets it apart from many other books about writing.

I highly recommend this book to any writer like me that has a strong, innate desire to write but struggles with finding the time start or the inspiration to keep going when things get tough or tedious. Though it is aimed at women writers, I would suspect that a lot could be gained from it by men too. It is definitely one I’m going to keep on my shelf for those days I lack the motivation to get my ass in the chair and start writing.

Amazon: Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within

Author Site: Barbara DeMarco-Barrett


3 thoughts on “Book Review: Pen on Fire

  1. I’ve passed by this book a million times and never picked it up. I guess it’s finally time. Thanks for the review. Have you read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott? It’s pretty similar in a sense that it makes you want to get off your ass. I don’t know about you, but I often find myself buying more and more writing books rather than actually writing!

    • I have read some of Bird by Bird – just the section on shitty first drafts. I may grab that one soon.

      I’m totally with you – I buy and read writing books more than I actually write. But I’m trying to change that!

  2. Thank you so much for your review, Lindsay. I appreciate it! I don’t know if you know about my radio show, Writers on Writing. Every week my co-host and I interview authors and agents. And you can listen to the podcasts 24/7. I started it as my own personal MFA program. You can find it on iTunes at Pen on Fire / Writers on Writing, or at and is archived at

    Thanks again!

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