I have the usual prejudices about self-help books. They hook you with flattery, pamper your ego, promise easy fixes, make you a sucker and then a recidivist. They’re banal, corny, embarrassing, predatory, and mercenary to the tune of a growing multi-billion dollar industry. They’re cheap cons: they love you and leave you desperate for more. Self-help isn’t real help. On the other hand, being a wet blanket 24/7 is unyielding hard work, especially when a person needs a pick-me-up.
Earlier this fall, I was in a bad way. Blue from an ego-bruising after a failed writing project, I was submersed in a slow, axon-by-axon recovery from a head injury suffered against a beam in my basement. Often dizzy, I had little aftershocks in which I bumped my head on additional things such as the bunk bed and the hair dryer. In speaking, I left gaps in my sentences for the words I couldn’t find. I struggled to form a single complete idea, never mind corralling simultaneous thoughts. I couldn’t imagine holding the many threads of an essay again and feared that my failed recent project would also be my last. Anxiety got the better of me, and I despaired.
So I found myself unable or unwilling to resist when my sister called to say the girls’ school where she teaches had booked a big speaker, a real coup: one Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message, who was coming to Seattle for gigs at Starbucks, Google, and Puget Sound Energy. Did I want to come hear Mohr speak to the students? Did I want to read the book along with the school community? “I keep thinking of you while I read it,” my sister said, ever so gently.
“I’d love to read it,” I told my sister, surprising us both. The instant I said it, I felt an inexplicable touch of relief — the proverbial glimmer of hope. But, I realized after we hung up, there was still no way I was going to bring the physical object of a self-help book into my possession. Someone might see. So I downloaded my first-ever audiobook, put on headphones, and began folding the family laundry.
“You know that woman,” came the author’s voice, all friendship and wisdom and warm maple syrup:
She’s a good friend or a colleague from work. She’s smart and insightful. She gets it: Whatever the situation at her company, or in her community, or in the news, she has great ideas about what needs to happen. She’s high integrity too — no greed, no temptation to corruption, no big hunger for power. And she’s funny, warm, and trustworthy. Sometimes, you listen to her talk and think, if only people like her were in charge.
Of course, I nodded along.
So here’s the thing. The way that you look at that woman? Someone looks at you that way.
In fact, many people do. To us, you are that talented woman who doesn’t see how talented she is.
My hands trembled happily as I paired socks. This book was going to be perfect! It was practically written for me! Except thankfully, not quite; now came the clincher: “I wrote this book,” the voice said with utter believability, “because I want our world to be changed by you.” Such altruism! This was no cheap cajolery; this was important work! Endorphins swirled in my head. I could almost feel new little axons hatching. I could do more in my life, and I would! Bewitched, intoxicated, I fell hard. And it was okay! This hex came from a good, good fairy.
I hated that the book could only last eight and a half hours, or just under nine given my heavy use of the 30-second jump-back button. I parceled out my listening over many days, luxuriating in stolen moments with Mohr’s mahogany tones and homey pronunciations and manifest confidence in me. By the end, I had learned how to make my inner critic sit quietly in the corner, and why I’d better stop seeking praise and avoiding criticism, and how my “good-student habits” and “hiding strategies” make me research and forestall perfectly good ideas to death. I named a big dream I hadn’t acknowledged before. I learned how certain words in my e-mails make me sound weak. I felt purposeful and happy. It was clear: I had been helped.
…self-help books make evil gifts…
But I felt awfully sheepish about it. As I went about pleasantly forgetting much of what I’d learned, I thought instead about the nature of self-help. What is it about self-help, I wondered, that makes one want to read in secret, if at all? Certainly toting a self-help book around is plain embarrassing: it has the look of desperation and publicizes one’s flaws. Relatedly, self-help books make evil gifts. More than anything, I chewed over that gristly, rankling bone of a term, “self-help.” In the fever days I’d spent proselytizing about Mohr to anyone who would listen, I could never once bring myself to call Playing Big “a self-help book.” Instead, I called it “self-helpy.” In other words, enjoying something self-help-like was all I dared cop to.
I got curious about the package and went with an opaque satchel to the library to borrow Playing Big in hardcover. The book is popular; I’d been waiting a few weeks. The copy that circulated my way had a few shakes of sand stuck under the plastic jacket cover. A fancy destination, I presumed; the grains were quite golden. Swaying palms, piña colada, and a brand-new you! It’s a good era.
At first, I couldn’t find the actual words “self-help” anywhere on Playing Big, even though everything else about the cover design screamed easy categorization: ethereal white background, clear prescriptive font, kind-eyed author softly yogi-smiling. Finally, I spotted it — SELF-HELP — inside the back flap at the bottom in point size 2.8 (I measured). To read type that small, a person with 20/20 vision would need to hold her face about five inches from the page. So the industry is aware, I mused in a Sherlocky way. If a point size like that doesn’t say shame, what does?
“Self-help” is an irritating term — an oxymoron, for one thing. “Help” as we usually define it necessarily comes from beyond the self. “Self-help,” then, has the ring of deal with it, moron. It’s a label that seems to reinforce the old saw about willpower: If you really cared, you’d fix yourself. But “self-help,” it turns out, once meant something different. The expression first appeared early in the 19th century. “Can we not learn the lesson of self-help?” Ralph Waldo Emerson asked his audience at an 1841 lecture in Boston. He went on:
Society is full of infirm people … Sofas, ottomans, stoves, wine, game-fowl, spices, perfumes, rides, the theatre, entertainments, — all these they want, they need, and whatever can be suggested more than these, they crave also, as if it was the bread which should keep them from starving; and if they miss any one, they represent themselves as the most wronged and most wretched persons on earth. … Can anything be so elegant as to have few wants and to serve them one's self, so as to have somewhat left to give, instead of being always prompt to grab? It is more elegant to answer one's own needs, than to be richly served …
As it emerged, “self-help” was a beatitude, a virtue, something like self-reliance. It meant satisfaction with few possessions and mastery over one’s own needs. It meant wanting no more than one could do for oneself. In “Compensation,” Emerson wrote about self-help as the way to employ — not eradicate — one’s faults: “Has he a defect of temper that unfits him to live in society? Thereby he is driven to entertain himself alone, and acquire habits of self-help; and thus, like the wounded oyster, he mends his shell with pearl.”
Not long after, in 1859, Samuel Smiles came out with Self-Help, a Victorian guide to personal betterment that championed thrift (and, predictably, blamed poverty on the poor). “The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual,” he opened. And later: “Too much guidance and restraint hinder the formation of habits of self-help. They are like bladders tied under the arms of one who has not taught himself to swim.” Despite Smiles’ view that “man perfects himself by work more than by reading,” Self-Help became a bestseller, the author became a celebrity, and self-helpfulness became a sign of fine character.
While contentment was part of the initial self-help message, happiness had yet to become synonymous with making one’s dreams come true or hitting the big-time. The satisfaction of self-help had yet to do with winning friends, influencing people, leaning in, thinking rich, rising strong, getting to “I do,” losing weight and looking great. Self-help became embarrassing only later, when it became material. And now, like a makeover or a bigger pool or a younger wife, it’s something one hates to admit one needs.
With these things on my mind, I picked up the new Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators by Seattle poet, essayist and writing teacher Priscilla Long. I may have my biases about self-help, but I’ve always been sucker for writing advice. On the heels of Playing Big, Long’s little handbook gathered me up together with all of my scattered shiny new tokens of wisdom and put me at my desk. “Discouragement and lack of confidence are no fun,” came the advice, “but they need not sabotage your working process. Do not permit this. Just keep working.”
Over the weeks of my concussed haze, my inner critic had gotten especially mouthy, slinging insults when I fumbled for words or forgot (repeatedly) to bring towels to swimming lessons. Long seemed to anticipate this: “It’s vital to refrain from habitually calling yourself … dumb shit … asshole and the like. Stop doing that. The muses dislike it.” The muses dislike it! A new and better refrain. In the specific terms of an artist’s process, Long covers much congruous territory to Mohr’s, including unhooking from praise and criticism, making one’s work more visible, and diving in to projects instead of preparing eternally.
I found Long’s advice, along with the examples she pulls from other books and studies on creativity, to be reliably fresh and unorthodox. I loved being reminded to strictly cordon my messy drafting stage from the critical revising stage and the gutty purveying stage. I liked her form of telling me flatly what to do without pandering to my ego. I admired her various elegant ways of commanding me to embrace the old-fangled: get back to work, and work hard.
But it was her final chapter, “Developing High Self-Regard,” that I found truly unconventional. “Do you have very high self-esteem?” she asks the reader. “If you feel you need help, the time to research and access that help is now.” She explains:
I can say that over the years, with a little help from my friends, with a little help from a couple of good therapists, with a little help from a couple of good self-help books, I’ve evolved into a writer who has consistently high self-esteem. It helps me to be productive, to get my work out, to keep working on my work. It gives me resilience in the work.
Unabashed, Long names the self-help books she loves, saying with barely a shrug that “perhaps they dropped into my life when I was receptive to their wisdom.” Truly remarkable is Long’s advice to anyone suffering too deeply to do their art: Put down the book and get help.
Maybe we were yelled at altogether too often as children, or were in other ways emotionally battered or sexually abused. Maybe teachers dissed our abilities or insulted our dignity. Maybe we were traumatized on the battlefield or in a personal assault and this worked its corrosive psychic corruption in shattering our self-esteem. Maybe we find ourselves in an abusive relationship or maybe we are just depressed. If any of this applies to you, you owe it to yourself as a creator and an artist to get help, to avail yourself of the professional assistance of one of the many counselors and healers at work in your community.
So self-helpy! Indeed, as I closed Long’s book in certainty that I would return to it again and again, I saw what I’d overlooked at the top of the back flap, audacious in sunflower-yellow 12-point type: SELF-HELP/CREATIVITY.
It is only human to strive, and that Victorian exhortation to be modest in life but extravagant in principle is a gigantic transcendental ask. I won’t try to take a position on what is a moral kind of self-help and what is only shallow materialism and what is a quiet kind of personal betterment and what is pitiless pap and what is an inspired vocational guide and what are just water wings in paradise. The simple fact is that I read these two self-help books and I went sweetly adrift in them, and I felt more embarrassed about one than I did about the other, and when I came out the other side I felt somehow both richly served and pleasantly on my own again.
Bonnie J. Rough is the author of The Girls, Alone: Six Days in Estonia, selected by Amazon as one of the Best Kindle Singles of 2015, and the memoir Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA (Counterpoint), winner of a 2011 Minnesota Book Award. She lives in Seattle.
Follow Bonnie J. Rough on Twitter: @BonnieJRough