Self-help makes me queasy. And I've consumed plenty of stomach-turning wellness. The self-help genre assumes we can sell wellness to one another. It assumes that somehow I know more than you about what can generate happiness and fulfillment in your life. I'm not suggesting every self-help author, speaker, writer, and blogger sells wellness in such a packaged formula, but I do believe we tend to consume it that way. I do believe we look for the magic bullet in paperback form. I think we look for the secret that only those with book deals or successful websites must know because just look at them, they're doing it. They're manifesting. Self-help makes me highly suspicious, which is odd because in my own book proposal, I reference my book as a non-fiction self-help guide to creative longevity. But is it? Genres are tricky things. Where will we place the book in a Barnes and Noble? Is it a memoir? A guide? A tell all? Must label in order to sell! And for the love of all things commercial, must sell!
In the process of writing and editing this monstrosity, it has become clear to me that it is not a self-help book and that there is no such thing as self-help. Wellness can't be bought and sold. It can only be lived. It comes from making one choice after the next and attempting to be conscious of it. Yes, I can write out all the ways I think might help you to be conscious, but ultimately those are just the ways that worked for me. When I was alone. Not reading a book. But living, and choosing, and existing presently in the world. I can share my story and that's helpful but it's not The Answer.
I was listening to Billy Joel the other day and a certain lyric struck me as particularly powerful. Lyrics I had heard a thousand times before, but in this moment, I was exhilarated by the fact that someone I would never meet and would have almost nothing in common with, could have written lyrics decades ago that resonated with me today. I was stunned by the everyday fact that our stories, our personal stories when told with absolute truth, connect the dots far better than any listicle can. The message wasn't laid out for me, easily consumable and ready to digest. I had to distill it myself out of his story, and this made me know my own story better.
Maybe Anne Lamott said it best,
"Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
Real help (sensations and connection and buoyancy as Lamott puts it) comes from stories. Truthful stories. And the ability of writer and reader, or singer and listener, to connect over decades, despite the odds that those two minds would ever meet.
Self-help is about isolating your one true flaw and providing the one true antidote to your sense of pain. But our problems evolve as we evolve, so there will never be a one-stop solution to what confounds us. We are a moving target. We are constantly shifting and back-peddling and lunging forward in chaos. So I don't believe we can find an authentic sense of peace in a formula. I believe the only thing that has ever really helped the disorienting predicament of our own aliveness has been each other.