I once read an article about the genesis of Self-Help books. As I dimly recall, there were scores of pamphlets produced soon after printing became commonplace. People are always ready to tell other people how to solve their problems or share the secrets of their own success. Certainly by the middle of the 20th century, printed advice was pouring into the marketplace. Diet books and cookbooks were, and have continued to be major players in this field. Help is offered for learning and improving skills of every kind: interpersonal, business, parenting, fitness, even, and not surprisingly, writing. With the birth of the Internet and our 21st century post-Google lives, the HowTo howl has become a cacophony.
There is a recently published book, which I’ve requested from the library, called Promise Land: My Journey through America’s Self-Help Culture, a memoir by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro. As I understand it, she set out to research and write a book about the self-help industry. In the end it became a memoir. The snippets I’ve been able to read on the Amazon website were entertaining and thought provoking. What motivates the proponents and writers: altruism or commercialism? She shares some scathing commentary on a conference headlined by the man who co-authored the gigantically successful series of Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She also comments on the uplifting ‘words of wisdom’ that appear everywhere, including a yellowed sign hanging in her local auto body shop, which says WE CREATE OUR TOMORROWS BY WHAT WE DREAM TODAY.
Which takes me back to my email inbox. One glance at the contents and you would recognize me as a soul with a weakness for inspiration. Also seeking answers to HowTo questions and, well, just seeking. Nothing wrong with that. There are a few healers, writers and guides whose words have had (and still have) extremely positive impacts on my thinking and choices, therefore, on my daily life. I’ve written about and quoted some of them on this blog: some repeatedly. But a couple of thoughts slapped me in the face when I looked at my inbox today.
The first is the excess of HowTo opportunities that come my way, every day. Some are offers to take a course – online or in some beautiful, perhaps exotic locale. I am assured that my life will be changed by the experience. Many I delete immediately. Some raise a whiff of fantasy and I read on a bit before I hit the disillusionment wall. Delete. But I wonder, what is getting stirred up in me, time after time: hope or dis-satisfaction? The same responses arise when I hear of a book that seems to speak to my issues… Gotta have it? This could be the one? Why is there often a feeling somewhere between disappointment and disgust? Is that with the author or myself?
A seemingly more benign type of missive that you would find clogging my inbox is the inspirational quotes. I am hungry for wisdom; I am a word-lover who is endlessly searching for someone who has distilled experience into a pithy, beautiful sentence or two. Could be a poem or a quote from the Dalai Lama, Emma Goldman, MLK Jr., a Native American elder or – gasp – a Self-Help guru. There are days when the words that show up on my computer screen seem prescient; “Exactly what I need to be reminded of today!” Sometimes a link posted on Facebook by a distant friend hits just the right mark. And some days, many days, there is just too much. It can’t possibly all be wisdom and its drowning out, rather than stimulating, my own knowledge.
Which brings me to the second, and more thorny thought, with regard to my own writing. It may not be clear to a reader of this blog, but I am heading somewhere with all of these words, written and posted over all of these months. There is an urge in me to share my ‘experience, strength and hope’, my journey of de-constructing shame. And today I wonder if I am just another HowTo Self-Help voice adding to the din. Not saying that I’m going to stop what I’ve begun here.