The true and false of (writerly) self-improvement
Don't expect to see progress just because progress is happening.
Paying subscribers can listen to an audio version of this newsletter here or with any podcast app.
About a month ago, I wrote about changing the way I think about my career, taking more pride in the things I enjoy (like making the In Writing podcast and newsletter), and shaking off imposter syndrome. I think it struck a chord as it’s been one of the most popular newsletters I’ve published, and it was wonderful to read all of your responses – but one in particular stuck with me.
Nat P commented:
As a lifelong (it seems) sufferer of imposter syndrome, I’m interested in how you made the mind shift to take yourself/work more seriously and to give it the space it deserves. I’m launching a blog soon but the fear is real. I’m almost shy about it, worried it won’t live up to my hopes. So all that you said around ‘playing it down’ resonated massively with my current situation.
I’ve replied to Nat already, but I’d like to expand on this here.
When I was growing up, self-help was treated as a joke: something that people turned to when desperate and/or gullible. You can see that in the ways it showed up in popular culture: in When Harry Met Sally, for example, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal’s characters became friends after bumping into each other among the Personal Growth shelves of Shakespeare & Co in New York. The fact that they were there was shorthand: it told us that in the years that had passed since they’d first met, both had been knocked down a peg or two by the trials of life.
One of the books in the background of the scene was Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood, which also happened to be a favourite for Bridget Jones, whose diary (by Helen Fielding) was the big read of 1996 in my household. Bridget also read Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus by John Gray, and her attempts to understand why her romantic life wasn’t working out as planned were played for laughs. Honestly, I thought self-help was a passing trend for sad people.
How stupid I was. Humans need advice and help in navigating life, and that’s been true as long as we’ve existed. Large swathes of philosophy and religion could be categorised as self-help. Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Buddha: we turn to these thinkers for guidance on how best to live.
Some of the snark has fallen away since the 90s. Self-development, or whatever you might call it, has become very mainstream indeed. And there’s a lot of it around writing. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way may be the example that looks the most like traditional self-help (spiritual perspective on creativity; model based on Alcoholics Anonymous’s 12 steps; soft tone) but you only have to flick through Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Nikesh Shukla’s Your Story Matters or George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain to understand how much writing advice is about holding your hand and saying, we’re going to get through this. A lot of newsletters and podcasts do the same thing. Mine certainly do.
Beyond the theme of writing, I’ve read so much other stuff in the last few years that has helped me, from Natasha Lunn’s Conversations On Love to Bernardine Evaristo’s Manifesto: On Never Giving Up (in which she writes about how positive affirmations have helped her). In the last few weeks, I’ve been reading articles and listening to podcasts about stoicism, and I had an excellent conversation recently with the Buddhist monk Gelong Thubten (for an article that will appear in Elle magazine in January, on how to stay hopeful in the face of dismal news from around the world).
Where does all this thinking end up? If I’ve read and thought so much about how to live, why is life still difficult? Why is writing still difficult? Why do I still downplay or dodge my work sometimes, and above all, when am I going to get to the point and explain how this is relevant to Nat P’s comment? OK, I’m nearly there.
I’m guilty of sometimes making it sound like changes happen dramatically – but that’s the abbreviated version. I’ve never had an Ebenezer Scrooge epiphany moment that actually succeeded in changing me overnight and forever. I don’t think that’s how it works.
And yet… I believe/hope I’m getting wiser. Sometimes I stumble over an old text message or email or diary entry – evidence of my stupider self – and I’m shocked by how I thought and behaved. I’m still no genius, but a couple of weeks ago, emerging as if from nowhere, a new and promising idea came to me – for a book I gave up writing over a year ago. I really think something had been happening behind the scenes, though it’s hard to know how.
Progress has been so incremental that I can’t pinpoint where it comes from, so I suppose that every podcast, and book, and conversation, and experience, and piece of work threads itself into something thicker, the core of who you are, and ever so slowly you get better, if you’re trying to. You assimilate whatever you direct your attention to.
Nat asked me how I made the shift into having more confidence in my work, and I don’t know really – it’s an ongoing slog and I’ve been trying to get there for 15 years, and I only know I’ve moved forward if I look back at where I was. My point is, don’t doubt that you’re moving.
I was thinking about the old question ‘Can people ever really change?’ the other day and it seems so obvious to me – yes. They can. We’re doing it all the time. And if you want to get braver about your writing, you will. Keep going.
By the way, since we’re here – here are some more of the self-help books that appear in that When Harry Met Sally bookshop scene. I initially assumed the set director had invented them, and thought that was hilarious, but then I googled them and no, they’re real.
Making Life Right When It Feels All Wrong
How Men Feel
I Love You: Let’s Work It Out
Men Who Can’t Love
Smart Women, Foolish Choices (which Sally is reading)
If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single?
How to Stubbornly Refuse To Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes Anything!
It’s not too late for us all to add that last one to our Christmas lists.
I’m in Paris for a few days, so sending you all love from frosty France. Good luck with your writing this week!