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Posts tagged "self help"

Jun 11, 2013
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Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

I had this on my Kindle for a while, but my friend Mark Larson wrote such a good review I had to read it:


  What a fine book. If, like me, you have ongoing interest in stoicism, happiness, mindfulness meditation, thinking about death and failure, and tend to be a skeptical of your Rhonda Byrne/Tony Robbins types (but are at the same time, kind of amused by them), you’ll probably like [it.]


Check! Check! Check! On a side note, one of my favorite things about the book is that it riffs on self-help books without totally abandoning the winning structure of many self-help books—in each chapter, there’s usually a story, mentions of a few studies, and a lesson, or extrapolation. (The Malcolm Gladwell-ish “story-study-lesson” formula.) It works.

Some favorite bits, below.

A great description of meditation:


  Meditation, the way he described it, was a way to stop running. You sat still, and watched your thoughts and emotions and desires and aversions come and go, and you resisted the urge to try to flee from them, to fix them, or to cling to them. You practised non-attachment, in other words. Whatever came up, negative or positive, you stayed present and observed it. It wasn’t about escaping into ecstasy – or even into calmness, as the word is normally understood; and it certainly wasn’t about positive thinking. It was about the significantly greater challenge of declining to do any of that.


The importance of routine:


  [T]he daily rituals and working routines of prolific authors and artists – people who really do get a lot done – very rarely include techniques for ‘getting motivated’ or ‘feeling inspired’. Quite the opposite: they tend to emphasise the mechanics of the working process, focusing not on generating the right mood, but on accomplishing certain physical actions, regardless of mood. Anthony Trollope wrote for three hours each morning before leaving to go to his job as an executive at the post office; if he finished a novel within a three-hour period, he simply moved on to the next. (He wrote forty-seven novels over the course of his life.) The routines of almost all famous writers, from Charles Darwin to John Grisham, similarly emphasise specific starting times, or number of hours worked, or words written. Such rituals provide a structure to work in, whether or not the feeling of motivation or inspiration happens to be present. They let people work alongside negative or positive emotions, instead of getting distracted by the effort of cultivating only positive ones. ‘Inspiration is for amateurs,’ the artist Chuck Close once memorably observed. ‘The rest of us just show up and get to work.’


On the connection between capitalism and our concept of “failure”:


  One crucial development, he argues, was the emergence of credit rating agencies, whose role was to sit in judgment upon individuals seeking loans from banks, helping the banks determine the risk they would be taking by making the loan. In a society increasingly dominated by business, a bad credit rating could all too easily come to be seen as a verdict condemning a whole person – and it is from the language of credit rating, Sandage notes, that we take several modern idioms for describing someone’s moral worth, such as ‘good-for-nothing’ and ‘first-rate’. Failure, he writes, became transformed from a bump in the road of life to the place at which ‘the story stops’. From the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, failure started to be thought of ‘not merely [as] a cataclysm that adds to the plot of your life, but [as] something that stops your life cold, because you lose a sense of your future’.


And not fearing death:


  Why do you fear the eternal oblivion of death, he wonders, if you don’t look back with horror at the eternal oblivion before you were born – which, as far as you were concerned, was just as eternal, and just as much an oblivion? Vladimir Nabokov famously opens his memoir Speak, Memory with lines that drive this point home: ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with much more calm than the one he is headed for.’ If you weren’t traumatised by not having yet been born, it seems logical not to worry about being traumatised by being dead.


Lots of great stuff here. Recommended.

Filed under: my reading year 2013

Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

I had this on my Kindle for a while, but my friend Mark Larson wrote such a good review I had to read it:

What a fine book. If, like me, you have ongoing interest in stoicism, happiness, mindfulness meditation, thinking about death and failure, and tend to be a skeptical of your Rhonda Byrne/Tony Robbins types (but are at the same time, kind of amused by them), you’ll probably like [it.]

Check! Check! Check! On a side note, one of my favorite things about the book is that it riffs on self-help books without totally abandoning the winning structure of many self-help books—in each chapter, there’s usually a story, mentions of a few studies, and a lesson, or extrapolation. (The Malcolm Gladwell-ish “story-study-lesson” formula.) It works.

Some favorite bits, below.

A great description of meditation:

Meditation, the way he described it, was a way to stop running. You sat still, and watched your thoughts and emotions and desires and aversions come and go, and you resisted the urge to try to flee from them, to fix them, or to cling to them. You practised non-attachment, in other words. Whatever came up, negative or positive, you stayed present and observed it. It wasn’t about escaping into ecstasy – or even into calmness, as the word is normally understood; and it certainly wasn’t about positive thinking. It was about the significantly greater challenge of declining to do any of that.

The importance of routine:

[T]he daily rituals and working routines of prolific authors and artists – people who really do get a lot done – very rarely include techniques for ‘getting motivated’ or ‘feeling inspired’. Quite the opposite: they tend to emphasise the mechanics of the working process, focusing not on generating the right mood, but on accomplishing certain physical actions, regardless of mood. Anthony Trollope wrote for three hours each morning before leaving to go to his job as an executive at the post office; if he finished a novel within a three-hour period, he simply moved on to the next. (He wrote forty-seven novels over the course of his life.) The routines of almost all famous writers, from Charles Darwin to John Grisham, similarly emphasise specific starting times, or number of hours worked, or words written. Such rituals provide a structure to work in, whether or not the feeling of motivation or inspiration happens to be present. They let people work alongside negative or positive emotions, instead of getting distracted by the effort of cultivating only positive ones. ‘Inspiration is for amateurs,’ the artist Chuck Close once memorably observed. ‘The rest of us just show up and get to work.’

On the connection between capitalism and our concept of “failure”:

One crucial development, he argues, was the emergence of credit rating agencies, whose role was to sit in judgment upon individuals seeking loans from banks, helping the banks determine the risk they would be taking by making the loan. In a society increasingly dominated by business, a bad credit rating could all too easily come to be seen as a verdict condemning a whole person – and it is from the language of credit rating, Sandage notes, that we take several modern idioms for describing someone’s moral worth, such as ‘good-for-nothing’ and ‘first-rate’. Failure, he writes, became transformed from a bump in the road of life to the place at which ‘the story stops’. From the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, failure started to be thought of ‘not merely [as] a cataclysm that adds to the plot of your life, but [as] something that stops your life cold, because you lose a sense of your future’.

And not fearing death:

Why do you fear the eternal oblivion of death, he wonders, if you don’t look back with horror at the eternal oblivion before you were born – which, as far as you were concerned, was just as eternal, and just as much an oblivion? Vladimir Nabokov famously opens his memoir Speak, Memory with lines that drive this point home: ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with much more calm than the one he is headed for.’ If you weren’t traumatised by not having yet been born, it seems logical not to worry about being traumatised by being dead.

Lots of great stuff here. Recommended.

Filed under: my reading year 2013

Apr 05, 2013
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One of my favorite resources for [writing] stories is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Because it’s a book written for socially inept people who can’t figure out why no one likes them. If you reverse his advice, every situation that Dale Carnegie talks about is a roadmap for how to alienate people and making your social circumstance worse. All you need to do is do the opposite of everything Dale Carnegie says, and you will have a character who does things that people really do in the real world. You and your readers will feel like you can understand why they would do these things because we’ve all done them.

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Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

I really, really liked this novel — I’d never heard of Hamid before, but a friend rec’d it on Twitter:


  the book’s structure mimics that of the cheap self-help books sold at sidewalk stands all over South Asia, alongside computer manuals and test-prep textbooks. Each chapter begins with a rule—“Work for Yourself,” “Don’t Fall in Love,” “Be Prepared to Use Violence”—and expertly evolves into a narrative.


The whole thing is written in second person, and none of the characters have names. It might sound gimmicky, but it’s not — the execution is pretty perfect, and really moving.

From chapter six, “Work For Yourself”:


  Like all books, this self-help book is a cocreative project… when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books…
  
  …Readers don’t work for writers. They work for themselves. Therein, if you’ll excuse the admittedly biased tone, lies the richness of reading.


Recommended.

Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

I really, really liked this novel — I’d never heard of Hamid before, but a friend rec’d it on Twitter:

the book’s structure mimics that of the cheap self-help books sold at sidewalk stands all over South Asia, alongside computer manuals and test-prep textbooks. Each chapter begins with a rule—“Work for Yourself,” “Don’t Fall in Love,” “Be Prepared to Use Violence”—and expertly evolves into a narrative.

The whole thing is written in second person, and none of the characters have names. It might sound gimmicky, but it’s not — the execution is pretty perfect, and really moving.

From chapter six, “Work For Yourself”:

Like all books, this self-help book is a cocreative project… when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books…

…Readers don’t work for writers. They work for themselves. Therein, if you’ll excuse the admittedly biased tone, lies the richness of reading.

Recommended.

Mar 17, 2013
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Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts

Re-read this the other night. Still nightmarish and hilarious. Every author who has a book in the self-help section should have to read this. Actually, you could compare it to The Freddie Stories in structure, as West conceived it as “a novel in the form of a comic strip”:


  The chapters to be squares in which many things happen through one action. The speeches contained in the conventional balloons. I abandoned this idea, but retained some of the comic strip technique: Each chapter instead of going forward in time, also goes backward, forward, up and down in space like a picture. Violent images are used to illustrate commonplace events. Violent acts are left almost bald.


Above is the original dustjacket by Alvin Lustig, which is so much better than all the subsequent covers, and will be available again in a new paperback edition.

Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts

Re-read this the other night. Still nightmarish and hilarious. Every author who has a book in the self-help section should have to read this. Actually, you could compare it to The Freddie Stories in structure, as West conceived it as “a novel in the form of a comic strip”:

The chapters to be squares in which many things happen through one action. The speeches contained in the conventional balloons. I abandoned this idea, but retained some of the comic strip technique: Each chapter instead of going forward in time, also goes backward, forward, up and down in space like a picture. Violent images are used to illustrate commonplace events. Violent acts are left almost bald.

Above is the original dustjacket by Alvin Lustig, which is so much better than all the subsequent covers, and will be available again in a new paperback edition.

Feb 03, 2013
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Even rock stars read self-help

Last night Wayne Coyne posted this excerpt from the book Art and Fear on his Instagram, and I thought, “Huh. Even rock stars read self-help.” Then I thought of Aimee Mann with The Artist’s Way and Rosanne Cash, who I know digs The War of Art. (UPDATE: reader reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s self-help library.)

Any other examples you can think of?

Dec 30, 2012
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On writing self-help books

This year I unwittingly found myself an author of a book stocked in the self-help section, and so I’ve spent some time paying attention to self-help as a genre (and it is a genre), and sorting out my feelings about it, and now that I’m writing a new book, I’m wondering if it too is a self-help book, and what that means, and whether I can study the form in a way so that I can subvert it or put my own spin on it.

Colin Dickey posted a great piece back in October on the history of the self-help book and where it is now.

He points to Samuel Smiles’ 1859 book, Self-Help, as the beginning of the genre. (Dickey notes, with a hint of disdain, that “naturally” it was self-published, but a little research tells me it “sold 20,000 copies within one year of its publication” and by his death “had sold over a quarter of a million.“ Not too shabby.) Self-Help was actually a sort of noble reaction to “various movements [of the 19th century] that promoted panaceas to cure all of society’s ills: phrenologists, teetotalers, vegetarians, hydrotherapy advocates… and on and on—all promising simple, quick fixes that would lead to utopian harmony.”

Smiles rejected all of that; the key to success, he argues in Self-Help, is knowledge and hard-work. “Men must necessarily be the active agents of their own well-being and well-doing,” he writes, “and that, however much the wise and the good may owe to others, they themselves must in the very nature of things be their own best helpers.”

Dickey says the problem with self-help today is that it has returned to the very quick-fix pseudoscientific snake-oil cures that Smiles (what a perfect name) was reacting to: enter the world of pop neuroscience books by Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer, which Isaac Chotiner called: “laboratory-approved self-help…self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it.”

Indeed, Put Some Neuroscience On It!™ is the easiest way to add credibility to what is, essentially folk wisdom, as is pointed out in my review of Imagine, “The Neuroscience of Bullshit), and this juicy bit from Steven Poole’s piece, “Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks”:

[H]ere is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

It’s interesting to note that while Smiles’ book started out “in a speech he gave in March 1845 in response to a request by a Mutual Improvement Society,” nowadays, self-help is usually used as a way of getting to give speeches. Ryan Holiday in his piece, “Why Books Are Now The Ultimate Business Card”:

Faced with declining sales and the disappearance of book retailers like Borders, authors have diversified their income streams, and many make substantially more money through new business generated by a book, rather than from it.

Today, authors are in the idea-making business, not the book business. In short, this means that publishing a book is less about sales and much more about creating a brand. The real customers of books are no longer just readers but now include speaking agents, CEOs, investors, and startups._

(It’s a sad truth: talking about being creative can be way more lucrative than, you know, actually being creative.)

But back to Dickey: he pulls out what could, very possibly, be the formula for a self-help book proposal or dust jacket flap:

This is the foundation of self-help, after all: unlock the secrets that make me better, and then tell me what to do. Give me actionable intelligence, make me more creative, increase the percentage of solutions I’m able to devise. Give me a plan because I’m incapable of making my own; give me a plan because mine isn’t working.

(Sidenote: one of my favorite things about criticism is that it’s actually great ammo for the criticized: for instance, reading criticism of self-help can actually make you a better or more successful self-help author, with formulas revealed and alternate possibilites suggested. Whether you use the knowledge for good or evil, whether you try to improve or harness and amplify what’s already there is up to you…)

Is there hope for self-help? Dickey suggests that because it is so largely untapped by folks with literary or artistic ambitions, self-help is actually a genre ripe for experimentation. He points to Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar as a kind of cross-genre beast of literary essays masquerading as self-help:

Strayed… deals in—if not clichés, then slogans. “Trust yourself,” she writes in one column, “It’s Sugar’s golden rule. Trusting yourself means living out what you already know to be true.” Another 2,000 word post features the maxim: “Write like a motherfucker”—helpfully available now on mugs and t-shirts.

What’s interesting about Strayed’s column, though, is that these slogans and maxims are, as often as not, near the beginning of the column rather than the end. The best posts dispense advice almost perfunctorily, before moving into long personal essays—essays that at times can seem like digressions.

As long as humans feel the need to improve themselves, to get better at life and work, self-help, whether it’s called that or not, is not going away. What self-help needs is authors willing to fuck with it, to mix it with other forms and breed mongrels, to give it equal doses of honesty and weirdness.

Nov 11, 2012
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You only lose energy when life becomes dull in your mind. Your mind gets bored and therefore tired doing nothing. You don’t have to be tired. Get interested in something. Get absolutely enthralled in something. Throw yourself into it with abandon. Get out of yourself. Be somebody. Do something. Don’t sit around moaning about things, reading the papers, and saying, “Why don’t they do something?” The man who is out doing something isn’t tired. If you’re not getting into good causes, no wonder you’re tired. You’re disintegrating. You’re deteriorating. You’re dying on the vine. The more you lose yourself in something, the more energy you will have.

Oct 23, 2012
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Sep 25, 2012
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No one wants advice — only corroboration.
— John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent
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