On writing self-help, or have you eaten your tail lately?


https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20171204-the-ancient-symbol-that-spanned-millennia

I’ve been researching the “how to write/edit your book and get it published” industry as I prepare for my editing work and it is starting to make me laugh.

It’s an ouroborus, that magical snake eating its tail. There’s a lovely article on BBC about the history of this symbol, which is used to denote the cycle of life, the never-ending story, birth and rebirth. It’s been around forever, as, I suspect, has the self-help industry.

All of it makes me think of all those people who sell books telling you to market your book before you even start writing it- to check what sells and then write to the market. Most of the books they have sold, these marketing-focused authors, are self-help in one way or another. Cheery blandishments about living for today, stress management, decluttering, how to market yourself, write that novel now!, etc etc. It goes on and on and on.

Either that or a stories about werewolves in a post-apocalyptic world where there are three suns and 14 moons.

In the writing field, it seems to be the thing to write a book telling people how to write. I’ve been fooled into purchasing several of these, having been told they were “must reads” if you want to understand the writing process. A few are good. One or two are extremely valuable. And the rest? Ummm.

I’m getting cranky now, as I get older. I’ve also bought too many of these tomes, only to open them and realize there is nothing inside but babble and dross, most of it promoting other self-help or writing books. And when I read things like the “Self-Publishing Formula” and am told these authors are cranking out a book a month, I can’t help wondering if all the things being spun out are of any worth at all. (After all, writing a book seems to take me YEARS!) But people sell them, and promote them within the community, all telling everyone that that book by their friend must be read.

And so the snake goes on, eating its tail, being reborn as yet another self-help book, forever.

One of the most visible ouroboros writers is Julia Cameron. She had a good idea, with her “The Artist’s Way” book, and she has been spinning out the morning pages and artist dates ideas into book after book after book – all with essentially the same content. I’m not sure if I am envious of her success at persuading publishers to buy in over and over again, or just irritated that so many trees are being killed to produce the same thing over and over, with a slightly different take. I mean, I know the lass has to make a living, but I do wish for fresh ideas.

It’s really tough to come up with a creative, original story line for fiction, romance, science fiction, mystery. In these areas, rehashing the exact same ideas is somewhat frowned upon. I suspect it is less tough to come out with a book on truisms and how-tos. Or involving werewolves.

I expect publishers like the non-fiction things, too, in that people keep buying them, never mind the post-purchase regret. And much of the self-help industry relies on well-written book blurbs that lead us to expect great things from the enclosed advice. So we buy, and regret.

I adore good non-fiction, the stuff that is carefully researched, that shines a light into an area I know nothing about. I’m always looking for new sources of knowledge. See: Entangled Life: How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures by Merlin Sheldrake (Such a glorious name for someone writing on fungi! I mean, he thanks the fungi from which he has learned in acknowledgements! I love him already.)

But the ouroboros of retelling the same mundane details and self-help advice that is written in poetic smarm – that I can do without.

Thank heavens for libraries that allow you to dip in without financial commitment – and yet the authors get a bit of a payback nonetheless, enough to compensate for the work they’ve done reworking concepts. I always buy the ones I find useful. I suspect Mr. Sheldrake will gain a spot on my bookshelf.

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