Self-Help Writer Writes for Self-Help
by Noelle Sterne
What Kind of Writer?
I didn’t start out to be a self-help writer. My first love was poetry, and I actually published a handful of poems. Then I ventured into fiction, with a few more acceptances. Nonfiction, and especially self-help writing, was the farthest thing from my mind and computer.
But as I wrote more, with more rejections, blocks, and intermittent yeses, I couldn’t resist the impulse to write about my own writing problems. So I started doing how-to articles—how to break my sending-out barrier, how to keep up with Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, how to deal with jealousy of other writers, how to penetrate long agonizing blocks, how to swallow disgust at first drafts. Writing these craft self-help articles helped me in my own writing and, from the growing feedback, I was astounded and pleased to see that the articles helped other writers too.
At the same time, my study of spirituality increased (Louise Hay, Eric Butterworth, Joseph Murphy, Wayne Dyer, A Course in Miracles, Eckhart Tolle, The Secret, Abraham-Hicks). Attempting to apply the teachings to daily living, writing, and my professional work as dissertation coach and editor for doctoral candidates, I limped along, struggling with meditation, faith in the Unseen, seeing and believing beyond appearances. Again, to help myself apply the principles, I couldn’t resist the impulse to write spiritually-oriented self-help articles. Again, I discovered that I was writing first for myself.
These pieces eventually metamorphosed into my book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011). The book’s purpose, with many examples from my practice, clients’ experiences, and those of many others, is to help readers let go of regrets, re-label their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings.
Editing the final manuscript, I saw that sections of chapters lent themselves to additional spiritually-or psychologically-based articles. As part of promotion, I excerpted sections, with revisions and added introductions and conclusions so the pieces would stand alone. I sent them out, and quite a few have been published (with more scheduled), but that’s not the point.
Who Is Writing?
What shocked me, possibly naively, were the reviews of the book and reactions. Solicited and unsolicited, readers not only highly complimented the book and excerpted articles but told how much they were helped in various ways. Readers recounted personal and professional issues, despair yielding to hope, renewed dedication and vigor to pursue a cherished life dream. Professional colleagues, including interviewers and editors in whose publications the articles appeared, have confessed similarly. These responses gave me another revelation: My struggles were their struggles.
Sometimes the comments have given back to me in ways I’m sure the writers never expected. In one review, the author quoted a passage from Trust Your Life: it “encourages you to forgive your self-judgments, overcome your guilt, step beyond self-imposed 'shoulds' and deep dissatisfactions, develop yourself more courageously, embrace your creative strength and power, and learn how to rely on your always-trustworthy, knowing and peace-producing Source” (pp.1-2).
These words were just what I needed at a certain low moment! Did I write them? I drank them in and their reminder bolstered me.
Who Does a Self-Help Writer Write For?
Did I write this self-help book first for readers? You already know the answer. These are the lessons I needed to learn and reiterate to push through my own resistance, inadequacies, unsurenesses, and doubts. These are the lessons I’ve needed to apply to my professional academic life, writing career, and personal life.
So, my self-help writing continues to converge remarkably with my life and writing life. Trust Your Life was born of this convergence.
I’ve realized several things about this convergence. Maybe, in some measure, they’re true for every writer:
1. The first impetus to write is to help myself.
2. Sometimes I write from desperation—to get myself to act on the principles I preach.
3. I write and teach what I need to learn. To extend a well-known saying, when the teacher is ready, the teaching appears.
4. Or, as Eckhart Tolle paraphrases an Eastern maxim: “The teacher and the taught together create the teaching” (The Power of Now, p. 103).
5. To be authentic, I’ve had to write for myself first.
6. The more honest I am and courageous in what I reveal, the more I’ll reach readers.
7. My issues and their issues are the same.
8. We are all here to help, through our various media and talents.
Self-Help Toxic Fallout
With these lessons, I’ve had other unexpected results from the book and articles. It seems that readers suddenly see me as an authority. What I write comes from all the honesty I can muster in applying principles of universal wisdom. I’ve expressed my understanding as clearly and lyrically as I can.
But . . . seeing the praise, I start believing it. My ego rears its fat head: Hey, I’m a self-help author. I’ve got the answers. (Corollary: All editors should publish everything I send them.)
This stance, like the proverbial hubris, can only lead to disappointment, if not disaster. It has led to my arrogant anger at one editor’s demand for cuts, another’s outright refusal of a piece. Rather, the aim is to stay humble and keep being truthful. The learning is constant and builds on all I’ve previously learned.
Have I gained some wisdom? Yes. Some possibly innovative writing about it? Apparently. Some successful applications? Certainly. All the answers? Never.
So, the self-help writer is never done. The more I express what’s in my heart and gut, and own up to my battles, the more readers find meaning for themselves in my words. The more I keep myself honest, the more I learn from my writing and the more the work connects with readers. As I develop my self-help writing, and apply its lessons to my own life, the more my work will continue to help all of us.
Noelle publishes widely in print and online venues, with a current column in Coffeehouse for Writers. Her Ph.D. from Columbia University enables her to help doctoral candidates complete their dissertations (finally). In Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), Noelle guides readers to reach their dreams and lifelong yearnings. Please visit www.trustyourlifenow.com.