Suddenly, an idea struck. I would learn how to do the splits on both sides. From an audience standpoint, it would look a lot better if I could slide down on one side, pop up, and then slide down on the other. Goofier. Plus, more symmetrical and showbizzy....I'll do something involving the splits, I thought. I lay back in bed, satisfied for a second with my bout of reflection, and took a sip of coffee. Then, as I started imagining how I would train for such a thing, what kind of stretches I could do to accomplish this feat, a scared, empty feeling took hold....I mean, let's reflect for a minute: That was now my goal for the new year? My resolution? (p. xii-xiii)
Thus spin Beth Lisick's thoughts during her first hour of being awake on January 1, 2006. Now with a new, true resolve, she will look to acknowledged gurus of self-help in order to make sense of her life and work out long-standing issues. Over the next twelve months, she will read books, attend conferences, go on a cruise, reach out to friends and family, and contemplate the knee-jerk cynicism and self-disgust that well up at the idea of "self-help" and "life-coaching." The product of this year of action and reflection is Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone. (This title is also on BPL's Adult Summer Reading booklist this year, fitting in with the theme of "metamorphosis.")
Beth Lisick is a writer and performer based in California's Bay Area. Among other creative projects, she co-organizes the Porch Light storytelling series in San Francisco and is one half of a comedy duo. She's been possibly the only straight performer invited to go on a Sister Spit tour, and she has even led a band with my vote for best eponymous name ever: The Beth Lisick Ordeal.
Helping Me Help Myself is a funny, easy read, but it's also a deeply personal work. Why is it that so many people are willing to put out into the public sphere their private self-betterment? And why are so many of us eager to read it? People make life goal lists on 43 Things for all to view and comment on (to give an idea of the wide scope here, among the "recently cheered goals" on the day I'm writing this are "NEVER apologize for who I am!" and "Apply to become a glass teacher"). Fortunately, it's beyond the scope of this discussion to get into why ordinary people want to put out into the public sphere parts of their private lives in the first place (though, speaking as someone who finally opened a Facebook account a few days ago, this has indeed been on my mind; incidentally, Lisick is on MySpace, too).
On this end, Lisick's book has two things going for it -- there's the usual voyeuristic/competitive fun time of having someone else's life hanging out in front of you (at least I can clean out my damn closets), and she's an appealing and amusing enough writer to make you want to read about her year anyway.
Stephen Covey, Suze Orman, Deepak Chopra, and Sylvia Browne are among the gurus whose teachings Lisick explores (also Richard Simmons -- which explains the cruise). Using light humor to describe her stumbles through the year, she proves herself a likeable guide into self-helpdom. (On the phone with Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out: "'We keep most of our shoes in this wire wine rack thing that we got at a garage sale.' 'Oh.' She sounds amused. 'And is that working for you?' 'Well, no.' 'Okay...' I feel reflective. 'I think it's because a shoe and a bottle of wine are not really the same shape.' 'Good.'" [p. 149])
But another element of Helping Me Help Myself is watching the self-consciously edgy, artsy, Left Coast-er Lisick take part in pursuits valued in mainstream American culture -- including the concept of self-help itself. Sometimes she still comes out on the outside (as with most of John Gray's essentialist philosophies of gender, for example), but she always does try hard to start open-minded. Enjoying this book also requires acknowledging that we're focusing on a particularly privileged, mostly middle class American perspective here (something Lisick does touch on in one chapter).
In the end, despite bouts of near-bankruptcy and depression, Lisick has improved in some ways. She realizes that becoming aware of oneself and how we relate to others opens one's eyes to the synchronicities that show how "there is something cool and mysterious about being alive. A random element that can shock and surprise." (p. 260)
We'll take more in-depth looks at the particular gurus who appear in Helping Me Help Myself, so to start I'll repeat these questions: Why is it that so many people are willing to put out into the public sphere their private self-betterment? And why are so many of us eager to read it? Also, has anyone found a public recounting of your foibles and attempts at redemption to be helpful in self-improvement? Any life coaches out there who have comments on Lisick's journey?
Click on the comments link at the end of this post to participate.
- Blogcritics review of Helping Me Help Myself
- Beth Lisick on GalleyCat
- Diablo Magazine interview with Beth Lisick
- Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life by Micki McGee (2005)
- I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions by Wendy Kaminer (1992; old and out of print, but still being read)
- "Ten Things to Do Before This Article Is Finished" by Alex Williams (NY Times, August 26, 2007)
A few odds and ends...