The Kind of Self-Help That Sneaks Up On You

a stack of books and an e-reading device
Image by Hobbies on a Budget / CC BY

I’m a big reader. Have been ever since I learned how. I grew up reading primarily fiction. It was the same through my teens and into my mid 20s. Fiction and loads of it.

And then, somewhere along the line, I stopped reading fiction. If I had to guess when it happened, I can look back at my back-to-back experiences prepping for two separate careers (after the changing economy snatched one away): the first involved cramming medical terminology into my skull; the second meant becoming completely conversant with large swaths of psychological research. To be a competent researcher, I needed to be familiar with everything that had been done to date in my area of study as well as the adjacent ones. At minimum.

I found myself continuing to reach for other non-fiction in my off-time.

The other reason I primarily read fiction prior to then was because I wrote fiction. It’s a long story, but a series of traumas made it painful to write fiction because of the act’s association with bad times in my life. One of the ways that I recovered from what happened to me psychologically was by pivoting away from fiction and becoming an essayist instead.

The past decade or so, I have mostly read non-fiction. Until quite recently, I only read fiction when it became popular enough that I felt left out when others were discussing it. That’s how I ended up reading the Harry Potter series. Same with Fifty Shades of Grey. People were always having Harry Potter conversations around me that I absolutely couldn’t follow. With Fifty Shades, my friends were mostly criticizing the work or complaining about it (although I did have one friend who confessed to me that she really liked the book, even with its flaws).

It had been ages, however, since I had gone and read fiction on my own accord. For escapism. For pleasure. Or for edification.

This past month I returned to reading fiction as part of an intensive writing course, and now I wish I’d never stopped.

When Self-Help Comes and Finds You When You Least Expect It

For one thing, I had completely forgotten how much profoundly effective self-help can be found in fiction.

That idea sounds counterintuitive on the face of it. Traditionally speaking, you don’t look to fiction for self-help. Instead, you saunter off to the self-help section of the bookstore and scan titles until you find a book that claims it will help you through your major malfunctions.

In the online world, perhaps you make a post crowdsourcing book recommendations on social media.

Or you type your issue into Google and peruse the results, hoping something helpful will pop up.

Or a headline finds you when you’re just bopping around the Internet minding your own business, and you click it thinking “oh no, it me, what do I do?”

Perhaps that’s part of fiction’s power, however. Any self-help advice within creeps up on you when you least expect it. It comes and finds you when you’re minding your own business. As an aside that the author threw in. An insight about the world.

Or via social modelling — through the way a character navigates a confusing welter of emotions.

Unexpectedly Helped by a Fictional Character

This last situation happened to me this weekend. I was reading The Potted Gardener, one of M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin books. If you haven’t read them and like cozy mysteries, I highly recommend them by the way. Agatha Raisin is a really compelling would-be detective — a cantankerous retired PR executive from London who has settled down in a village and is undergoing some massive inner turmoil as a result. Over the course of the first few books in the series, she forges a new sense of identity as a person who was formerly entirely enmeshed in her uber competitive fast-paced job and doesn’t know who she is without it.

She’s particularly funny when it comes to love. Conflicted. Subject to an inner push/pull that’s both compelling and hilarious to witness as a reader.

Underneath all of her go-getter, she’s really quite sensitive.

I relate to that hard, you see. In The Potted Gardener, in addition to trying to solve a murder, she’s wrestling with many feelings about the current object of her affection and particularly how to cope with loving someone when your opinion of them becomes damaged after they do something that doesn’t square with your prior image of them.

That has always been a particularly difficult issue for me. I’ve repeatedly become stuck there emotionally and had no idea what to do about it.

Did M. C. Beaton offer direct advice? Did she instruct the reader on how to navigate it?

No, she didn’t. She simply dramatized a relatable fictional character navigating it. The main character didn’t even have to navigate it well for it to be helpful it me. In fact, the reality that it was so difficult for a fictional person to figure it out was helpful to me.

It validated my own struggle. With a depth that I simply didn’t get from someone saying “oh that sounds hard” if I’d opened up to them about it. Or a generic “your struggles are valid” style meme that I run into so much (and have a general fondness for, even if they aren’t a magic bullet for more difficult troubles).

Even though that’s not why I’d picked up the book in the first place — and in fact hadn’t expected my issue to be anywhere in the book prior to reading it — I still got some self-help value out of it.

Huh.

Indirect Advice Is Easier to Take (E.g. Advice Columns)

The incident reminds me of what my friend Sexy Librarian once said. That advice columns are good because someone else is being addressed. Makes it more comfortable as a learning tool. For her and for people in general.

Unless you’re the letter writer (and by definition, nearly everyone is not), the advice isn’t given directly to you. You’re merely standing by vicariously and watching advice being given. But you learn. And less defensively than you would if someone were telling you what to do.

You opt in to its application and its relevance. If it fits, you take it on.

In essence, the indirect nature of it is what makes the advice so easily welcomed and easily followed.

Fiction could be a step further than this. When something powerful and instructive emerges in it, it’s even easier to apply it. Because the events and people are not even real, how could it possibly be intended for you?

When Fiction Has Therapeutic Value

As I mentioned in a former article, my partner Justin has been trying to get me to write fiction for a few years now. I was resistant, precisely because of its links with past traumas and frankly with earlier versions of myself that I wanted to create distance from (fearful that if I behaved like who I was when I got hurt that I would end up hurt in similar ways again).

The last few years of working towards fiction writing have been challenging and often slow going (especially as I’ve balanced it with writing so much non-fiction, as a blogger, via freelance articles for other websites, and through the self-help books I’ve authored in that time period).

But I’m getting somewhere. As I write this, I’m over halfway done writing Psychic City, a slipstream murder mystery featuring an FFF polyamorous triad of detectives with psychic powers. I’m simultaneously working on a number of other books set in the same universe (some of which feature the same detectives, others that don’t, but all of which have strong female protagonists — real butt-kickers and geeks) — building a world that’s maybe a few centimeters to the left of our own but nonetheless familiar.

And I was struck when a few weeks after I’d written it, a scene in Psychic City in which a character has a delayed grief reaction helped me cope with my own. Yeah, that was a weird experience. Something I’d written in a fictional context nonetheless helped me later when I was working through something else. I’m not one of those authors who love every word I write by the way. Perhaps it’s a product of having been part of so many writing workshops and having been eviscerated by so many peers, but I’m painfully aware of the limitations of my own writing. The places that I need to work on to improve. All of that.

So the fact that I was able to find therapeutic value in something I’d written gives me great hope that perhaps my fiction would be able to do the same for someone else.

That’s what I’m hoping anyway. As much as I enjoy writing non-fiction and more direct forms of self-help, I am meeting this new challenge and looking forward to tackling the same aims in a different way.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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