They always say (those “they” people) that you should write for yourself rather than for other people. Well, what if your writing happens to be self-help and you’re meant to be writing for other people? It’s been a challenge finding the balance in writing self-help, but I’ve been on the see-saw for some time now, and I feel like I’ve found a little place the middle that seems pretty comfortable.
My first book, Meeting Your Half-Orange, is about how to use dating optimism to find your other half, and my new one, Bright Side Up is about how to embrace life optimism and enjoy every day. And as much as I wanted to write each of them “for myself,” how could I? I was giving advice. So I did the next best thing: Each time I sat down to write, I had one person in mind.
For my dating book, it was a friend who’d been disappointed again in love; for my new happiness book, a woman I’d met at a party who was trying to be more positive but didn’t know how. The faces I wrote for changed along the way, but with one person’s face and struggle in my mind each time I typed, I was able to speak to them heart to heart, so my words felt less pat and more human.
The fact is, writing for hundreds or thousands of potential readers of different ages, genders, backgrounds and experiences is ridiculously intimidating! How in the world can you possibly pinpoint advice that will work for everyone, right? That, after all, is what sent me into the fetal position crying while planning my wedding five years ago: How the heck do you plan a party that will please country mice and city mice ranging in age from 2 years old to 85?
Well, when you write with one person in mind (or plan a wedding with the goal of a plain ol’ good time in mind) you don’t have to worry about pleasing everybody. Because the truth is, we are all more similar than we think. The details of our stories change, but what we want from life—love, happiness, fulfillment—we all want that. Which leads me to the second thing I’ve learned about writing self-help.
It happened the day I was reading an early draft of Bright Side Up and found my own mind wandering. It felt like homework, somehow. My own book, it was boring! I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong until I called my mother, who’d been reading the same draft.
“I love when you tell stories,” she said.
“But Mom,” I said, “I have to give real advice. I can’t just write stories in every chapter.
“Why not?” she said. “I love stories.”
When I went back to the book, I realized she was right. Yes, of course I needed to give real advice. But why not wrap it up in entertaining tales from real life? Even I don’t want to read a lecture or a list of must-dos, after all. I want to dive in. I want to feel like I’m part of it. I want stories.
So that week, I chopped out page after page of my yawn-y lectures and replaced them with stories of people who used these happiness ideas in real life, from famous to friends from home. And although my book is about one hundred small chapters you can read at random, I also built in a story for people who wanted to read it all the way through—the personal one about my husband and my on the difficult road of starting a family, full of miscarriages and failed IVFs. The way I saw it, writing a chipper book about happy rainbow things wasn’t going to help anyone. When real life doesn’t give us a happy ending, we have to make our own, and what better way to express that than by sharing my own struggle with my optimism. It’s about getting real. Personal stories, heart to heart.
Maybe, if I’m lucky, the advice I share in my books won’t just help that one person I picture each time I’m writing. Maybe, hopefully, it’ll also help one more.