Ding Dong, the talking head is dead.
Today's readers crave realness, connection and embodiment--which is why we're seeing a new breed of contemporary self-help books: part memoir, part self-help, and pure, juicy, soul medicine. The new teachers aren't teaching us from the cherry wood podium. They're sharing from the trenches, the off-kilter kitchen tables, and their pilgrimage --and readers are gulping down the intimacy and immediacy. This isn't voyeuristic reality T.V. in print. It's reality-based, unparalleled training.
In life, spirituality, and business, our culture is moving towards transparency. In an information dense internet age, more of us are craving what we can't get everywhere we look. We're no longer striving to be informed. We're hoping to be moved. We're seeking to be changed. We want to be understood. We want to be in the conversation. We're requiring humanity from our teachers, idols, and leaders like never before. We no longer want only their knowledge. We want their mistakes and their meanderings, too. We want it all. That's because in this exciting new genre of self-help, the messenger is the message.
New York Times bestselling author Liz Gilbert captured millions of readers by ditching self-help's techniques in favor of showing us how to ardently eat pasta, forgive ourselves, and retrieve our faith in "Eat, Pray, Love." New York Times bestselling author Gretchen Rubin used her daily life as an experiment in happiness, inviting readers to drink from her petri dish. New York Times bestselling author Anne Lamott shares hilarious first-person lessons in all her non-fiction books from "Bird by Bird" for the writing life to her latest "Help Thanks Wow" on prayer. And, I've brought this genre to the career and life-purpose field with the two best-selling books I wrote in this style, "This Time I Dance! Creating the Work You Love" (Tarcher/Penguin) and my latest "Inspired & Unstoppable: Wildly Succeeding in Your Life's Work!" (Tarcher/Penguin).
If you're considering writing in this format, keep this in mind. This kind of writing will stretch you. It's more than writing. It's revealing. It's not for the shy. But it's not for the narcissist either. The best memoir writing isn't about self-absorption. It's more about offering all of yourself so that readers will identify with you, not idolize you. I can't encourage you enough to do this. Your memories can become our memories. You have life-affirming epiphanies. And just as you can and will forever change the life of your readers, your readers will forever change your life as well. Connection zips both ways on the vulnerability super highway.
Here's a few tips to help you get started.
Your Life is Your Research
Who wants to know about my life, writing students ask. I answer, we hunger to know the truth. You don't have to walk the red carpet or climb Mount Kilimanjaro. If you've shifted your life, you have drama. Share your learning, en route, hot off the griddle, and leave the removed expert tone for the dinosaur museum. Readers want heart beats. The deeply personal is universal. Your jagged, broken heart helps us feel our own. You don't have to write about Technicolor moments, but emotionally charged, symbolic, or pivotal ones. Your ordinary is someone else's revelation or fascination. No one else has witnessed the world from your exact coordinates. You have something to say that no one else can say.
Wobbling Instructs as Much as Winning
What have you wrestled with in your life? Your struggle has heat. And healing deems you an expert. It's the new credential: walking through it. Carl Jung said "Where you're wounded, you're gifted." In both my books, I liberally shared my lack of expertise and twitchy faith and that launched me into becoming a national career expert. "Thank God, I'm not crazy. I thought I was alone," readers wrote in droves. They relished my floundering. Since they were going through their own hairy trials of "following their bliss," they trusted my take on the journey. My example provided emotional micro-evidence of being on the right track. I provided employable hope because I had feet of clay and I'd made it.
Your Personality is the Point
I write about creating the work you love. There are only about 400,000 books on this subject, no pressure there. But readers repeatedly read and recommend my books because of the intimate writing style. One reader shared, "I've heard this stuff for over 20 years, but your writing helps me get it at a gut level." This is the power of writing with your whole self. Readers receive truth at the level at which it's written. The new self-help book isn't head talk. Readers want you to speak to them, intimately, as though you're sharing lattes in the back of a café. If they feel you, they will trust you. It's a transmission and a transcendent way to teach.
Write the Scene, Before You Know the Perspective
Sometimes you won't be clear about what you're trying to say, until you start writing. Writing brings you clarity. With both my books, I deliberately wrote about scenes that confused me because I wanted to explain them to myself and the reader. In re-telling these incidents, I uncovered a passionate, alchemical, and awe-inspiring point of view. Anais Nin says, "We write to taste life twice." This is the dharma of writing. Writing memoir is a way of teaching yourself the truth of your life, the through-line you will claim. Once you do realize "the teaching point" of the story, then you can edit the flab or add more meat. The end result reads seamlessly, like maybe you were born clear.
Reveal the Organization Instead of Plan It
I teach writing students, "the writing itself knows what wants to be written." Write the memories that have heat. Spew scenes. Don't worry about an outline. There is deep organization within you. You may feel like you're all over the place, but you're not. For example, when I wrote Inspired & Unstoppable, I wrote snippets that didn't consciously relate. When I studied my vignettes, I looked for anything they had in common. It popped: 5 stories about timing. That became a chapter. If I'd outlined this book, I wouldn't have included a chapter on timing as an element for wild success. It's my favorite chapter. You can discover more electric realizations by not bolting down chapters and conclusions in advance.
Tell the Truth, not the Facts
I wanted to write a self-help book that transported you like literary fiction. I was writing about trusting the creative soul. I wanted the writing to prance. But moving stories require specific details. In novels, you invent them. But I was writing about true events. Natalie Goldberg, author of "Writing Down the Bones," (another great example of memoir/self-help) inspired me. I asked her "how do you remember details?" She described a canary yellow bikini. I was lucky if I could remember the names of my current pets, much less past fabric. She said something like, "I choose details to help readers enter the scene." She told the big truth about what happened. Incidentals didn't need to be investigative journalism.
Write the Book You Need to Read
I wrote both my books because I was desperate. I was a Harvard Law School trained attorney who had walked out of conventional success to follow a desire to write. I read the "8 easy step" books and felt like I was failing self-help and bliss. I wanted to know "How do you stay inspired when you're freaking out and can't meditate? Or how do you find your way -- when you struggle with the whole "trusting your inner voice" thing because you're pretty positive that yours wasn't installed. That's what I ached to read. I wanted authors to apply wisdom principles to real world examples. Those are the books I wrote. What do you need to read? That's your assignment.
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