When Beth Lisick came to New York last month to promote her new book, Helping Me Help Myself, I brought my friend Gretchen Rubin along to the interview: After all, I figured, Lisick’s book is about a year spent following the advice of various self-help gurus, and Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, a blog that documents her efforts to follow the best inspirational advice from all of history. (HarperCollins will publish the book in 2009; since Lisick is published by William Morrow, the meeting would be doubly synergistic.) It turned out that Lisick already knew about Rubin’s blog; a life coach had mentioned it to her last year, “but I didn’t think I should read it while I was writing this book,” she explained.
Despite the similarities between their two projects, neither author felt territorial about their subject matter. “Bring it on. There’s room for everyone,” Rubin said, noting that Lisick’s book brought her into more direct contact with the advice-givers she writes about, while her own book has a more historical component. “Everybody should have their own happiness project, and they will all be different.” Lisick agreed that they’re operating in a field of abundance, rather than scarcity: “Everybody will find their own audience.” (Rubin wrote about this in her account of the meeting.)
Soon, Rubin and Lisick’s publicist were bonding over Fascinating Womanhood, while Lisick explained to me how a San Francisco-based spoken word artist and memoirist (Everybody Into the Pool) winds up attending Steven Covey seminars and taking a fitness cruise with Richard Simmons. “It’s hard to write about this without feeling really weird for using words like mindfulness,” she conceded. “I was confronting my snobbery about self-help the whole time… Self-help is not cool. Nobody’s bragging about their self-help program.”
So, I wondered, when Lisick conceived of this self-improvement project at the start of 2006, including the plan to concentrate on one aspect of her life each month, was she already thinking about the literary possibilities? “Because I’m a writer, it was on my mind,” she admitted, but she also credited Judith Regan, who acquired the book when she was at HarperCollins, with inspiring a critical part of the strategy. It was Regan who pushed Lisick to tackle the major mainstream self-help experts rather than getting caught up in the idiosyncratic culture of San Francisco’s Bay Area, thus giving the book greater potential for broad appeal.
(Wait, you’re thinking, twelve months to a year, but only ten experts? The month dedicated to improving her marriage basically boiled down to having sex more often, Lisick explained, and focusing on personal image issues fell by the wayside as “a matter of finance and logistics,” as well the insecurity she felt opening herself up to such intimate scrutiny.)
One of the most common criticisms lodged against the whole “stunt memoir” school of writing is the perceived self-indulgence and self-absorption, but Lisick said that personal accounts were often more helpful to her in the research process than the abstract advice. “They may seem self-absorbed,” she says of such books, “but they’re actually very useful… I love reading about people who go in and do something and try to make sense of it.”
And what sense did she make of her life over that year? “My home is better organized,” she laughed. “And it made me think about the stuff I like to do as my goals. I never considered myself a goal-oriented person before… Now every little thing I do seems to be a building block, a piece of the things that are really important to me.”
…on becoming a highly effective person
To promote Helping Me Help Myself, Lisick created a series of short promotional films, discussing her reactions to some of the experts she chose to follow. If you’ve read my earlier posts on book trailers, you know my thoughts on the power of personality, and Lisick deploys it to good effect. The three-minute video at the top of this post, which follows a looser structure more like a film trailer (there’s also a five-minute version), is probably the best of the bunch, in terms of introducing readers to the concept and to Lisick as their tour guide.