“What is beautiful is seized.”
– Lorrie Moore, Self-Help (1985)
I grew up in a town with only one bookstore, a PCBS branch. Now, when people ask me what bookstores we have in our province, I just shrug and say none. But I vividly remember walking towards its glass doors on a Sunday morning, giddy to flip through Christian books and self-help manuals about how to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good believer. I longed to buy them all, persistently rereading each book synopsis like incantations that would magically open the gates to heaven.
I eventually packed my bags and left that town to move to the city. It was in college that this slow-burn realization finally extinguished as, piece by piece, I began to unlearn everything I came to believe growing up, holding tight to those I still felt I needed. What came afterwards—the flailing search for meaning, for connection, for support—took on a life of its own.
Growing up, I became ambivalent towards self-help books. These were complete strangers telling me how best to maximize my potential, earn friends, discover who I am. Those that I’ve read had chapters that held accounts of other people and their success stories, and I applaud the tenacity of these authors in collating all of them and making them coherent.
However, I’d like to point out that my ambivalence didn’t stem from the authors themselves, because I felt an inherent trust towards them—the same way that we inherently trust men and women in elevators to press the buttons for you because they care about you stepping out onto the right floor. Also, because they studied how to define emotion, analyzed behavioral patterns, and predicted social reactions to different situations.
For that, we can give them the benefit of the doubt. But often, we believe them more because aren’t these writers, beyond the PHDs or MDs, also the participants of the daily workings of life? More than assuming the role of advisers, they are first and foremost human. To be human is to know first-hand the pain and affliction of living, and one way or the other, their intention is to free us from that pain. A condensed guide to life, complete with shortcuts and convenient platitudes, self-help is simply that: convenient.
I once made a futile attempt at reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. However, it felt prescriptive, offering a step-by-step process, providing proofs, feeling artificial as they were almost always topped off with a half-hearted promise of, “If you can follow this, you can achieve the same results too!”
If the purpose of self-help books is to prescribe a remedy, novels and other works of fiction are proof of empathy. Growing up, I gravitated towards works of fiction. I fell in love with figures of speech, becoming a scavenger for good metaphors—how meaning changes in the slight shuffling of letters and syntax. Here is something beautiful about fiction of which I discovered and since then have not let go of. It is a friend who in times of distress cries with us, buys us tubs of ice cream, showers us with glitter so we don’t feel redundant and stale, graciously feeling our own pain as if for a moment it was theirs.
Jennifer Bernstein eloquently describes the intersection between psychology and literature by both of their attempts to “construct a taxonomy of pain in order to extract meaning from it.” The only way we can carry our pains is if we make attempts at defining it, giving it a name, even meaning. With fiction, I was not merely given solutions, I became one with the character in the story. I inhabited their lives, uttered the same words, became first-hand witness to a world that was not my own.
When there were moments I didn’t know who I was, Joan Didion came in with her long, gray dress, fingers holding a half-smoked cigarette. When I was in a creative drought, sitting in my own pool of frustration, Lorrie Moore with her charming second-person prose taught me how to laugh at myself. When I felt embarrassed and defeated at seventeen, Lena Dunham offered words like a big sister. There were others as well like Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff that created stories that closely resembled their lives and mine. Fiction is self-help in the way that I found my solace there. For a while, I stopped flailing. I read those books like incantations that would magically open the gates to a light, any conceivable, reachable light.
These writers were not perfect. Most of them wrote works of fiction and nonfiction that for them became the remedy to their own pain, writing as a form of constructing a taxonomy. But what made the young Catholic girl never come back to that small bookstore was because I found a different religion. A religion where I sit back in the balcony of my condo in a noisy city, feeling the breeze, transported to the New York that Joan Didion knew of regrets and “the shining, perishable dreams” when she said in her seminal essay, Goodbye To All That that, “It’s easy to see the beginnings of things and harder to see the ends.” If not that, then it’s the provincial life that Alice Munro cherished, the addictions that Raymond Carver spent his whole life eluding, the first love that Tobias Wolff recounted with heartbreaking humility when he wrote, “Here she was, with her beautiful green eyes and beautiful red mouth that she wanted me to kiss, and I could only make noise.”
I can only hope to ever own an apartment in New York to say goodbye to, or be the green-eyed, red-mouthed girl, but all these beautiful pains and afflictions were mine for a while and so much more, so much more.