Finding Self-Help in Fiction: A Stranger Truth
When Audible editor Rachel Smalter Hall realized that self-development titles were not the only places she was gleaning her life lessons, so much became clear. See how closely her experiences match or differ from yours, and we bet you’ll find they somehow still resonate.
(This essay was first published on Audible Range.)
Who doesn't love January's promise of a fresh slate? We all seem to be thinking about how to be our best selves, and there are plenty of self-help books that promise to help us sort this out. Over the years I've listened to -- and loved -- my share of buzzy self-improvement hits like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Year of Yes. But, this January, I found myself wondering why I don't pick up audiobooks that will inspire me to live a healthier and happier life more often. Why don't I listen to more self-help?
There's no question I could use it.
Last year brought me massive life changes that have been good but hard. In the spring, my grandmother died and I miscarried a child and I lost my job, all within a matter of weeks. Oof. And then life surprised me with a dream job, a move to New York from Kansas City, and a healthy pregnancy for a baby that will be born next month. Life had handed me a dumpster fire, and up from the ashes rose a dumpster phoenix.
I'm still learning how to find my way in this new life, and I often feel so wrung out at the end of each hard-won day that I'm lucky if I can find the energy to do anything more than tap away on my cell screen for a few minutes before I crash into bed for the night. Remembering to take my vitamins and brush my teeth on the same day feels like a huge victory. Exercise, what's that?! Gone are the days of group Pilates with the seniors at the YMCA three mornings a week. And maybe I could eat something for lunch besides cake and cookies? What I'm saying is: surely a little self-help couldn't hurt.
Then it hit me: I do listen to self-help books, just not the kind you'd usually find in the nonfiction section. I get most of my self-help from novels.
Fiction might not have a checklist at the end of each chapter to help one live a better life, but it does provide a narrative lens through which to view the human experience. It's proven to help build empathy, and it can give us tools to make sense of our own lives and how we relate to others. As a lifelong, card-carrying bookworm, here are some of the unlikely lessons I've mined from the stories I've listened to and loved.
Please - hear me out before you jump ship. I often have trouble explaining just why I love Moby-Dick; it’s not for the usual reasons you might think. When I first listened to this book, I was living in a very cold New England city and had a terrible boyfriend. I got a “Mom” tattoo because I missed my faraway family so much. One morning my car got stuck in a 2’ deep snow drift, and I realized as I waited for the tow truck to arrive in the frigid cold that I didn’t have a single person to count on in a jam (least of all my terrible boyfriend). I felt completely adrift, and Moby-Dick became my anchor in this bizarre and lonely time.
We meet the main character, Ishmael, with no money in his purse and a general sense of ennui. He’s wandering around in a depressed funk and can’t wait to go literally anywhere but the tiny New England town where he’s stuck. “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly, November in my soul,” he tells us, “I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” I related to this feeling so hard. This was Moby-Dick’s first lesson for me - that we all have to face our own damp, drizzly, November in our souls, and there is always a way to find your way out, be it joining a whale hunt or breaking up with a bad boyfriend. The other thing it taught me is that no two people read a story the same way. For many people, Moby-Dick is a long boring book about whale classification that needed better editing, and they’re not wrong. For others - like me - it’s a story filled with weird and wonderful trivia about narwhals, clam chowder, and demonic drinking games with harpoon goblets. It scratches my itch for oddball humor and gross medical facts. Just as with Moby-Dick, everyone has a different perspective; it’s living proof that there’s no single right way to see anything.
Several years after I left the very cold New England city (and the terrible boyfriend) for good, I was holding my tiny new baby in my arms. I had known in an abstract way that babies are a lot of work, but I didn’t yet know that some of them must be held tight in their parents’ arms around the clock. I don’t think we even set my son down in a bassinet for what seems like months - whenever we tried, he howled. Instead, we took turns sleeping in 2-3 hour shifts, one of us rocking our baby, the other catching what little sleep we could. We were very tired.
But eventually the initial fog lifted, and I was able to read a little again, starting with Ruth Ozeki’s wonderful A Tale for the Time Being. In it, a 16-year-old girl in Tokyo sends her diary across the ocean in a plastic bag, where a woman finds it washed up on the shores of British Columbia. Suddenly, I was hyper-aware of all the terrible things that seem to happen to children in books. The teenager in the story is bullied into a suicidal depression when her classmates steal a pair of her underwear for an online auction, and another character is sent to war and certain death as little more than a child himself. In a scene that’s just a hazy memory, a mother holds her baby to her chest during a flood and tries to soothe the child even as she knows the water will soon close in over them. These scenes made me gasp. Had I really been so oblivious to danger before becoming a parent?
Ruth Ozeki is a practicing Zen Buddhist nun, and in spite of the chaos of her novel, there’s an undercurrent of peace and acceptance even as the wild dogs are howling at night. It’s as reassuring as it is upsetting. And, were I to read it now, it might seem perfectly ordinary on a scale of 1 to terrifying. At the time, though, my eyes were newly opened to the world’s perils. My brush with A Tale for the Time Being taught me that parenting is big and scary, so hold your babies close and just love them the best you can.
Speaking of lives in peril, it wasn’t too long after that when my husband and I listened to Andy Weir’s nailbiter about an astronaut who gets accidentally stranded on Mars. It was our second Christmas as parents, and the first one we felt brave enough to take our baby on the road. We’d be driving 5 ½ hours each way to see family, so at all of 11 hours, The Martian seemed like the perfect fit.
My husband is not a reader, so the fact that he had agreed to listen to an audiobook with me at all felt epic. He’d loved William Gibson, Robert Jordan, and Anne Rice as a kid, but it had been over a decade since he’d picked up a book by choice. The pressure was on for me to pick a great audiobook, and I felt we’d be in good hands with The Martian.
What makes The Martian so special is that it takes hard science and turns it into a high-stakes action story with a lovable hero you can’t help but root for. Leading man Mark Watney drops the most charming f-bombs and makes you see ordinary potatoes in a whole new light. When it was first published, science teachers across the nation started using it in their classrooms to reach students who had previously been unreachable. And, yes, it reached even my husband, who is a scientist, and who’d forgotten the joy of getting swept up in a story. I’m happy to report that he absolutely loved it.
The thing is, I probably never would have picked up The Martian on my own. I don’t listen to a lot of science fiction or thrillers, and I would have completely missed out on its charms had it not been for this chance to pick an audiobook for someone else. The Martian taught me to venture outside my comfort zone in order to bond with the people I love, and to be open to experiences I wouldn’t usually choose for myself. The outcome can be so worth it.
(If you look closely, has a second self-help nugget tucked away inside it, which is this: some guys unquestionably accept the premise that government agencies are just waiting around to spend billions of dollars to rescue them from their potato farms in outer space. Enjoy these guys in fiction; stay away from them in real life.)
War and Peace is already 60 hours long, so I won’t dwell on it here. It makes Moby-Dick look like a short story! But what you need to know is that one misguided Christmas I bought everyone in my family a copy of War and Peace so we could read it together in our own little long-distance book club for the next 12 months.
Spoiler: it was a disaster. No one else made it past the first 100 pages, and things were said that can never be unsaid. After 60 hours of fancy Russian parties, cloak-and-dagger schemes, and battlefield heroics, I was slogging across the finish line alone. A few key things stuck with me from this experience — first, your book club will love you best if you keep your picks under 10 hours or 300 pages. Second, you can’t always count on someone else to make things happen for you. If you want to get something done, sometimes your best bet is forge ahead on your own.
After I listened to Heartburn – one of my favorite audiobooks of all time – Nora Ephron became my patron saint of what to do when life serves you up a steaming pile. At seven months pregnant with their second child, Ephron caught her husband cheating on her with a British Baroness. Not one to take a hit sitting down, she got her revenge by writing a thinly veiled comedy (a comedy!) about the whole affair before the ink had even dried on the divorce papers. Heartburn is, indeed, about a pregnant woman who catches her husband cheating on her, and it’s filled with all the sharply observant wit and heart that made Ephron one of the most beloved filmmakers of all time.
With Heartburn, Nora Ephron wrote the narrative of her own story – because of it, the world will always remember her ex as a cheating rat. She also got the last laugh while running all the way to the bank. (The best revenge is your paper.) But, above all, Heartburn launched Ephron’s epic screenwriting and producing career. Three years after she published the book, she wrote the screenplay for the Hollywood film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. It was one of her first screenplays, and gave her the momentum to write and produce her next film, which was the breakout hit When Harry Met Sally. How badass is that?! Heartburn taught me about the healing power of being able to laugh through tragedy, and that the greatest power of all lies in writing your own story.
If ever a novel existed with some self-help subtext, A Little Life is it. Have you ever watched a loved one crash and burn while you looked on as a helpless bystander? For me, that loved one was my brother, who was diagnosed as bipolar in his early thirties. In his manic phases, everything always looked like it was all finally going to work out this time. But then a depressive phase would hit, and he would have to start from scratch all over again. As the rest of my family stood by, we wondered whether he would ever get “better."
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara begins as a quiet, charming story of four young, broke friends in New York. Before long, though, we learn the backstory of Jude, an orphan with a traumatic past. And I mean really traumatic. Think of the most traumatic storyline you can imagine, then dial it up at least two more notches. The trauma has made Jude self-destructive, and while his loved ones do everything they can to try to save him, their attempts are in vain. He’ll do better for a little while, but then he goes right back to his self-destructive ways.
Hanya Yanagihara’s writing is informed by visual art and design, and she has described her novel as an ombre-dyed cloth that starts out light but keeps getting darker and darker as you go. Some people might not understand the appeal of a book as dark as A Little Life, but as I wondered how to help my brother through his darkest times, I found its central message to be quite affirming and beautiful. You can’t always “save” the people you love, but you can always love them exactly as they are.
As I stand at the threshold of a fresh new year, I ask myself the same questions we all ask -- who do I want to be this year, and how will I make it happen? I'd like to take better care of my body which, sadly, probably means fewer cookies and more early morning Pilates. I'd also like to find a community to be my support system in this new home. Maybe a group of tattooed knitters in Brooklyn Heights who dye their own yarn? (Seriously, if you know of such a group, I want their contact info!) And I want to welcome my new child into a loving home in one of the most dynamic cities in the world.
I'm looking forward to all the new self-help audiobooks that will help shape my path (my favorite so far this year is The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, which guides one through the process of parting with a lifetime of extra stuff). But I'm also reassured to realize that I'm farther ahead in the self-help game than I once thought. A lifetime of novels has taught me how to face the damp, drizzly Novembers in my soul, confront my fears with peace and acceptance, and persevere to get things done even if I have to do them myself. It's taught me better book club etiquette, how to laugh through tragedy, and the power of writing my own story. And it's taught me how to love the ones I hold dearest.
Even if I can't quite kick the cookie habit, I think fiction has put me on the right path.
(Photo credit: Luca Bertoli @ 123rf.com)