I was scrolling through someone else’s blog roll today, out of curiousity. I came across one by an artist who was bemoaning the fact that she never really finishes most of the self-help books she starts. I got the feeling that she felt really bad about it, that it meant there was something wrong with her. That maybe if she actually finished the books, she would be a better person and a better artist.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with her. I think she’s doing exactly the right thing.

Actually, I’m now a sucker for self-help books, too. Didn’t used to be. In fact, for years I deliberately avoided them. I used to work in business environments with lots of other people. Every self-help book that came out followed the same pattern in my workplace.

One person would read it and report back at lunchtime. “It’s amazing! I never knew I had XYZ syndrome, but I’m practically crippled by it! But this book–I’m cured! You should read it, too!”

One by one, everyone would read it, and be amazed that they, too, had XYZ syndrome. They would discuss the book and quote it at length. Everyone would nod and share their personal anecdotes, and their favorite quotes. It became all we’d talk about at lunch.

It was like watching people being converted to a new religion en masse. Or a pandemic at work.

Finally, the thrill would wear off, the interest would wane. Maybe even a little healthy skeptism would seep in. (“Well, I tried that thing the book said, and it didn’t work at all!“)

Finally we’d return to normal topics of conversation–TV shows, boyfriends or marriage, kids, our stupid bosses, etc.–until the next self-help best seller appeared on the horizon. With its same promise of rescuing us from our own lives.

Part of the reason I never read these books was a) this was before Amazon and, and I couldn’t afford them, and b) they were so badly written and formulaic, I lost interest after the first couple of chapters.

Nowadays, there are so many self-help books out there now, it’s hard to NOT read them. And I have to admit, there are some really good ones out there, including some just for artists. Now that’s tempting!

But I still rarely finish them. Here’s why I think that’s a good thing:

1) A book either “speaks” to you or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, why waste precious time finishing it?

2) You sense it might be useful, but you don’t really get it.

You may just not be ready to hear what that particular book has to say. You may find it more informative at another time.

3) Once you get the gist of what it’s about, that’s all you really need to know.

Most self-help books are repetitive and wordy, hammering the author’s point home til there’s no room for any other “diagnosis” for what’s wrong with the world. Many are filled with tons of anecdotes to “prove a point”. (Please remember that many authors are paid by the word. Do you think they will write a concise book?)

I’m so not into finishing books that I’ve actually never read one of my favorites, The Nibble Theory completely all the way through–and it’s less than 75 pages long! (And it’s one of the best ones, too.)

I like to skim enough to get why and how the author arrived at their insight, then skip right on to the consequences and suggestions. Most of the time, simply knowing what you are doing, and why it’s holding you back, are enough for you to consider changing the behavior. Otherwise, you are getting something powerful out of holding onto that behavior, and change isn’t going to be easy.

4) In the end, with a self-help book, it’s always about the book, not about you.

I’m going to pick on The Artist’s Way which is actually a really nice book for artists who have totally “fallen off the path”. It’s beautifully written, personable, encouraging and interesting.

The book is about making space–mentally, spiritually, physically, socially, time-wise–to make your art.

So why does the focus of the book seem to be about the exercises?

There are so many exercises, tasks, and recommended readings in the book, it would probably be 75% smaller if these were removed. If you actually did all the exercises, tasks and recommended readings, it would probably take you about seven years to really finish the book.

I have issues with the damn exercises.

Many of them are excellent. I did a couple while reading the book, and they were helpful. But after doing one or two, I quit. I got the point.

I’ve seen so many people fall into focusing on doing the exercises in the book rather than doing their art, they’ve defeated the whole point of reading the book.

Here are the two main themes I’ve taken away from the book: Create your own support system of people who love the artist in you. And think/write about the things that are holding you back, so you can work your way through them. Those two things have been powerful themes in my life since then, and I am grateful for the book.

You may find something different to take away. My point is, you don’t need to “take away” the entire book.

I can’t think that Julia Cameron really intended for people to spend hours and hours following the tenets of her book at the expense of doing their art.

5) Finally, beware the chocolate with the poison center. Yes, self-help books are fun to read. They promise an instant diagnosis and a quick solution for your problems. But as my friend Lee warned me several years ago in my blog essay Stormy Weather eventually, it all comes down to you. Me. Making the art.

As Lee put it that fateful day, when I told him how good the book ART AND FEAR was: “Quit reading about the fear!” he exclaimed. “Be ordinary! You are creative—make your art!” He bent over to stroke Bunster, and his voice became gentle again. “Be like your bunny. She’s fearful—but she has a place in this world…”

We don’t have to be brave, or extraordinary. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to “have it all together” or “have it all figured out.”

All we have to do is show up. And do what we’re supposed to do, the best we can, as we can.