The ProsenPeople

What's Your Book About?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014| Permalink

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has written for the New York Times Magazine, Time, and The Believer. Her book, Promise Land: My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture, is now available. She will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series all week.

This is the question I used to dread, and, if I’m to be honest about it, still dread. It’s quite possibly the only thing I’ve gotten worse at after practicing more.

I didn’t like to answer this question because my subject was self-help, and New York Literary Publishing People would rather get hit by a bus wearing dirty underwear than with a self-help book in hand. I wanted to write a smart book about self-help history and culture, but sometimes just the words self-help seemed to cause a hysterical blindness in editors. Several rejections from publishers explained, “I don’t publish self-help books.”

“It’s not a self-help book!” I always felt the need to exclaim to my agent, who obviously already knew this.

But the funny thing is you never know what your book is about until you’re finished. When I started my research, I read self-help books on grieving. The exercise had been academic, but it suddenly became personal: I had grief. I had unresolved grief. My mother had committed suicide just before my second birthday, and my father and I almost never spoke about it.

The irony was almost unbearable – my father wrote self-help books, and my mother couldn’t help herself.

Once I incorporated my mother’s death into my book, the story became much more personal, and the “about” of the book changed. Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine how I didn’t see this coming. It’s partly the powerful nature of denial, but it’s also the pleasure of discovery. Writing about my mother’s death helped me work through it, and so my book did become a kind of self-help book – for me.

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She lives in New York City and Columbia County, NY. Read more about her here.

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