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.

Relat­ed Content:

Jes­si­ca Lamb-Shapiro has pub­lished fic­tion and non-fic­tion in The Believ­er, McSweeney’s, Open City, and Index mag­a­zine, among oth­ers. She 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.