December 2004

Heather Clitheroe

scarlet woman of self-help

Writer, Help Thyself

Writers are funny people. They lead curious double lives, tucked away in worlds of their own creation. They have conversations with characters who live and die over pages instead of years. Writers spend time alone, hunched over keyboards, muttering about plots and subplots. When they emerge, heading off to day jobs or dinners with significant others, they can be a bit, well, strange. Fragmented. Even downright squirrelly. Perhaps that's why there are self-help guides just for them. Eric Maisel's Living the Writer's Life: A Complete Self-Help Guide promises to provide the writer with affirmations, solutions, explanations, and smart answers to questions agents might ask.

I have to admit. I was skeptical. There seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to writing. Either you work at it by yourself until you think you know what you're doing, or you pay for workshops, classes, and degrees, hashing it out with review groups and fellow writers until you learn how to get it right. This book falls somewhere in the middle of the two camps. There are chapters on health and well-being, career advice, relationship help, and developing the writer's craft. Together, they form a decent self-help guide, complete with exercises designed to help the writer continue to work and to find some happiness in that work.

One such exercise was the one day workshop (found in chapter three). Maisel explains that he's given the workshop to any number of students, and that it has had great success in helping writers get down to business. I gave it a shot, thinking that it might help the novel in me get off the ground. Maisel sets out a clear schedule -- you even get an hour for lunch and two fifteen minute breaks (just like being in a union! Wow!), and you get to finish at 4:30 (great!).

By 9:30, I was reading email and thinking about taking my break early. An hour into the exercise, I was bored. Here I was, at the Banff Centre, high in the Canadian Rockies. And the last thing I wanted to do on a writing residency was sit and write. So I did the next best thing. I chucked the schedule, went for a walk, and had coffee. I ate lunch with musicians and a playwright from Argentina. I had more coffee. Then I came back to write. I probably defeated the purpose of creating a writing bubble around myself, as he suggested.

A lot of Maisel's book is devoted to the particular challenges a writer may face, and his suggestions on how to deal with them. Take criticism, for example. It can be crippling, stopping a writer in their tracks. As he puts it, "books go unwritten because the writer is afraid of failing. She is afraid of disappointing herself, wasting her time, and looking like an idiot. The specter of failure kills her chances for success." I'm inclined to agree. The strength of this book is in laying out what those common challenges are in plain terms, and giving encouraging words of advice. There are quotes peppered throughout, giving some insight into each chapter, and anonymous stories from former clients and students. And most writers seem to need that, at one point or another. A friendly word by a seasoned writer can make up for the lack of mentors or a colleagues.

There's even a chapter on dealing with addictions, identity troubles, and depression. Odd, I thought, to roll the three up into one... surely issues such as those deserved more than a chapter. In another chapter, Maisel creates a list of seventy-five personality traits, which include such attributes as "love of freedom," "skepticism,"' "playfulness," and "convergent thinking abilities." If you have the seventy-five traits, he says, you are able to write, though he cautions that all writers run the risk of going to extremes and running to excess. Writers live an inner life, he says. So do we all, but as he says, the "typical person does not permit herself all that dream time... would rather watch television than tell herself a story."

Maisel is sympathetic to the creative drives of the writer, but it seems as though telling writers that they are different and special elevates them above their audience. Reading this book, I thought it was telling me that I was, well, more special than other people. More creative, more troubled and complex, more intelligent. As nice as that is to believe, it's simply not true. It would be wonderful to indulge pride and live in a fairy-tale world, but outside of Hollywood, I'm not sure it exists. Start thinking you're isolated by your craft and different, and you lose a connection with your readers. I want to read a book written by somebody who lives in the same world I do. If you persist in believing that you're more special than the people you expect to buy your work some day, you become a snob. And who wants to be a snob?

But if you're a writer that's still in the early stages of the career, and you're feeling isolated and alone, this is the book to read. If you need encouragement, and you need to be reassured, this is the book to read. It can help you get past those feelings of doubt and fear. Sometimes you need to feel special. You need to feel smarter and deeper than the rest of us. That's okay... as long as you don't do it for too long. Even Maisel agrees.

If you're a writer and you're looking to take away some aspect of yourself that doesn't work, or doesn't have good relationships, this may not be the book to read; look instead to joining the world around you, instead of holding yourself aloof.

Living the Writer's Life by Eric Maisel
Waston-Guptill Publications
ISBN 0823088480
186 pages