How do you feel about self-help books? In my snooty early 20s, the heyday of my experimental-literary-fiction-or-bust phase, I would not have touched anything even resembling self-help. My younger self’s eyes would have rolled back in her head so hard if she had witnessed me Kondo-ing my cookbook collection while seven-months pregnant.
Since becoming a parent (heck, even since becoming pregnant [see above]), I find myself drawn to the genre.
now that a tiny human is relying on me, It suddenly seems imperative to figure out what the hell I am doing. Maybe someone out there knows?
Still, the self-help category attracts and repulses me by turns, and I’m selective in my choices. Comics artist Jessica Abel’s Growing Gills, a compassionate but rigorous self-help manual for moving forward on creative projects, seemed like it would be right in my wheelhouse of thoughtful, practical, well-written self-help. And it is all of those things.
But I wasn’t the right reader for the book. Abel’s methods didn’t quite suit my personality or needs. We didn’t have self-help chemistry.
Much of her advice involves extensive list-making and inventorying projects. Reading about these strategies as a fellow Type-A personality, I found myself getting anxious, precisely because I am an inveterate list-maker and planner. In contrast, the exercises and ideas in Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, for example, had a looser quality that I could play around with. The book soothed rather than overwhelmed me.
Images: Caricature of Samuel Smiles, author of the OG self-help book, published in 1859. The frontispiece of an early-1900s edition of Self-Help.
That said, Growing Gills would be ideal for someone who needs a more direct, take-charge voice of reason and organizational know-how in their ear.
Also, Abel’s philosophy is itself worth celebrating. She provides an alternative to the pop-cultural cliché of the artistic or entrepreneurial or coding life: the image of slavish devotion to one's work at the expense of health and personal relationships. Her goal is to help you find a sustainable, long-term creative practice, one that takes into account the other facets of your life. The likelihood that your creative project is not necessarily your day job. The possibility that you have (or might one day have) relationships with pets, romantic partners, ailing parents, young children, or some combination of the above.
Abel even devotes a short chapter to parents who are doing creative work. She asks us to look at parenting in terms of seasons of productivity. She wants us to acknowledge that different phases of our child’s development are going to affect the time and mental resources we are able to invest in our other projects. I wish I’d had this book a few years ago, when I was punishing myself for not being able to write well or think deeply while teaching part-time and home the rest of the week with my baby.
Then, there’s this gorgeous passage, itself worth the price of admission:
It requires enormous self-confidence to believe what you’re making is worth making. Think about it: You do very few things in life that are entirely self-motivated and self-produced with little or no support from friends, family, or society at large—pure products of your own desire to act.
Society issues lots of loud commands: Get a job. Find a partner. Get married. Buy a house. Be a parent. Be thin. Overeat. Make money. Exercise. Binge-watch TV shows.
Society does not tell us: Spend time with yourself. Dive into your most individual, personal thoughts and feelings. Use those ideas to create new work, which may or may not help you make a living or even find a place in the public world, and do it for no other reason than that the act of creation is essential to your mental and physical well-being.
Abel’s words here give a sexy, subversive charge to the often-mundane struggle to create while working at a job and raising children. They made me feel cared for and understood but also a little bit bad-ass.
Some of the practical exercises in Growing Gills didn’t jibe with my personality. But as a poorly slept mom who often wonders what she’s doing stealing precious time and resources for writing, I found Abel’s message – her punk-rock anthem – to be just what I needed to hear.