HOW TO NOT WRITE A ‘HOW TO’ BOOK

My mother-in-law was in residence at our house last week (you’re waiting for the gags, I know; but since her operation to remove a small particle of brain that was lodged in her skull, I’ve tried to be a bit more caring).  Her attention was diverted from Alan Titchmarsh’s Antique Gardening Implements Roadshow (or some such mature-centric TV delight) by her fascination at watching me skim through a book I was using to prepare a workshop.  It transpired she believed I was reading different pages with my right and left eye simultaneously.  (Hmmm. Maybe I can convince her that I've given her lapdog special powers that enable him to fly when dropped out of a top floor window.) 

I'm sure if I searched my local bookshop I could find a self-help book which promised to revolutionise my approach to time management with simple techniques for reading two documents at the same time.  I could have done with it last week, as the fantastic response to my creativity survey (80 of them came back, thanks very much – I confess I was working on the assumption I’d get about four) left me with a mountain of qualitative data to ponder.

There’s an intriguing gulf between the simplicity with which a survey typically gets summarised, and the overwhelming diversity of the data within.  How do I begin to pull together a coherent overview when individual answers to questions are so, well, individual?  (Most distinctive responses, for the record: Q:'Why do you think of yourself as creative?' A: "I named my son Wilfred"; and Q: 'How would your life be different if you were more creative?' A: "I'd attract more women").  How’s that ever going to get me a headline in the FT Management Section? (‘Parents of oddly named children twice as creative, says new report’).

I've often made the point that creativity is a means, not an end; this is one reason why I wanted to put some feelers out before committing to write a book on the subject.  Clearly, people don't buy diet books because of their academic interest in diets; similarly, people will want to read a book on creativity to the extent they perceive it will help them solve a compelling problem.  But if you asked me to generalise what my survey respondents want from a book on creativity, I'd need many hundred words more than I have available here.  Answers ranged from "I'd be happier" and "My life would be easier" to "Generating new leads for work" and “Coaching people who are stuck”.    Now, all of a sudden, my decision about the focus of the book seems to be a choice between ‘Make Your Life Easier! How to think creatively to.. errr.. make your life easier’ and ‘Unstick Your Clients! How to think creatively to … errr.. unstick your clients.  I don’t know.  I think I’ll play safe and do a book on antique gardening implements.

The whole self-help book thing is a bit of a minefield anyway.  If you are expert at helping people develop in a certain way, and you can write, it’s easy to believe that your book will, ipso facto, help people to develop.  But however intimate and personal the act of reading may feel, when it comes to personal development, reading a book is no more than distance learning without the feedback.  The reader will develop to the extent that they have the self-insight and proactivity to put what they read into practice.

We’ve seen an endless succession of ‘change your life’ books in which the author tells you how he used to live in a sack on the hard shoulder of the M6, but is now a multi millionaire with a stomach like a washboard.  Such tales of personal epiphany are intended to make the reader feel impelled to use the author as a role model.  I confess they usually make me want to let his tyres down.  Whereas organisational clients feel comfortable with the idea of hiring an ‘expert’, the reader of a book written by someone who seems to get it right every time may end up feeling a tad inadequate. 

However much gumption it takes to put one’s learning from a book into practice, most of us obviously feel we’ve got it, otherwise no one would ever buy books promising the opportunity to transform your life, relationships, bank balance, waistline or third eye.  But just imagine if everyone actually applied what they learn in books.  The world would be full of well balanced, fulfilled, happy individuals. George Bush would abandon ‘Shock and Awe’ and shower Baghdad with copies of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  And I’d finally be able to think of an angle for my book.  No, maybe that’s just too much to hope for….

 

© Phil Lowe, 2005.  All rights reserved.