From stand-up comedy to naked modelling - meet the woman who followed the advice of a different self help book every month for a year
Marianne Power followed the advice of a different self-help book - to the letter - every month for a year. There were highs, lows and plenty of new experiences. But did she end up any happier? Katie Byrne finds out.
Have you ever thought about the books that we buy purely as pick-me-ups? The diet books bought during a burst of motivation that dissipates as quickly as it came on; the stylish cookbooks that are more aspirational than inspirational.
Marianne Power's pick-me-up was self-help. At 36, her bookshelves were groaning with titles that she had acquired during a decade-long devotion to the genre. The trouble was that she never got around to taking the advice on the pages. She didn't do the 'journalling'. She didn't say the affirmations. In truth, the only real action she took was going to the bookshop to hunt for another title.
Power had read I Can Make You Rich but she was still heavily in debt. She had a copy of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus but she had been single for most of her adult life. And despite recommending Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway far and wide, she was still gripped by low self-esteem and self-doubt.
The books on her shelves promised true happiness, yet here she was sliding towards depression. And as her friends moved through the milestones of marriage, babies and mortgages, she felt even more "left behind, alone and irrelevant".
Then she had an epiphany: what if she didn't just read self-help? What if she actually took the advice on board, one book a month, for a year?
The idea became a blog and, four years later, that blog has become a book. The rights for Help Me! have since been sold in over 20 countries, while the screen rights were snapped up in an eight-way auction. (Her mum reckons Emma Stone should play her.)
It's a remarkable turn of fortune, but to use self-help language, Power (40) 'did the work' - and it took more out of her than she could ever have imagined.
Facing down her fears, she tried nude art modelling, stand-up comedy and sky-diving. Facing up to herself, she enrolled in seminars and retreats where she shared her deepest fears and cried in the arms of strangers. Then, just in case her ego wasn't completely dissolved, she plucked up the courage to approach men on the street and chat them up.
Power works as a journalist (she writes the Mindful Moment column for this very magazine) so she's used to occasional moments of self-revelation. Help Me!, by contrast, is a blisteringly honest, no-holds-barred account of the author's personal struggles. "As the blog went on, I was being much more open than I'd ever planned to," she admits when we meet in a Dublin hotel ahead of a Europe-wide promotional tour. "Once you start something like that rolling, there is just no point - you can't half-hide things. You are either doing it or you're not.
"And you realise that all of the stuff that you're really embarrassed to admit to - everyone relates to it. Everyone has the same fears around men, money, their future... So actually, the revealing myself, in the end I didn't find it that hard. Because I don't feel anything that a lot of people won't recognise."
Power, who was born in London to Irish parents, says she knew she was onto something special the moment she had the idea. It came to her fully formed, book title and all. The narrative took its own direction, however.
The author fully expected to be happier, healthier and more successful at the end of her year-long self-help experiment. Instead, she was a "complete mess".
"I thought I was just going to really pull myself together," she says. "I didn't at all anticipate that I'd unravel the way I did. And because I think self-help is something we all laugh at - I laughed at myself for doing it - it didn't occur to me that what I was doing was actually quite big stuff.
"Stand-up comedy, naked modelling, jumping out of a plane… It all sounds really funny but that's like a lifetime of scary stuff I did in a month. You don't just bounce back from that: they are all quite big and unsettling experiences. So no, I didn't really understand what I was getting myself into."
Her friends and family didn't either. Help Me! also looks at the effect that the author's adventures in self-help had on the people closest to her - and it wasn't always positive. "I think most of the time my friends and family were thinking, 'When is she going to stop this?' Because I did go quite crazy and I was so self-involved," she says.
"After I did the F**k It retreat [run by the authors of the bestselling book series of the same name], where I had loads of profound epiphanies, I really thought I had this life business nailed and I was looking down at other people with their pesky, normal limiting beliefs and problems. I got quite superior."
Thankfully, her well-grounded mother was always around to bring her back down to earth. Help Me! is peppered with the wry observations of Mary Power, who was brought up on a farm in Ballybunion, Co Kerry, and who has little time for navel-gazing or "going all American", as she puts it in the book.
"She just comes from a totally different generation from the one I'm in," says Marianne. "She would never have picked up a self-help book - she just got on with it. You had food and you had a roof, and sure what are you complaining about?" Her mother's wit and wisdom appears in 25 out of the 350 pages of the book and early feedback from publishing execs around the world suggests that she's everyone's favourite character. "We were in this room with 40 or 50 publishing people recently and all they wanted to do was talk to Mum - some of them were quoting Mum back to Mum," she laughs.
Power wrote the first draft of Help Me! in two months from her friend's cottage in Donegal. After almost 20 years in journalism, she assumed writing a book was just like "one long article". Her scriptwriter friend told her otherwise when he read the first attempt. "It was s**t," she says bluntly. "He was there and he knew all the stuff that happened and he was asking, 'Why haven't you put this in and that in?'"
And so began the next challenge: learning how to structure a book. "With journalism, you have an instinctive sense of the stuff you would leave in and the stuff you would leave out," she explains. "With books, that's often reversed. The stuff you would often leave out of an article is the gold of a book.
"And I wanted it to be a proper good story" she adds. "I wanted it to read like a novel, rather than one girl giving her thoughts on life because… who cares? People who read self-help will be interested anyway but I wanted the people who don't read self-help to get drawn in too."
The first-time author spent the next year reading books on the craft of novel-writing - but what about the books she read during her year of self-help? Are there any she would re-read?
"F**k It [by John C. Parkin] is a really light, sweary way into quite deep principles," she says. "It's the Western expression of the Eastern philosophy of accepting and letting go. And something quite profound happens when we just let go and stop caring so much and trying to control everything.
"And The Power of Now [by Eckhart Tolle]. I tried to read it a few times before and just couldn't get on with it, but at that point in the journey-"
She stops mid-sentence. "I'm using the word 'journey' - my mum would kill me…
"Anyway, it's such a cliché but it's true: all we have is right now. If you were to ask yourself, 'Do I have a problem right now?', 99 out of 100 times you don't."
The Secret was a runaway success when it was published back in 2006 but Power is still conflicted by the idea that you "can have anything you want in life if you just believe".
"There is a part of me that thinks, 'Maybe things do happen,' and a part of me that gets angry with this notion that you can sit on the sofa and dream of winning the lottery."
And she has no truck with 'angelology' or the work of angels author Doreen Virtue. "I had a proper allergic reaction to her," she says.
Power embraced her challenge wholeheartedly but she always maintained an air of healthy scepticism, even when she was one of 7,500 people dancing to Rihanna at a Tony Robbins seminar.
"They can whip you into a state of hysteria so effectively," she says. "Apparently, he learned his trade from looking at evangelical preachers in America who have huge crowds, and also rock stars. He really knows how to work a crowd.
"I was expecting lots of middle managers because companies send their staff on these seminars to maximise their potential," she adds. "But there were actually loads of really young people in their early 20s - millennials - because they are in that 'gig economy' where they are not going straight into jobs and security like I did, so they have to really stay on their game, and I think that's one of the reasons self-help is booming at the moment."
The truth, she continues, is that big-ticket speakers like Robbins didn't always make the biggest impression on her. "The ones that are doing the whole 'guru' thing aren't that special," she says. "It was generally the most unassuming people that had the real wisdom."
Epiphanies came thick and fast for the writer during her year of self-help, just not necessarily in the way she expected. At the start of her journey (sorry, Mary), she had clear goals. After 12 months of self-discovery, she was just happy to be done with the navel-gazing.
"We live in this 'before and after' culture," Power explains. "'Do this diet and you'll be skinny and happy at the end. Meditate and you'll never be stressed again.' And life just doesn't work like that. We have ups and downs.
"Right now, I'm on an up - life is on an up and I'm much more at peace with myself than I ever was before. I think I understand myself pretty well and I'm also, hopefully, quite over myself. But I also know life will happen again and I'll get into another hole at some point. That's just the way life goes."
What about romance? At the start of the book, she wondered if a boyfriend would solve all of her problems. Does she still feel that way? "I think I had a real hang-up about being single," she says. "So one of the big questions was: 'Why have I not done that?' Is it because I'm not good enough? Or is it because I'm not pretty, which I've had in my head for ages. Or have I not done it because it's not my path?
And it comes down to really obvious things: if you don't like yourself very much, it's very hard for anyone else to like you. And I think for a long time I didn't like myself very much. So that book was ultimately about falling in love with myself rather than with someone else, which is such a naff line but it's the truth."
Power may not have magically conjured up a boyfriend during her year of self-help (despite reading Matthew Hussey's Get the Guy), but it's hard not to compare her life now to the life she was leading when she started writing the book.
Before we leave I draw her attention to a chapter in Help Me! where she writes down her desires in the present tense - as if they were already real.
I have £100,000 in my bank account! she writes. I am writing a great book! I have happiness, freedom, love! I go on flights all the time, travel regularly, love a hot handsome man who is kind and tall - a man who allows me my freedom. I have a lean body, great wardrobe, lots of blowdries. Sheila, Helen and Mum are happy! I am bursting with energy and productivity. And I have braces to fix my teeth!
She smiles as I read it back to her. "I haven't got the braces to fix my teeth yet," she laughs. "I've given up the blowdries - I'm going a bit more natural these days. And I don't have £100,000, although I did get really great book advances.
"But, yes," she says as she reads the page over my shoulder, "it's pretty close to the dream life I'm having right now."
'Help Me!' by Marianne Power, published by Picador, is in bookstores now priced £14.99
Photography by Fran Veale
Marianne's year-long reading list
1. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
by Susan Jeffers
2. Money: A Love Story
by Kate Northrup
3. The Secret
by Rhonda Byrne
4. Rejection Therapy
with Jason Comely
5. F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way
by John C. Parkin
6. Awaken the Giant Within
by Tony Robbins
7. Angels 101: How to Hear Your Angels/Messages From Your Angels
by Doreen Virtue
8. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
by Stephen R. Covey
9. The Power of Now
by Eckhart Tolle
10. Get the Guy
by Matthew Hussey
11. Daring Greatly
by Brené Brown
12. You Can Heal Your Life
by Louise Hay