The Mainstreaming of the Word "Shit" in Personal Transformation Parlance
Updated: Jul 30, 2022
The book I was editing was about personal transformation for corporate managers. The author was a well-known coach. The language was so casual that I thought parts of it must have been dictated to a word processor over lunch. The degree of informality surprised me first, but as I worked my way into the book, I realized that the problem was mine, not the author's: I was unfamiliar with the genre. But I was getting used to the writing, and I knew I had passed a learning milestone when I began changing some ponderous words and phrases to lighter equivalents that matched the tone of the book. I was riding the flow of the book.
Still, I paused at the word shit in a quote by a corporate guru. What made it stick out like a sore thumb was the context in which it appeared. The guru referred to a concept in management theory and said it underscored the importance of "people doing shit together." The juxtaposition of academic theory and the word shit was incongruous. I flagged it for the author, not very hopefully because it was a quote; but he thought all was well. The quote stayed. "Doing shit together," I learned, means "people achieving great results by working together." Webster's has an entry for "get one's shit together":
A little online research showed that the word was standard in personal transformation/self-improvement circles, even appearing on book covers, albeit sometimes as a coy "SH*T":
I also stumbled across a website called Get Your Shit Together. It was founded by Chanel Reynolds (the author of the first of the three books shown above), whose husband died in a road accident, after which she found herself enmeshed in knotty financial and legal tangles. As she grappled with the consequences of unsigned wills, accounts with passwords known only to her late husband, and similar hurdles, she despaired of keeping herself and her two young kids afloat. They had sailed through life like most couples, buoyed by optimism, not planning for grim events like death and incapacitating illness because they were things that happened only to other people. Chanel eventually sorted everything out. She then started her website with the mission of helping people prepare themselves in advance—financially and legally—for life's lemons.
Her story is described in this 2013 New York Times article: A Shocking Death, a Financial Lesson and Help for Others. I have dwelt at some length on Chanel because in the article she explains why she called her website getyourshittogether.org and not, for example, getyouracttogether.org. As Ron Lieber puts it:
The result is a website named for the scolding, profane exhortation that her inner voice shouted during those dark days in the intensive care unit. She might have called it getyouracttogether.org, but she changed just one word.
A lawyer quoted in the article criticized her choice of website name: "... the coarseness of the communication is not appropriate for the public square." Chanel's defense is honesty:
“Those were actually the words that came out of my mouth in the I.C.U.,” she said. “To try to come up with another word to describe something that is part of my own personal experience is too hard to do for me, and it doesn’t, for me, communicate the level of importance and intensity and emotion that comes along with the content.”
What is coarse for the lawyer conveys "importance, intensity, and emotion" and the authenticity of her personal experience for Chanel. Today, we can conclude that Chanel's intuition has trumped the lawyer's misgivings. A large community now believes that shit symbolizes honesty, intensity, raw emotion, and authenticity.
Was Chanel Roberts the linguistic pioneer, the trend setter? Did she plant the seed? I did a little amateur sleuthing.
First, I looked up the date the domain getyourshittogether.org was registered:
The date of registration was August 9, 2009. I then checked the dates of publication of the books shown above. They were all published well after 2009. Was Chanel's success responsible for the cult-like status of the word shit in the personal transformation/self-improvement world today? I don't know.
A final exhibit:
You think this is over the top? You recoil? You object to shit rubbing shoulders with food on the cover? Maybe it's time for you to get your shit together: you need to work on shedding your atavistic biases and improving your emotional control.
Update (July 30, 2022): I recently learned about https://www.theshitaboutwriting.com, the home of the podcast "The Shit No One Tells You About Writing." It was the work of a moment to check https://www.theshitaboutediting.com. It's available. I have to confess: for a moment, I was tempted.