With the A Million Little Pieces–inspired craze of the early 2000s finally behind us, we need to reassess what does and does not make a worthwhile memoir. We don't want to suffer through another generation of James Freys and A.J. Jacobses.
Let's be clear: Doing one thing for a year—cooking Julia Child's recipes, watching movies, saying yes to propositions—does not warrant a memoir. Epiphanies are not requirements for memoirs. We don't need our books to come with vacuum-sealed, single-serving "important life lessons" about drugs or aging or parenthood. You don't need to climb a mountain and lose six toes to frostbite to learn about your humanity. Hell, you don't have to do anything noteworthy at all: At its heart, a memoir should just be a beautiful piece of writing about a life.
Local author Elissa Washuta's new book, My Body Is a Book of Rules, is a good example of what memoir can be. Washuta is young, and Body doesn't have a whole lot of what a screenwriter would refer to as "story beats": After a typically uncomfortable Catholic school experience, Washuta goes to college and then moves to Seattle for grad school. She smartly doesn't try to pave her life into a narrative stretching from a beginning to a more evolved destination.
Instead, Washuta investigates her experiences through a collection of disparate fragments: a Cosmopolitan-style sex quiz, a bibliography of books that shaped her life, a list of prescriptions intended to keep her bipolar disorder under control, a list of gossipy footnotes critiquing her own English paper about the way college students use language to communicate their sexual relationships. She imagines the aftermath of her rape as a Law & Order: SVU script. She debunks most of her Match.com profile. She tallies up exactly how much of her blood is Native American in a little table straight out of Microsoft Word. Through the pieces, a whole is assembled.