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 (Red Hen, $16.95), 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.
Washuta writes powerful prose, and she tends to use short, declarative sentences to force us into imagining her experience in a different way. She's especially good at illuminating the violence of femininity: "By senior year, though, I was worked over into a new piece of woman," and "Only penetration counts. I can never let them stretch me for good, I remain virginally tight."
Washuta does drag a cliché in on the sole of her shoe now and again, but she usually manages to save face, often in the same sentence. Here she is on the appeal of Kurt Cobain: "A living legend in plaid, he represented an apathetic generation," Washuta begins, seemingly channeling a thousand melodramatic music bloggers, but then she recovers, saying that at the same time, Cobain was a symbol for everyone else's emotions, "his feelings were so real they had fingernails." Body is a storm of fingernails and teeth and gripping, prying fingers flying at you from all directions, a hurricane of parts amounting to a person in full. No matter how prepared you think you are for Washuta, she's sure to knock you over.