Manufactured memoirs are suspect, but sometimes they deliver.
A “real” memoir develops organically, when an earth-shattering event occurs, and the author survives to tell the story, how she coped and what she learned. Think I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala or, yes, The Percussionist’s Wife by none other than yours truly. No one chooses prejudice, a tsunami or a sex-offending spouse, but stories of such terrible circumstances make for good drama.
A manufactured memoir, then, happens when a writer takes on a project of some sort, usually a year in length, and then writes about the life lessons it produces. Think of how Wendy McClure explores the myth and mysteries of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie in The Wilder Life, or how Judith Levine rebels against capitalism by living a year without shopping in Not Buying It, or how Julie Powell endeavors to reclaim her life by cooking through Mastering the Art of French Cooking in Julie & Julia (can you say movie deal?). Clearly, sometimes a manufactured memoir cultivates drama in some degree (even Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was a bit manufactured, but it made for a good, or at least passable, movie).
I dare say one of my favorite memoirists has made a career of manufacturing dramatic tension. Jen Lancaster started with Bitter is the New Black about losing a high-buck job and finding humility, but she feeds the machine by coming to terms with dieting and exercise (Such a Pretty Fat), expanding her mind (My Fair Lazy), acting her age (Jeneration X) and engaging in Martha Stewart-like perfection (The Tao of Martha). She can pull off all these artificial self-improvement quests because she is hilarious even when — especially when — she fails in her endeavors.
Enter Rachel Bertsche. She’s the best selling author of MWF Seeking BFF. I picked up her latest, Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me: The Pursuit of Happiness, One Celebrity at a Time, because I’m pondering a makeover memoir of my own (today’s nugget of advice: best place to begin a non-fiction book is with the competition).
In Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me, Bertsche attempts to live like a celebrity. While sticking to a budget. She learns regular exercise is good, watching football with your husband is good and kale smoothies are bad (agree, agree and agree).
While built on an artificial foundation, the book is charming. Fortunately for Bertsche (or maybe it was planned), the story of her quest to get pregnant is entwined with her efforts to exercise like Jennifer Aniston, cook like Gwyneth Paltrow and work like Tina Fey. I got hooked not because I wondered if she’d achieve Aniston arms or Sarah Jessica Parker’s fashion sense but because I began rooting for her to get pregnant.
Bertsche (who lives in Chicagoland, by the way, just like Jen Lancaster. Oh, and me) delivers (figuratively and literally). Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me is a good read.