And, of course, there’s that thing Ms. Alter mentioned: Since your book is about how you changed over time, the structure is a total gimme when you sit down with your notes to write it. The beginning, middle, and end are determined by whatever happened to you while you were experimenting on yourself. This little trick even works with fiction, as evidenced by Lauren Weisberger’s forthcoming novel, Chasing Harry Winston, in which the three main characters make a pact over brunch to make changes in their lives so that in a year’s time, their problems will have evaporated.
Ms. Weisberger’s book is an especially interesting case because it suggests that this formula is a catchy one not merely because it’s convenient for the writers conducting these experiments, but because readers—those people who buy the books—really respond to it.
“It’s this wonderful idea of what would we do if we weren’t doing what we’re doing—the idea that there’s this alternate universe,” said Judy Clain, who edited Julie Powell’s book on cooking. “I think there’s something about that blank template that is appealing, and the idea that someone actually goes out and does it is thrilling.”
This Time Next Year …
Paul Slovak, who edited Eat, Pray, Love, said there is an element of escapism involved. “It’s a great fantasy,” he said. “Everyone kind of dreams of it—quitting your job, putting all your stuff into storage and finding out what you really want to do in your life. Especially when you’re in you’re in your early 30’s or late 20’s, and you’re not quite certain that what you’re doing is what you want to be doing for the rest of your life.”
In other words, informing the hybridization of the yearlong-experiment book and the recovery memoir is the uplifting notion that no matter how desperate and hopeless your life might seem right now, this time next year everything can be better as long as you come up with a game plan and adhere to it with discipline. Life is salvageable, it turns out! This is an idea that people like to read about.
Yet what most of these books offer, really, is a vicarious thrill. Readers at home are precisely that—readers, at home—while the people they’re reading about—who wound up onstage instead of in the audience because they came up with a snappy idea for a recovery plan and were savvy enough to pitch a book about it—emerge with their salvation and sense of accomplishment.
“I have to remind myself, just because your year is up, it doesn’t mean you’ve exhausted the power of wishing,” said Ms. Oxenhandler. “It is, for me, this kind of funny thing. … I realize, ‘Oh, I could wish for that!’”
Ms. Powell, meanwhile, is back to her old tricks, like one of those people who pops up on various reality shows. According to her editor, she is currently working as an apprentice at a butchery, in preparation for a book that will be about what it’s like to do that. “The idea of craft for her is a path to self-discovery,” Ms. Clain explained.
And what of our dear Ms. Alter, whose bad habits and workplace antics were, however symptomatic of an unhealthy chaos, so charming? She’s getting there, she says. Now married for a second time, she has regained control of her diet, refocused on her work and stopped partying so much. The experiment, that thing with the women’s magazines, was a success!
“I remember meeting with this one editor,” Ms. Alter said, “and we were talking, and she was asking me, ‘What did you learn from your year? What’s your big takeaway?’ And she asked me if I was perfect now. And I said, ‘Of course not!’ You’re never perfect. You’re never done, you’re never 100 percent there. But I am much closer.”
All that said, not all of these books have their origin in a nervous breakdown. Gretchen Rubin, for instance, said she started working on her book, The Happiness Project (out from HarperCollins in late 2009), at a time in her life when things were really going pretty well.
“I realized that I knew I should be happier than I was, that I almost had this obligation to appreciate it more,” said Ms. Rubin. “I owed it to my good fortune to have more happiness with what I had.”
She went on: “From a narrative perspective, it would be better if I had been [at a low point in search of redemption], because it would be a better arc, but I was basically pretty happy. … I love the radical stories of change. I find them totally exhilarating. But I couldn’t do that, it wasn’t what I wanted. I’m not an adventurous person at all. I thought, I want to change my life without changing my life.”
Oh, don’t we all!