“Oh my God, my life was a total mess,” said 42-year-old Cathy Alter. “Seriously, I was married for almost five years, unhappily. … We hadn’t had sex in a really long time. I felt like his mommy—it just wasn’t good for me. I just felt kind of mean all the time. Mean and angry. And when I finally left and went through my divorce, I went crazy. I felt like I was back in college. I was sick all the time. I was hanging around with some really fast people—partying, drinking. These two guys I knew had ‘Sunday Fundays,’ where you’d start with mimosas and drink all day long and have a nightcap at midnight.”
Not so long before these dark days, Ms. Alter had been calling herself a writer: Her byline appeared with some regularity in prominent magazines and newspapers, and in 2004 she put together a book, Virgin Territory: The Road to Womanhood, for a major publishing house. Now, she was working a dead-end day job and spending all her free time getting loaded. For lunch she ate animal crackers and Doritos from a vending machine, and for a midday snack she was having sex on her desk with a guy named Bruno who worked in the cubicle next to hers.
“With everything coming together in this unhappy life I’d created for myself,” Ms. Alter said last week, “I thought, ‘Jeez! What can I do?’ I had to do something.”
And so she did. Following an increasing number of writerly dames in distress, who hit middle age, or near-middle age, and wake up one day to realize their lives are a mess (or worse, miserable!), Ms. Alter came up with a clever one-year plan to put her life back on track, and went about getting a book deal so she could write a memoir of her travails (and get paid to go through them, of course).
She conjured a plan to spend a year reading women’s magazines like Cosmo, Glamour, Elle and O, and to follow all the advice they offered her—an idea with all the cartoonish, “O.K., get this” appeal of a great reality show and the eminently marketable gravity of an earnest self-help book. It was a hell of a concept—much better than the one she had been pitching right before, which was to spend a year learning how to blow glass—and the Atria Books imprint of Simon & Schuster signed her immediately.
“I thought giving myself a project where I wouldn’t, like, freak out once I signed the contract would be a good idea,” Ms. Alter said. “I wanted to succeed, and I thought that this way, the structure was sort of imposed and the story arc was defined. I could focus on a different area of myself each month, whether physically or emotionally, and that would provide the chapters. And there’d be an introduction and an epilogue, which I thought I could do.”
Greer Hendricks, the editor at Atria who acquired Ms. Alter’s book, didn’t know exactly what she was signing up for. The experiment hadn’t yet been conducted, and there was no guarantee that Ms. Alter’s data would prove worthy of a book.
“I think she had just bought the magazines and knew that she was about to start on this quest. She hadn’t gone through her year yet,” Ms. Hendricks said. “So we really took a chance that her year was gonna be interesting.”
And why not take a gamble? Clearly the formula sells. Witness the blockbuster success of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about her devastating divorce and the year she spent traveling in an attempt to get over it. Ms. Gilbert’s publisher, Viking Books, has shipped almost 4,700,000 copies of the paperback to date.
If Eat, Pray, Love—in which Ms. Gilbert travels to Italy, India and Indonesia and explores “one aspect” of herself in each place—resonated with readers so profoundly, surely there was something to this formula.
Thoreau, What Hast Thou Wrought?
Although Eat, Pray, Love may have shocked publishers into paying attention to the moneymaking potential of this “how I turned my life around in a year” mini-genre, it was hardly the first book of its kind. In 2004, Julie Powell published her efforts to overcome her depression and save her marriage by cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in her book Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. Ms. Powell’s project began as a blog at Salon.com, but before long, that blog turned into a book deal. “There’s no easy way to say this, certainly not without arousing the ire of those who may think I’ve already gotten Too Big For My Britches. But it’s true. I have landed a book deal,” Ms. Powell wrote to her loyal readers in September 2003. “A really obscene book deal. I am, in fact, officially What’s Wrong With Publishing Today.” The book was a national best seller and a film adaptation of Julie and Julia recently began preproduction, with Nora Ephron directing and Amy Adams and Meryl Streep starring.
Ms. Alter, Ms. Gilbert and Ms. Powell all seem to have created the perfect marriage between classic recovery memoir and stunty, yearlong-experiment book. This latter has become a formidable cottage industry in recent years—a fact especially baffling in light of how narrowly defined its formal properties are. Which is to say, while there have probably been no more than 50 books that fall under the “year’s experiment” umbrella, the number is still pretty staggering given that they are all variations on the same simple conceit.
The contemporary pioneer of the genre, by most accounts, is Esquire writer A. J. Jacobs, who has contributed two emblematic titles to the canon: first The Know It All (2005), in which he spends a year reading every volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and then The Year of Living Biblically (2007), in which he spends a year following every rule in the Bible literally. There’s also Danny Wallace’s Yes Man (2005), in which the author says yes to every offer and opportunity that comes his way and documents the crazy hijinks that ensue, and Maria Dahvana Headley’s similar but different The Year of Yes (2006), in which the author agrees to go out with any single guy who asks her on a date. Judith Levine’s My Year Without Shopping (2006) covers exactly what you’d think. Barbara Kingsolver has contributed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007), and Sara Bongiorni the book A Year Without ‘Made in China’ (2007).
The list goes on! There are a lot of things one can do or not do for a year.
Perhaps inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 memoir Walden, in which the transcendentalist roughed it in a cabin for two years, the genre has become about as fashionable in our post-Super Size Me world as the micro-history was about a decade ago (Remember Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World?) If you’re feeling ungenerous, many of the books that fall within this genre can seem like cheap gimmicks, allowing those who lack vision or a compelling life story to score a book contract and publicity in exchange for time and a willingness to suffer. After all, what is The Year of Living Biblically if not a Jackass-style stunt crossed with the whimsy of a Liar Liar-era Jim Carrey movie?
The future looks bright, meanwhile, for Ms. Alter’s book, which will be published in July as Up for Renewal. “We sent it out for blurbs, and Carolyn Parkhurst”—author of Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found—“said something that I thought was so dead-on,” Ms. Hendricks said. “She said that it was like a fairy tale masquerading as a memoir of self-improvement.”
Ms. Hendricks thinks Up for Renewal could potentially do even better than Eat, Pray, Love. “Most people cannot take a year off of their lives and travel to Italy, India and Indonesia,” she said, referring to the cheeky “I”-themed itinerary that Ms. Gilbert followed in her journey. “Why that struck such a cord with so many people, I don’t know. I think more people can pick up a magazine—that’s much more accessible than picking up and traveling.”
365 Days of Despair
Ms. Alter, of course, is not the only one to swim in the cool wake of Eat, Pray, Love. Indeed, she is just one of several women who have attempted to deal with a large-scale personal crisis by channeling their despair into a book project.
For Charla Muller, whose book 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy comes out in July, the crisis came with the birth of her daughter, whose demands made her and her husband, in their 10th year of marriage, start feeling more like roommates than lovers.
“She found that the tension of not having sex with her husband, of finding ways to avoid it, was really stressing them both out,” said Sharon Bowers, Ms. Muller’s agent. “They might be snuggling on the couch in front of the TV, and instead of lying there and enjoying it, she’d think, ‘Oh, God, does this mean he’s gonna want to have sex?’”
So, on her husband’s 40th birthday, Ms. Muller decided to, uh, take action, and declared her intention to have sex with him every day for the next year, regardless of whether the two of them were in the mood.
“She realized that she could probably count the number of times they’d had sex in a year on one hand,” said Andie Avila, who acquired Ms. Muller’s book for the Berkley imprint of Penguin Group USA during the 11th month of the experiment. “And in an effort to find that emotional connection through a physical one, she decided to go ahead and do this in a big way. She considered a week, a month, but decided that a year would be most challenging and would allow for a lasting change in their lives. And a lasting change takes a while to achieve.”
Ms. Avila added: “A year is something people can easily imagine, anything less or more might not be as easy to mark. A year is a cycle that people can work with.”
And why is that? What’s so appealing about a year?
For Noelle Oxenhandler, who will publish The Wishing Year: An Experiment in Desire in July, timing was crucial, as her experiment began just as she turned 50. Her book chronicles a year that involved Ms. Oxenhandler suspending her Buddhism-bred skepticism about “the power of wishing” in order to see if she could get a new house, a new love and a resolution to some spiritual turmoil she suffered at her Zen Center in Northern California.
“The notion of a year is very organically rooted in all of us,” Ms. Oxenhandler said. “I think there’s a way in which all of us have at least some tendency, each year, to feel some aspiration to renewal, to try living in a different way. This is simply a more explicit and committed way of doing that. … It’s serious because a year’s commitment is serious, but it’s also playful.”
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!