I’ve mentioned before that I much prefer memoirs that center around one concept or event, and then use that frame the story of the author’s life. Recently I’ve read two books that support my theory and one exception that might prove the rule.
I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag by Jennifer Gilbert is the story of how Gilbert, as a recent college grad, survived a brutal attack and then recovered and built a thriving party planning business (hence the title) and family. Gilbert has an inspiring story, and I could have read an entire book about her narrowly-avoided party-planning disasters, but the book reads very much like a one-thing-after-another narrative account of her life. I’m sure that to her it felt like it was all part of one story, since it’s her life, but I’m not sure it hung together as a narrative for the reader. Also, I only figured out by Googling her later that she was one of the real housewives of New York, something she never mentioned in the book at all. (Apparently, she was phased off the show because she wasn’t dramatic enough, which probably speaks well of her.) So, you know, it was fine.
Then I read Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, about a young woman who decided to deal with grief over the death of her mother and a divorce by hiking the Pacific Coast Trail. Strayed talks about her childhood and marriage and about all sorts of things, but her story is all centered around her hike, which gives the story a solid structure that supports her tangents and digressions. I really liked Wild, but it was not necessarily a happy, feel-good story. Strayed was seriously grieving and seriously unprepared for the trail, and there are parts that were so harrowing I had to essentially read through squinted eyes. But Strayed so clearly described how empowered she felt by the hike that I felt kind of empowered myself. (She also describes her blisters and black toenails in such detail that my feet started hurting.)
Finally, A Girl Walks Into a Bar by Rachel Dratch didn’t have any single, centering event, but I found it so charming that I didn’t mind. The book is nominally about how Dratch stumbled into a relationship and baby in her early forties, when she had all but decided she would not have a family. In reality, big swatches of the book are about her start in comedy, and Saturday Night Live, and dating in New York, and the story just sort of ambles along. But Dratch is funny and sharp and sounds like she would just be an awesome person to hang out with, and the book is fun and quick. So I think the exception to my memoir rule is that if you are a professional comedian, then you can write a less-structured memoir. Otherwise, I suggest everyone read Wild and then write your own memoir around a very specific event.