Once upon a time, there was nothing I enjoyed more than curling up with a good stunt memoir, one that allowed me to pretend I could jettison my normal life for just one year and do something extraordinary.
It’s probably no coincidence that my embrace of this particular brand of schtick lit occurred during my quarter-life crisis, a vast span of my life that lasted from the age of 22 all the way through to 33. During that time, I struggled to build a career in the publishing industry. I turned down a work abroad opportunity in England to get married and become a full-time freelancer, right before the economic downturn. I flailed about in my attempts to establish myself as a writer. I struggled with infertility. I struggled with the near-breakup of my marriage. During this time, imagining a scenario in which I could stop struggling and just step into a life that was new and exciting was incredibly seductive.
Enter the stunt memoir, a memoir in which the author engages in a specific activity for just one year (or some other specified period of time) and then writes about it. It is life as experiment. Wrapped up in the pretty package of a book. And at the end? Redemption.
What follows is a list of stunt memoirs that seduced me, a list I’ve since realized is white and middle class AF. Because—fun fact—it’s tough to press pause on your normal life without already living with a hefty amount of privilege. So I did some digging to find stunt memoirs by authors of color, too, so I could fill in the gaps in my sad, sad reading life. Alas, there is no way to fill in the gaps in the publishing industry itself, except maybe by ::coughcough:: publishing diverse books. Though, in this case, maybe the issue is with the genre itself?
1. The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs (and also everything else he has ever written)
Jacobs’s entire schtick is schtick. He made a name for himself by conducting “lifestyle experiments” and then writing about them for Esquire. He eventually began spinning these experiments into book deals. First, he spent 18 months reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. Then he tried to follow the Bible as literally as possible. Then he tried to reach bodily perfection. And, well, it goes on from there. Jacobs is a funny guy, which is why I fell so hard for his books. As a person who is fascinated by faith, and by the many forms it can take, I enjoyed The Year of Living Biblically the most.
2. MWF Seeking BFF by Rachel Bertsche
I loved this book because it gave voice to something I was experiencing, but was way too embarrassed to talk about: the difficulty in making close friends as an adult…especially a socially anxious, introverted adult. In Bertsche’s book, she writes about the year she spent searching for new friends via meetups and social apps, with the goal of going on a new friend date every week. I basically read this book while internally shrieking I’ll be your frieeeeend! like a creepy person.
3. Julie & Julia by Julie Powell
If you’re already familiar with this one, it’s probably because it was adapted to the big screen, with Meryl Streep playing Julia Child. In her book, Powell works her way through Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year, blogging about the journey as she bumbles along. I love food books because I love food, but I connected to this one in particular because of the juxtaposition of her struggle with food, her struggle for purpose, and her struggles within her marriage. When my husband-to-be and I first moved in together, I tried to muddle my way through The Whole Foods Market Cookbook. Every meal took hours for me to make and, as my husband once shouted at me during an argument, none of it even tasted any good. I stopped cooking for a year. We subsisted on pasta, pizza, Chinese takeout, and Hungry Man microwave meals.
4. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
When I finally found my way back to cooking, I couldn’t help falling in love with Kingsolver’s account of a year spent eating only locally-sourced foods. I thrilled at her tales of farming the land in southern Appalachia, even though I myself would probably last about two seconds on an actual farm, and I ate up her descriptions of the local farming community. Books like this one have since led to a slew of copycat fish-out-of-water memoirs, written by city dwellers attempting to set up their own farms.
5. My Year with Eleanor by Noelle Hancock
If I have a weakness for a particular sub-genre within the sub-genre of the stunt memoir, it is for books about saying yes. Even now, at a time when I feel that I finally know WTH I’m doing with my life (mostly), I love the idea that being brave enough to say yes to new experiences could still enrich my life. Because I am totally a person who says no and then puts on her pajamas and then wraps herself in a weighted blanket and then reads in bed. In My Year with Eleanor, Hancock commits to doing one thing every day that scares her in the lead-up to her thirtieth birthday.
6. Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes
In a similar move, celebrated television producer and self-described introvert Shonda Rhimes committed to saying yes to unexpected invitations for the span of one year, writing a book that ended up being a New York Times bestseller. Over the course of her journey, Rhimes came to admit that saying “yes” can be transformative.
7. Yes Man by Danny Wallace
Nope. Not done yet. This British journalist and comedian also decided to say “yes” to, well, everything. The results are over-the-top and ridiculous, yet still, in a way, profound.
8. Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker
And then I entered the I-have-no-talent portion of my life, during which my writerly impostor syndrome loomed larger than ever before and I considered packing it all in but then had to acknowledge that I had no other talents either, let alone talents that might possibly be lucrative. So I couldn’t help but admire Bosker’s fantastic immersive memoir, in which she put aside her journalist hat (well, not entirely) and attempted to become a sommelier.
9. Our Black Year by Maggie Anderson
You may have noticed that, in the books above, the majority of the authors undertook their year-long experiments for purely selfish reasons. Anderson, meanwhile, decided to “buy black” for one year in order to mobilize her community, in the hopes of getting them to exert their buying power in an attempt to show how black neighborhoods can benefit society as a whole. Her project, however, was met with mixed reactions.
10. The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead
This particular book covers a much more compressed timeline. When Grantland magazine gave Colson Whitehead $10,000 to play at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, he had only six weeks to train in the art of high-stakes Texas Hold’em. Books like these scratch that itch where I like to imagine that, even though I am 37, there is still a chance that I might actually learn the ukulele and start a music group called Folkin’ Hot. Or become fluent in Italian. Or become proficient at drawing comics or making macaroons or using all of the manual functions on my DSLR camera.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. There are stunt memoirs about reducing one’s carbon footprint and there are stunt memoirs about going tech-free. There are stunt memoirs about cutting particular foods from one’s diet and there are stunt memoirs about going on travel adventures (Wild, anyone?). There is even a book called Three Among the Wolves: A Couple and Their Dog Live a Year with Wolves in the Wild, which is…self-explanatory?
My hunger for stunt memoirs has died down in recent years. After all, I’m feeling much less restless now that I’ve settled into a pretty good freelance groove and have finally managed to pop a tiny human out of my vagina. And while sometimes I do still daydream about making a great escape to a remote location where I can focus on my writing and do beach yoga and not change eleventy billion poop diapers a day, who are we kidding? I couldn’t be away from my adorable child for longer than three days.
Someone get me a book on surviving life as a work-at-home mom and we’ll be fine.