Thursday, February 28, 2008

Guest in Progress: Janice Erlbaum

Lauren Cerand, a wonderful independent publicist I’ve written about here, recently sent me a copy of the newly released memoir, HAVE YOU FOUND HER, by Janice Erlbaum. The book sounded intriguing, about a woman who lived in a homeless shelter as a teenager and now, twenty years later, after turning her life around, goes back to volunteer in a shelter where she meets a nineteen-year-old girl who has a profound impact on her life. I currently have a stack of at least a thousand books (okay, give or take) that I’m dying to read, but I opened up this one, just to check things out.

I was especially interested because Have You Found Her starts with a prologue, and the previous night, in my novel workshop, we’d had a discussion about prologues in general, with several people saying prologues seemed like unnecessary throat-clearing; “just start the book already,” someone said.

I come and go with prologues: some work, most don’t. (I say this knowing that my current work in progress, Prodigal Daughters, starts with a prologue…but I promise you, it’s the kind that works!) I’m afraid I start out feeling that it’s okay to skim the prologue, because as a reader, I suspect that it will make much more sense AFTER having finished the book—which doesn’t seem like a good invitation at the opening of a book, when you want to hook the reader. And, as they say, I’d be rich if I had a nickel for every time I’ve advised someone with these exact words about their prologue: “Less (i.e. a paragraph or two) or more (i.e. a chapter).”

All this to say that I started reading this book with suspicion.

But I was hooked by the first paragraph. Here is a definite example of EXACTLY what a good prologue does: offers an incident that may not be integral to the action of the story, but that serves as a backdrop for the piece as a whole, introducing themes and concerns that the larger narrative carries through. I would call this a perfect prologue! I didn’t want less, I didn’t want more: it was “just right.”

So, even though I am unable to keep reading at this time and though, unfortunately, this book has to join the stack of books waiting for my full attention (jumping to the top), I went ahead and peeked at the first chapter. It opens with pretty much a perfect opening chapter paragraph, establishing character, tone, setting, scenario, with ease and authority. Here it is:

“It’s a Wednesday evening in late May, and I’m at the shelter for my weekly workshop, which is officially listed on the calendar as ‘Jewelry Making with Janice.’ This has been my shtick for the past two and a half years—every Wednesday evening, I come uptown to the shelter, and I sit around for a few hours with the girls of the Older Females Unit making beaded bracelets and necklaces and earrings. I am known, colloquially, as ‘Bead Lady,’ as in, ‘Bead Lady, you got more alphabet beads this week? ‘Cause last week you was runnin’ out of vowels.’”

And now that I’ve hooked you, I feel fortunate to share this essay by Janice Erlbaum in which she decides to accept “memoirist” as a title of honor.

Me, Myself, and Memoir

Now that I’ve published two memoirs, I’m starting to get used to the idea of people calling me a “memoirist.” It sort of feels like an unnecessary distinction – why not just call me a “writer”? – but I suppose I should look at it as an honor. “Poets” have their own special subclass, but most other writers don’t get a fancy title based on their genre. We don’t call Raymond Carver a “short storyist,” Stephen King is not a “horrorist,” and Nadine Gordimer may have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but she’s not a “fictionist;” she’s still just a “writer” (though I guess on good days, she’s a “Nobelist”).

So why are “memoirists” a whole category unto ourselves? Why separate us from the rank and file of plain old writers? I understand the rationale for segregating the poets – I mean, poets use crazy mixed-up language without proper punctuation! Who even knows what the hell they’re talking about half the time? (Between you and me, I hear most of them are taking drugs.) So you’re pretty much obligated to warn people when they’re dealing with a “poet” and not a regular “writer.”

As it is with “memoirists.” Because – let’s face it – we’re not real writers. We’re not using our imaginations and making stuff up (except for the few of us who are, JAMES); we’re not even doing the hard work the rest of our non-fiction-writing brethren do, with the painstaking research and the accountability and all that. No, memoirists just think about something that happened to them, and without any kind of due diligence at all, write about it from their own perspective. That’s it! How hard could that be? It’s, like, one step removed from writing the copy on your mattress tag.

Maybe there are some “journalists” who feel similarly ambivalent about their title – aren’t journalists writers, too? But “journalist” is a title to be assumed with pride; “journalists” have a long and noble history of serving the public interest. Whereas “memoirists” are a more recent and ignoble breed; we’re like “reality show contestants.” You couldn’t earn distinctions like ours until recent lapses in popular culture made them possible. And we’re about equal in the amount of respect we get – “memoirist” might get you a little bit more highbrow cred than “reality show contestant,” but I guarantee that Yau-Man* from Survivor gets a better table at the Ivy than I do.

But now I’d like to reclaim the word “memoirist,” much in the same way me and my second-and-a-half-wave feminist pals have tried to reclaim the word “bitch,” by embracing it. I do write about my own life from my own point of view, so there! It is often embarrassingly personal, totally cringeworthy stuff I’m writing about, and how! My books are totally for voyeurs, peepaholics, snoops, and anyone else who finds themselves morbidly curious about other peoples’ internal lives! I am a solipsist! Booyah!

So go ahead – call me a “memoirist” instead of a writer. I don’t mind. I’ll happily take my place next to Mary Carr, Joan Didion, Nick Flynn, and many of the other mind-blowingly brilliant wri…memoirists whom I admire. And then I’ll come home and open up my journal (or, worse, my blog), and write, “Someone called me a memoirist again today. And they were right.” ~~Janice Erlbaum

About: Janice Erlbaum is the author of GIRLBOMB: A Halfway Homeless Memoir (Villard, March '06), and HAVE YOU FOUND HER: A Memoir (Villard, Feb. '08). She was a contributor to BUST magazine from 1994 through 2007. She lives in her native New York City with her domestic partner, Bill Scurry, and their three cats. For more information, please check her web site.

*Note: True confessions: One of my most beloved contestants ever!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.