Friday, March 9, 2018

Being Erma Bombeck

Recently I was thrilled to have a couple of memoir essays published, “Steal This Bull” in the beautifully eclectic print journal Gulf Coast, and the other called “Cigarettes: It’s What’s for Dinner” published in Longridge Review, an online journal specializing in creative nonfiction about childhood experiences.

Those two essays, about shoplifting and my mom’s strange cooking experiments, respectively, had been kicking around in my “not quite finished” essay file for a few years. Every now and then I’d pull them out and make more revisions, but something about them didn’t feel right. About a year ago, I figured out the problem: The voice wasn’t me. Well, it was me, but it was me desperately trying to be someone else. And I knew who that someone was: Erma Bombeck.

Erma Bombeck was a huge deal in our house when I was a kid. My mom loved Bombeck and read her newspaper columns out loud before dinner, followed by Art Buchwald, another of our idols. We had all of Bombeck’s books—paperbacks with titles like The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank and I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression—lined up in a little shelf-shrine in our spare room, which was crammed full of books*.

I grew up with that hallowed Bombeck voice in my head, her wry one-liners the gold standard of humor writing (“I’ve exercised with women so thin that buzzards followed them to their cars”). So when I started to write essays and memoir pieces years ago, naturally I tried to make them funny. The trouble was, as soon as I thought “humor,” the card-catalog librarian in my brain immediately went and fetched the Erma Bombeck voice. But my version of it came out in a weird, over-the-top voicey-voice**, a sort of quack that was trying way too hard to sound funny. 
For a long time I didn’t see anything wrong with that voice, but I did notice that my nonfiction got rejected a lot. (Probably one reason why I turned to poetry.) Then somewhere in the past few years, I was reading one of my old essays and could hear how awful that ersatz-Bombeck voice was, a new clang that I hadn’t noticed before. I suppose my ear had become tuned differently. I’d been steeping myself in Gay Talese, Eula Biss, John Berendt, and other masters of nonfiction, and I could see that they didn’t resort to any sort of voicey-voice to be engaging and even funny. I’d also been working as an editor at a book publisher that specialized in trivia and humor books, where we constantly had to warn freelance writers against using the “comedy voice”—an overstrained style that tried to make everything sound funny, when the key was writing about things that were funny (though a deft could writer make a funny story funnier).

This is not to say that I am now a master of comedy. In fact, I think I’ve stumbled onto the fact that I don’t have to be a master of comedy; after writing a lot more nonfiction these past few years, I see that my natural territory lies closer to seriocomedy. And I reserve the right to veer off into other territories. And as much as I still love and admire Erma Bombeck, I see that I’m not her; I don’t have whatever that magical thing was in her voice. All I have is my own voice, my own stories. I’m kind of chagrined that it took me 40 years to realize that. But it’s been fun going back through some old essays and de-voicing them, finding what’s beneath the quack. I’ve still got a pile of them to go through. Who knows what’s under there? 

Here are links to some other recent creative nonfiction pieces:

“Always Eat the Ugly Things First” in the Medford Mail Tribune

“It’s Good Just to Show Up: One Writer’s First (Terrifying) Public Reading” in The Review Review (soon to be reprinted in Far Villages, an anthology of essays for poets from Black Lawrence Press)


*As if to further prove that we were a strange family—the very point of the “Cigarettes” essay—we had so many books that my mother turned our spare room into a lending library for our neighbors. Each book had a slip of paper in it, and the neighbor would check out the book by handing us the slip, which we'd keep in a folder until they brought the book back. It was a minor hit for a few months, and then interest fell off and we went back to just having a crapload of books.

**Technical term.