The following is a collection of small essays from some of the people who connected at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop held in Ohio recently. It’s compiled by Julia Roberts of Decoding Creative, and the first essay is from her. Enjoy!
An unlikely hero, with an unassuming name, Erma Bombeck lived in Dayton, Ohio, and graduated from University of Dayton, having dropped out of Ohio University. Like many young women of her generation, she lacked confidence. Like most writers, actually. The story is that her English professor, Brother Tom Price told her:
You can write.
Those three little words freed and empowered her to live the life she led – writing a twice-weekly humor column for 30 million readers in 900 newspapers, about her three kids, holidays, and appliances that wouldn’t work. Her subject matter was not what newspapers were looking for – but it was something they came to understand they needed. She also wrote 15 books, most of which were bestsellers. She gave us gems…
Housework can kill you if done right.
Her legacy goes beyond her readership – the struggling post-war housewives who were busy raising Baby Boomers.
Never have more children than you have car windows.
For me, I go to the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop to be with my people. We crack jokes night and day. We share fun and funny days focused on writing. What more do you need? The truth is I come home a full-blown brat, making jokes where none were expected, looking for cake before dinner (as I eat it during Erma), and pretending in my mind that I’m close personal friends with the famous and funny faculty. My best friend, Laraine Newman, told me… Dion Flynn just cracks me up… & you know bestselling author Anabelle Gurwitch…
Best Takeaways from Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop
Her humor and wisdom is still strong enough to attract an all-star faculty of humor writers and gather 350 writers to her alma mater for the biennial Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. I was there for my third time, recently, and, just for fun, I invited other attendees to give me their favorite glimpses of the Erma experience in 200 words or less. Enjoy!
Like Summer Camp for Funny Grown-Ups
from John Branning, JohnBranning.com
I arrived at my first Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop somewhat nervous but excitedly looking forward to days filled with archery, canoeing, and weaving keychains made with gimp.
Oh, sorry – that’s what I was looking forward to during summer camp in 1968.
My goals at EBWW were to learn how to tighten my writing efforts, market myself better, and get through the night without wetting the bed.
Oops – another camp flashback popped up there.
Other than rueful memories of adolescent incontinence, my thoughts were focused on expanding my circle of writing acquaintances, while rubbing elbows with the illustrious faculty members in attendance.
(I would like to take this moment to offer a public apology to Laraine Newman for rubbing her elbow without her prior consent.)
Among the many warm memories of my time at EBWW (none of which, fortunately, include having to change my sheets in the middle of the night), I was most inspired by hearing directly from literal superstars (Alan Zweibel & Laraine Newman of SNL fame, Katrina Kittle, Dion Flynn, Rebecca Regnier, many others…) regarding how they shared our challenges at the start – and sometimes even during – their careers.
Speaking of tightening my writing efforts – this post has been strictly limited to 200 words, so I’ll end with
Sit Down And Write
This headline paraphrases Laraine Newman, one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live in 1975. I listened intently to this comedy legend speak during the 2022 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. I don’t throw the title legend around willy nilly.
Her exact quote was, “I want to begin by acknowledging how hard it is to sit down and write.”
What? Was she speaking directly to ME? I was attending this beloved conference virtually this time but I swear she looked right into my eyes when she went on to say, “we all have our ways of procrastinating and coming up with the many excuses, or rituals, we need to do before we can begin to write.”
Newman generously told us how she makes notes of the colorful people she encounters and the phrases and gestures they use. She continued, “Write down the odd expressions or peculiarities because we writers never know when we might use them.”
With a soft smile, Newman told us, “Humor is a beautiful way to connect with people.”
Sharing a bit of her speech illustrates why this Erma conference is just the kick in the pants I need every other year to keep writing.
I’m His Plus One
from Michelle Poston Combs, blog: https://www.rubbershoesinhell.com
I went into Erma 2022 with no expectations. After years of “no fun”, I was ready for fun.
I got more than I hoped for. The speakers and sessions were topnotch. Seeing friends soothed my soul.
What I didn’t expect was securing my place in the afterlife. And that happened before I even checked into my room.
I waited in line for my room key, when Alan Zweibel, an OG SNL writer, got in line behind me and we chatted.
He told me that he just got out of a cab driven by a woman named Gilda, then showed me text messages between him and Laraine Newman about Gilda the driver. So, you know, a typical afternoon.
Alan said “I think Gilda is securing my place in heaven.” I told him that I probably wouldn’t see him there as I doubted I would get an invite.
He smiled and said “I’ll tell you what, I will take you as my plus one.”
With that, I achieved complete conference success.
I don’t know, cosmically, how valuable my plus one voucher to heaven really is, but that doesn’t matter. It’s mine forever. Or at least until I try to cash it in.
from Carol Zollinger https://thecircusishere.com/blog
Everywhere I went, they told me to feel.
Recreate emotional impact for your reader. (That was Joni B. Cole.) But to recreate it, I’d have to feel it again, and my circuits are fried. Decide how you want the reader to feel, said Ann Garvin, then get them there. I didn’t like the feeling the first time. What is a memoir? It’s your story, Brooke Warner told us, but it contains a universal emotional truth.
I believe our stories will save us. But if I want to make them real, I have to walk the path. I must be willing to go back into the dark, picking up the shards of memory and carrying them out to build the world for a reader.
At least this time, I know where the biggest potholes are, and I have good advice about taking care.
The best kind of advice made me laugh first, ponder second, and find a large glass of water in the end.
“I tell everyone I work with,” said Ann, “Everyone. The first thing you have to do to write a book is take your meds.”
Shoe Shopping in Zimbabwe
from Desiree Miller, https://stressfreebaby.com/
As writers, we often have thoughts we just need to get out of our head, stories we MUST share. And the words just pour on the page. But other times, a blank page stares us down. So what do we do to unclog our mind and restart the flow?
If only there was some Drano for the brain, right?
But that doesn’t exist as far as I know. So, maybe we take a walk. Maybe that walk is just to the fridge to make a drink. Alcohol optional. Or a gummy. Not necessarily THAT kind of gummy, but hey, whatever works.
And if that fails, my go-to turns out to be online shopping. I learned at this workshop I am in some very good company. Cathy Guisewite from the famed Cathy comic strip shared she shops for shoes when writer’s block hits.
Turns out MY habit is a bit more expensive. I book trips instead, to faraway places, which, yes, can get pricey. My justification? It’ll give me more material to write about later…unless, of course, the writer’s block hits again. In that case, the story may not leave my brain, but at least I’m making good memories.
Beyond the Bio
Stories of failure – lots of it, over and over again – that was the best takeaway for me from Erma 2022.
- Adriana Trigiani said it well when she looked out over the dinner audience and told us that if all we read is the speaker bio then we miss the complete story. Speaker bios concentrate on what’s been published, produced, or made the best-seller lists. It’s all true, of course, but it glosses over the rest of the story.
- Bruce Cameron said the same thing. Who knew that A Dog’s Purpose almost didn’t make it out of the reject pile? That he had been getting up at 4:30 am to write – before his day job – and had written 11 books before A Dog’s Purpose was published?
- Cathy Guisewite told the same story about her non-productive pandemic time. We can all relate to that! But those days of not producing anything finally led to Scenes from Isolation.
That’s what is so wonderful about Erma. The conference does more than put a face on success – it puts a face on failure. And then gives us tips, tactics, and encouragement so that WE will be the face of success!
Let Me Eat Cake
from Ivy Eisenberg, https://www.ivyeisenberg.com/blog
Someone asked me “why go to the Erma workshop?” For me, it’s not about finding my voice or finding my funny or learning how to write. It’s not transactional: pay $X dollar and receive $Y benefit. I replied: “I go to connect with fellow humor writers who create in various forms.”
Truthfully, I went to eat gobs of cake, since Saturday was my birthday. I went to escape my skinny, calorie-conscious spouse, to hang out with funny, warm, talented people, to celebrate laughter and pain, and to eat. I had intended to have dessert only on Saturday (my birthday), but on Wednesday, even before the conference began, I took myself to Dorothy Lane Markets for a biscotti and coffee, and it was off to the races.
I ordered room service breakfasts, ate both the salty and sweet snacks in the box lunches, feasted on the between-workshop vittles and of course, ate cake. I never touched the 4 putrid protein bars that I had packed in my suitcase, nestled underneath the unused workout clothes. It was a joyful, in-the-moment weekend, where I felt funny, beautiful, and at home. The icing on the cake? At Stand-up Night, everyone sang Happy Birthday to me!
The Must-See Presenters!
from Yvonne Ransel, https://www.facebook.com/yvonne.ransel
As a veteran of four Erma Bombeck’s Writing Workshops, I knew which presenters were must-sees at this one, because they were memorable, astute and most of all – very funny. Judy Carter was one of them and I wandered into Alumni Center north already smiling at her joyful demeanor.
The title of her presentation was “Turn Problems into Punchlines” – one of the main emphases of this workshop. As a new widow, I knew funny was going to be difficult to come by this time, but I was determined to use it to my advantage.
I love when presenters give us prompts to either finish a sentence humorously or pick a partner or two to brainstorm funny responses. This time Judy put this sentence on the board
A pen is just like sex …
I immediately piped up and said “ when it clicks.” Others had a few bawdier answers like “unless it runs out of fluid” or “when the well runs dry.”
She encouraged us to come up with other sentences like that and finish them with crazy answers. It was almost like writing a comedy sketch.
I walked out laughing and appreciative of good humor.
Thanks for reading. We all love Erma.