“Hi, I’m the one with the cat that got stuck in the furnace last week,” said Mary Levad Lovstad, one of the first attendees I met at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. At that moment, she’d confirmed that I was in the right place, one where my peeps, cheerleaders and agenda-free friends gathered to listen to incredible stories, and share in our joy and sorrow.
For three nights, every two years, humor writers descend on Dayton, Ohio, to be reinvigorated by Erma’s reminder, “You can write!” I came to find my direction again. My spark had faded, and I need my butt kicked to get out of the funk. For the first time in 21 years, I did not have children to consume my time. With both of my kids in college, pursuing their own dreams, I was out of excuses.
When I arrived, I noticed other writers felt the same way I did, sorely lacking the mental energy needed to write and publish. Social media overwhelmed us, enthusiasm waned and inspiration was in short supply. We needed our tribe to feel whole, likeminded women who would push us forward and pull us up.
As I reconnected with amazing women, we shared our hopes, dreams and adventures since the last Erma workshop. As the attendees rolled into the Marriott, Elaine Ambrose, award-winning author of eight books, sat next to me and asked, “How’s the stand-up going?” Wow, she asked about me! At breakfast, Abbie Gale told me her social media story and the way a hashtag, #IndieFilm, had turned her family upside-down when an independent filmmaker contacted her. Now her son has a role in the upcoming The Moleskin Diary. During lunch, Gina Valley told me about her current projects, like finishing her humor books on parenting disasters, polishing a crime thriller and then casually mentioned that she has seven kids, eight in the summer. If she can find the time to write, what’s my excuse? Stephanie Mark Lewis and I joked around and she shared her latest book idea, one in the same vein as Gone Girl. By the evening, I felt at home, a place saturated with quirky, enterprising, passionate writers. And they welcomed me to their table.
Presenters like the talented Alan Zweibel, winner of multiple Emmy awards and the original writer of Saturday Night Live, provided inspiration during the workshop sessions. He had me at, “I love short stories.” He even took a copy of Are You Kidding Me? My Life With an Extremely Loud Family, Bathroom Calamities, and Crazy Relatives and signed his book, Lunatics, “Hi, Stacey. Can’t wait to read your book. Love, Al.” We were on a first name basis! Joel Madison, writer for Rosanne, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Larry Sanders Show, helped me figure out what I didn’t want to be when I grew up, a screenwriter confined to a small room, like Room, where mostly men gathered for 12-15 hours per day. In his session, we punched up his script and in response to my suggestion, he said, “Really good. That’s exactly what I’m looking for.” Thanks to Wendy Liebman, comedian and semi-finalist on America’s Got Talent, I discovered that I loved the rush of stand-up comedy. On the last evening, I did a four-minute stand-up routine and afterwards she texted, “You are a natural!”
Keynote speakers inspired, as well. Kathy Kinney, Mimi on The Drew Carey Show, and her best friend, Cindy Ratzlaff, author, speaker and entrepreneur, invigorated the workshop. Statements from their book, Queen of Your Own Life, electrified us. “Welcome to the second half of your life, or what we believe can be the best half of your life.” Leighann Lord earned a standing ovation for her keynote as she shared family stories about dealing with aging parents. We applauded when she said, “Finding your passion is the gift you give yourself. Pursuing your passion is the gift you give others.”
On Sunday morning, I lugged my binder, mugs, books and scraps of notes back to the airport. Back to California. I felt refreshed, and stories tumbled in my mind, begging to be written and submitted. The beauty is in the journey, whether or not I get paid. I know I have something to say. Laughter can change the world. The time to do it is now!
It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else. – Erma Bombeck
— Stacey Gustafson
Stacey Gustafson is an Amazon bestselling author, humor columnist and blogger who has experienced the horrors of being trapped inside a pair of SPANX. Her book, Are You Kidding Me? My Life With an Extremely Loud Family, Bathroom Calamities, and Crazy Relatives ranked #1 Amazon Best Seller in Parenting & Family Humor and Motherhood. Her short stories have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul and seven books in the Not Your Mother’s Book series. Her work appears in Midlife Boulevard, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and Better After 50. She was named EBWW’s Humor Writer of the Month. Enjoy her blog, Are You Kidding Me? at StaceyGustafson.com or follow on Twitter @RUKiddingStacey.