(Editor’s Note: This column appeared in the Dayton Daily News on April 10, 2016. Reprinted by permission of the author, Mary McCarty.)
I rarely put my pen down during last weekend’s ninth biennial Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. I was too busy writing down nuggets of writerly wisdom.
From novelist Amy Ephron, for instance: “When you write a book, you’re on a journey by yourself. You learn something about traveling alone.”
Or from standup comic Leighann Lord: “You can procrastinate on a lot of things, but there’s no time to procrastinate on your passion.”
Or from firebrand feminist humorist Gina Barreca: “Every woman has a history. Every woman in this room has a story to tell.”
But the words I can’t forget came first-time attendee Lori Mansell, who told her fellow writers, “I feel like I’m just getting started. And you are, too.”
Her message resonated with every writer who feared it might be too late — who is racked with remorse over what hasn’t been accomplished.
Every writer, in other words.
Mansell made us all see it in a different light.
Emcee Pat Wynn Brown surprised Mansell by announcing her selection as “Queen” of the weekend — one of the workshop rituals that bring so much fun to this very serious business of writing. “It’s never too late to start writing,” Brown said. “Our new queen once told her tap dance group in California she was only 76 ‘because they kick you out at 80.’”
Mansell had dreamed of becoming a writer for a very long time. During her 25-year teaching career she often promised students, “I’m going to put you in my book!”
Somehow, life kept getting in the way of writing. Mansell was raising four boys when her first husband died from lung cancer.
She went back to school to support them and earned her teaching degree. When that didn’t bring in enough reliable income, she earned her master’s, too. She had three daughters with her second husband, but he died, too.
She was caregiver for her son Jim during his final years battling multiple sclerosis. He died at 31.
Mansell married a third time 17 years ago and her new husband suffered a debilitating accident and once again, she became a caregiver. Jack died last July.
“All this time I was so busy with my life, and I’m a very active person,” she said. She took stock of her life and decided, at long last, that it was her time.
And then her daughter Julie Osborne, also a writer, encouraged her to join her at the Bombeck workshop at the University of Dayton March 31-April 2. It sold out in a record five hours, 41 minutes, attracting 350 writers from across the country, as well as 50 faculty, keynoters and guests.
Mother and daughter were honored when Bombeck family members hand-delivered Dorothy Lane Market “killer brownies” to the mother-daughter duos in attendance. They were shocked when Mansell was called to the stage to be crowned “Queen Lori” by none other than actress Kathy Kinney, who portrayed makeup-drenched Mimi for nine seasons on The Drew Carey Show.
“This is the best thing that ever happened to me in my life!” Mansell exclaimed. “I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and you’ve all inspired me. I’m going to write a book. It’s never too late.”
The workshop’s founder, Teri Rizvi, said Mansell represents “our whole mantra and our message that anyone who truly wants to do something can do it. The message of the workshop — ‘You Can Write’ — is a powerful one that resonates with people no matter how old they are. Everyone needs those words of encouragement to actually start to put words down on paper.”
That theme was emphasized in the keynote speech Kinney delivered with Cindy Ratzlaff, with whom she co-authored Queen of Your Own Life: The Grown-up Woman’s Guide to Claiming Happiness and Getting the Life You Deserve.
“You don’t have to be 21 to have your whole life ahead of you,” Kinney said earnestly.
“But it helps!” she quipped, before getting serious again: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear. You just have to walk through it.”
Mansell spent the rest of the workshop — and the days that have followed — walking on the other side of fear. Osborne wrote about it on her blog, “Tales of Oz”: “My mom was a lifelong Erma fan with a dream to be a writer, so I knew this conference would be a perfect Christmas gift. In the end it was so much more.”
Osborne described the aftermath of the crowning of Queen Lori: “Throughout the afternoon fellow writers greeted her with bows and hand kisses. Selfies with the royal family became commonplace. The queen perfected her regal wave.”
Back home in Carmel, Indiana, Mansell confesses, “I didn’t want to take my tiara off.” She puts it on when she writes because it makes her feel good, and it reminds her of the empowerment — and the support from a community of writers — she felt at the workshop.
“Oh my goodness, I just wrote my very first story for the Internet, and it is such a thrill for me,” she told me.
Here’s a woman who has lost three husbands and a son, yet still can say, “I have been so blessed. My cup runneth over.”
After the workshop, she said, “I feel that I’m not alone. And who would ever have thought I would meet the Bombeck family?”
All weekend, her new friends told her, “Just write. Just write it down.” And that’s what she’s doing.
“I have been so busy with my life that I never got it all down on paper,” she said. “But now is my time. And I owe it all to Erma.”
— Mary McCarty
Mary McCarty is a columnist for the Dayton Daily News and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Dayton, Erma Bombeck’s alma mater. She’s also served on the faculty of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and emceed the Erma Bombeck Writing Awards Competition ceremony.