Four kids, three houses, eight cars and three colleges ago, I was a waitress at Denny’s. Many a Grand Slam breakfasts and chicken fried steak paid for community college. Whenever a posse of older women came, the wait staff would immediately hide in the kitchen, no one wanting that table.
Chimes of “not me, not me, not me” rang out like seagulls finding fries at the beach, and with good reason.
What pains in the as**! Dressing on the side, skim milk for coffee, lo-cal syrup, hold the mayo, extra mayo, no salt, eggs hard, fork is dirty, no ice please, decaf tea, substitutions galore, then separate checks and crappy tips.
I’m still traumatized some 35 years later.
So why then do I flock to a writing conference in Dayton, Ohio, a mecca of sorts of middle-aged (being generous here) women (and nine men) to pay homage and learn by sheer osmosis the writing and wit of Erma Bombeck.
Here gather 350 women (and nine men), the VAST majority between the ages of 45-105 (except for the room crashed at 2 a.m, where four politically savvy, very smart, very drunk young women discussed writing, friendship, politics, parenting and marriage — an anomaly of demographics to be sure, but one I welcomed and not just because of the late-night pizza and free booze).
The Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop is every two years, and frankly, it’s not enough. Last time, I spent the vast majority of the conference between workshops, alone in a bathroom stall, pity party of one. I was in a dark place and looking for some light. And laughter. (You can read about that here.)
This year, I was on stage doing stand-up. Four minutes of hell that I will remember forever. From the bathroom stall to center stage, and it’s all thanks to the writers who flock to Dayton.
They, these 350 women (and nine men) who are all in some version of the same boat, want you to succeed. There is room for us all. I flee self-help, inspirational live-your-own-life spiritual bliss bullsh**. I despise it, and yet, that is exactly what I find here.
Like a spoon full of sugar, or a shot of tequila, I go for the workshops, the how-to craft, the social media tips, the networking and face-to-face opportunity that doesn’t happen on Facebook, or at larger conferences with bigger egos.
And yet, through the workshops, I find inspiration. Peace. Excitement. Energy. Encouragement. Talent. It all happens here.
• Is what you write a window or a mirror? If a mirror, it only applies to you and has limited audience. If a window, it offers a wider, universal story others can participate with.
• There’s a fine line where your story ends and someone else’s begins.
• Get it on the page. Even if it is crap.
• Anytime you sit down to write your story, you have something unique to bring to the page.
• Be real. Share moments of emotional generosity.
• About Gilda Radner, Bunny, Bunny: “I wanted our words to touch each other again.”
• The jokes will come, but writing the truth must come first.
• There’s no secret to writing comedy. The secret is writing. The jokes will come.
• Do the work.
• The best writing touches the soul.
• You won’t suck. I won’t let that happen. Breathe.
• Control what you can: the jokes, the writing. Delivery. Your health and stamina. Ignore what you can’t control.
• Act as if it’s a great audience. Every single time.
• Surround yourself with positive people.
• You never know who you’re gonna meet who will give you a leg up.
• You don’t have to be 21 to have your whole life ahead of you. But it helps.
• Find a friend who doesn’t have an agenda.
• Suck up to others. Really. Do it.
• Get your foot in the door by finding your niche.
• Stand up is for alternative thinkers.
• If you have something to say, get out and say it.
• If you don’t ask, you don’t get. No one is sitting around thinking about you.
• If the word ‘no’ frightened you, you wouldn’t be sitting here.
• Opportunity comes through friendships.
• Pursuing your passion is the gift you give other people.
•Surround yourself with people who believe in you.
• You’re funny. Really funny. (To me. To my face, in the lobby)
• Your personal brand is a story you write about you.
• Leave digital breadcrumbs everywhere.
• Fan base believes they know us. Interact and build the relationship. Don’t let a share or comment go unnoticed.
• Readers read. Writers read. Colleagues are part of your tribe. Be a steward of that tribe. Share.
• Engage wherever fans want to play. Go there.
• Narrator is a hero if things don’t happen to them.
• Epiphany is the pay-off: when it stops being about you and starts being about the reader.
• You can’t go back and un-have an epiphany.
• Don’t be safe. If you’re being safe, you’re probably talking about other people.
It was like this for two days and two nights. I stole a little extra time from Leighann Lord because I mooched a ride to the airport with her, completely blurring the lines between “talent” and “attendee.” Because that’s how this workshop rolls.
Eat dinner with a bunch of strangers, and learn about publications, editors, tips and leads. And second chances, career fails, good bras, in sickness and in health, menopause, tequila, online dating, great moisturizer, trolls, dark clouds and bright skies.
This workshop has something for everyone, regardless where you fall on the bell curve of writing. From polished, published professionals marketing a script, screenplay, or manuscript to a hospice nurse who always wanted to write, to an investment banker who thinks she might be funny — we all attend the same classes, taking what we need for this time in our life, and walk out lighter, braver and bolder.
The workshop also included a performance of the one-woman show, At Wit’s End starring Broadway and movie star Barbara Chisholm, and I sat near the back so I could sneak out if it sucked.
IT DID NOT. I was spellbound. Erma resonated because the tiny moments of the mundane had a far-reaching audience. Still. Her observations of parenting and housework had huge implications for the Equal Rights Amendment then. And now. Because there’s still work to do.
As Nancy Berk said during the all-woman in comedy panel: “Ageism is real, but here’s the thing: we are the lump in the demographic bubble. We are the majority. We sell out venues because they don’t see us on television.”
Thanks to the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and the 350 women (and nine men), I for one will not forget the power of the pen, and our responsibility to use it wisely. With poise and humor, I can do both. Be funny and serious. Humor and activism. Doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and I hope the writers who experienced what I experience are tasked with continuing important conversations that may, in fact, inspire others to do the same to make the world a better place. One essay at a time.
— Kate Mayer
Kate Mayer is a potty-mouthed, somewhat irreverent storyteller, humorist and activist sharing life as she lives it in Newtown, Connecticut. She writes with humor, wit and a great amount of levity about parenting, teenage angst, aging parents, midlife, social issues and, sigh, gun- violence prevention. Her essays have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, BluntMoms, Scary Mommy, BlogHer, The Mid, The Good Men Project, Midlife Boulevard, much in thanks to EBWW. She is a very proud Listen To Your Mother NYC 2012 alum. She blogs at http://www.kathrynmayer.com and is occasionally funny on Instagram and Twitter as @klmcopy. If you play well with others, find her on Facebook.