The workshop for humor writing, human interest writing, networking and getting published

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Finding human interest in the funny

Leah VidalHello. My name is Leah and I am not a humorist.

Last month, I attended the Erma Bombeck Workshop where I spent four days surrounded by funny people…in Dayton, Ohio, no less.

Humor was not limited to sessions such as “The Secret to Writing Funny” by Alan Zweibel, an original Saturday Night Live writer, multiple Emmy winner and current executive producer on Showtime’s Inside Comedy or Wendy Liebman’s “Stand-Up Comedy Boot Camp.” Wendy has been performing stand up since 1985 on shows like Carson, Letterman, Leno, Fallon and Kimmel to name a few. These workshops were intended to help humorists learn to write funnier and learn the basics of stand-up comedy.

At the first networking event, I found myself in a sea of funny. I was intimidated for the briefest of moments. It’s not that I don’t have a sense of humor. I’ve made people laugh once or twice in my life. I’ll admit it was in person and alcohol was probably involved to some degree, but I can be funny. However, my writing doesn’t fall in the humor category as my pieces tend to make you feel something else. I focus on human Interest and have been known to make grown men close their office doors because they’ve been reduced to a blubbery mess upon reading one of my essays. Thank goodness my stuff doesn’t fall in the humor category or that would not be a compliment.

As I made my way around the room, the question inevitably came up time and time again, “So, what kind of writing do you do?” at which point I felt like I should just start my introductions with “Hello. My name is Leah and I am not a humorist” if only to get that out of the way. One particular woman was shocked to learn I was attending the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop if I wasn’t writing anything funny and had no plans of it in the future.

Woman: I’ve been attending Erma for years. How about yourself?

Me: I’m an Erma virgin (I had the button to prove it).

Woman: Oh, what kind of writing to do you do?

Me: Human interest mostly.

Woman: Then what are you doing here?

Me: (silence)

Woman: Human interest is great, but writing humor is so much harder.

Me: (silence)

Woman: Well, I’m sure you’ll get something out of it regardless. This is a great group!

Me: It was nice meeting you. I see someone I should say hello to across the room.

I spent the rest of the evening thinking of wonderful comebacks in defense of human interest and kicking myself for not thinking of them on the spot. In her defense, I don’t think she meant to trivialize the type of writing I do. …Okay, maybe she did. Either way, as a newbie and already feeling a bit like a fish out of water, I carried that conversation with me throughout the conference.

Here’s what I learned:

Erma Bombeck wasn’t solely a humorist. Even when she was being funny, there was always an element of human interest in her writing. She took the every day and shined a spotlight of reality onto it. She allowed us to laugh at what seemed monumental, breaking down what once appeared as insurmountable into tiny morsels of digestible truth. Most importantly, she gave us permission to laugh at ourselves and taught us we all experience the same daily tribulations when it comes to being a woman, a mother, a partner, a writer. She taught us to connect with others and ourselves and find humor in the ordinary because after all we’re all only HUMAN.

I spent the next few days attending sessions to improve my craft, getting advice from experienced and successful writers who were quick to share their wisdom with me, who connected and related to me as a writer yes, but also as a person.

Alan Zwiebel didn’t have a personal chauffeur drive him from the hotel to the University of Dayton. I know! Shocker right? He actually rode the shuttle bus, sitting next to me making small talk. He is down to earth and funny and approachable.

Anna Lefler, author of The Chicktionary: From A-Line to Z-snapThe Words Every Woman Should Know and Preschooled actually offered to take a copy of the pitch I had written for Pitchapalooza (an event, where 20 random attendees are selected to pitch their book to a panel of agents and publishers) back to her hotel room to review that night. I gave her my last clean copy and thought if I never heard back from her, I would use my handwritten one to do the pitch. That night, I received an email from her with detailed feedback showing she not only followed through but really took some time to review it. I am now her biggest fan. Buy her book! Buy two and give one to a girlfriend!

At the airport Starbucks while waiting for my flight, I spent some time with Cindy Ratzlaff. She is a Simon & Schuster exec who was named to Forbes 20 Best Branded Women on Twitter list. What did we chat about? It wasn’t writing or branding or pitching myself. Maybe I missed an opportunity there, come to think of it. However, talking about raising children in today’s world and how different that is than when we grew up felt like I was discussing parenting with a girlfriend, over a cup of coffee at my kitchen table.

Throughout the conference, I experienced so many of these moments that confirmed my decision to attend my first Erma. I learned about branding and novel-writing. I have a notebook full of tips on finding my voice, writing the perfect scene and crafting compelling essays. I gained confidence in myself and my craft and came back with a renewed spirit toward completing my novel. I came home braver, too, with the words of Kathy Kinney (Mimi on The Drew Carey Show for those of you who live under a rock), ringing in my heart: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

However, the biggest takeaway for me was that I may have signed up for a conference full of humorists, but amidst the laughs I found the greatest example of human interest I have ever witnessed.

Erma would be proud.

— Leah Vidal

Leah Vidal, author of Red Circle Days, shares her work weekly at www.littlemisswordy.com. Her writing covers current events, health and wellness, parenting and daily tribulations. She is most at home sharing life’s little moments — those that plant the thought-provoking seed of self discovery. Leah’s blog has been featured and syndicated on BlogHer, Freshly Pressed on WordPress and fitness and parenting sites. Leah paused a career in public relations to raise two children and has never looked back, except on the days when it would be nice to have an office to escape to or at least a desk to hide under. Her family currently lives in Puerto Rico, where she is a fitness-focused (physical, spiritual and mental health) mom of two and wife of one, who enjoys combing the beach for sea glass, avoiding the kitchen and making words come to life.

Reflections of Erma