“You don’t have to be 21 to have your whole life ahead of you.”
With those simple words, author and actress Kathy Kinney uncovered one of the secrets behind the enormous popularity of the University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.
This spring’s workshop sold out in five hours and 41 minutes, with writers making the creative pilgrimage to campus from all parts of the country, Canada and Spain. Thanks to the ongoing generosity of the Alumni Association, nearly 20 communication students soaked in the inspiration and writing tips, too, from an all-star roster that featured humorist Roy Blount Jr., novelist Amy Ephron, Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel and New York Times’ bestselling author Jenny Lawson.
Writers know this biennial workshop, launched in 2000, is not like any other in the country. I’ve described it as part love letter, part family reunion, part pep talk. Kinney, perhaps best known for her portrayal of the campy Mimi on The Drew Carey Show, and her writing partner Cindy Ratzlaff brought the encouragement writers need to face a blank page or forge through a horrible first draft.
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear,” Kinney said. “Just walk through it.”
Every time I enter the packed Dayton Marriott Hotel ballroom for the opening keynote dinner, I’m taken aback by the energy and exuberance, by the laughter and warmth. As the 20th anniversary of Erma’s death approached this spring, I felt her legacy even more deeply through a new generation of writers who gathered in her memory to laugh, learn and support one another on the often-lonely writing journey.
“We cannot think of a better legacy for our mom than this workshop,” said Matt Bombeck midway through the workshop as he introduced the new one-woman show, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, that sparked tears and laughter.
In her heyday, Bombeck’s column appeared in 900 newspapers. She wrote 12 books, nine of which appeared on The New York Times’ Bestsellers list. For 11 years, Americans woke up to her humorous segments on Good Morning America. A 1949 alumnae, she never forgot “three magic words” from Bro. Tom Price, S.M., her English professor. After she slipped a humorous essay under his door, he greeted her with words that sustained her the rest of her life: “You can write!”
That’s the spirit we try to bottle in an event that has, largely by word of mouth, gained national notoriety and a loyal following of writers who affectionately call themselves a tribe.
“What happens when 350 people, predominantly women, truck in from all across the U.S. to spend three full days laughing (and a little crying), eating (mostly desserts) and baring their souls to each other? Magic. In a place called Dayton. That’s not a punchline,” blogged Kimberly “Kimba” J. Dalferes, a former Justice Department official turned book author.
Creativity coach Julia Roberts called the workshop “a utopia for humor writers that only appears every other year, out of the mist, on the edge of the Great Miami River in Dayton, Ohio (like Brigadoon…).”
For me, the workshop’s power can be found in the small moments: At lunch one day emcee Pat Wynn Brown surprised long-retired school teacher Lori Mansell by “crowning” her queen. Refusing to take her tiara off, she enjoyed the curtsies and bows from other attendees all afternoon — then went home to Carmel, Indiana, and wrote and published her first essay.
“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.’”
It’s a lesson worth living: You don’t have to be 21 to have your whole life ahead of you.
— Teri Rizvi
Teri Rizvi founded the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, where she also serves as executive director of strategic communications.