Inspired by Erma
(Editor’s Note: When we asked for personal stories about how the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop inspired writers to write — anything from books to blogs — the response was overwhelming. If you missed the opportunity and would like to share your story, send a short note to firstname.lastname@example.org for a follow-up story. )
One writer dubs the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop the “Woodstock of Humor.” Another calls it a “utopia” for writers — one “that only appears every other year, out of the mist, on the edge of the Great Miami River in Dayton, Ohio (like Brigadoon).”
Many say it’s life changing. Empowering. And, yes, magical.
When we asked for personal stories from writers, they told us they gained the confidence, writing know-how and connections to publish books, write essays for The New York Times and other national outlets, perform stand-up comedy, secure speaking engagements and submit work for anthologies.
“EBWW has been a nonstop chain reaction of success stories for me,” says Bonnie Jean Feldkamp, a freelance writer from Louisville, Kentucky, who credits keynoter and faculty member Gina Barreca for giving her valuable feedback on her essay about her blended family. It later appeared in The New York Times‘ “Motherlode” section.
Attendee and fellow writer Amy Sherman hired Feldkamp to help her start her Kranky Kitty website and develop a social media strategy. And other writers, Lisa Smith Molinari and Suzette Martinez Standring, introduced her to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, where she now serves on its board as director of media.
In 2014, an attendee came up to Rosalie Bernard in a University of Dayton hallway after she “totally bombed” her Pitchapalooza book pitch and said, “Hey, I would buy it!” Bernard wanted to hug her. “I kept thinking, ‘If she would, others will.'” Two years later, she published Mimi and the Ghost Crab Dance, which is now in its second printing, and she’s writing the second book in the trilogy.
“And all this was inspired by Team Erma,” she says.
Allia Zobel Nolan, a former senior editor at Reader’s Digest who’s written close to 200 books, traveled from Norwalk, Connecticut, to attend her first workshop this spring — with some hesitation. “What could a writers’ conference teach a publishing veteran of 15 years, a been-there-done-that woman on the lookout for innovative, time-saving, smarter ways of doing things while staying relevant in an ever-changing literary world?” she asked herself.
“I learned so much, I could hardly internalize it all — from social media to branding, from the importance of garnering a loyal ‘tribe’ of fans and friends to getting a lousy first draft of your novel done and dusted, not to mention a way into The Huffington Post. (After trying for months to no avail, I’m now a blogger on the site, thanks to the kindness of a most helpful Erma attendee who recommended me),” she says.
“Then there are the people — other writers, authors, humorists — who understand what it’s like writing (sitting down at your desk and opening up a vein), who are not afraid to share their triumphs and failures, and who are more encouraging than your mom coaxing you into the world at birth.”
Stacey Gustafson, an author and blogger from Pleasanton, California, caught “the stand-up comedy bug” after learning techniques from comedy pro Leighann Lord and performing at the closing night of the 2014 workshop. Since then, she won a stand-up comedy award, performed at a middle school fundraiser, wrote a feature story for Toastmaster Magazine and landed two paid stand-up gigs.
“The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop has made a huge difference in my writing and confidence,” she says. “Through this process, I discovered that stand-up comedy is way harder than writing humor. When you write a story, you’re in the comfort of your own home, pecking away at the keyboard with the ability to rewrite and massage a story at your leisure. The same cannot be said for stand-up.
“In stand-up, every word must be perfect. Gestures, pauses, eye contact, timing and facial expressions are essential for success plus the ability to gauge an audience reaction. Don’t forget body movement, posture and memorization. …My confidence has soared, and it all started at the 2014 workshop.”
After Ginger Lumpkin, a columnist from Thorntown, Indiana, heard comic, author and coach Judy Carter give an hilarious keynote talk at the 2014 workshop, she began thinking about what it would take to launch a public speaking career. After this year’s workshop, she registered for Carter’s online class and began working with her on developing and perfecting a motivational talk.
“I am presenting it four times at a corporate training conference, and two other businesses, so far, have expressed interest,” she said. “Judy is phenomenal. EBWW is amazing.”
Mindy Wells Hoffbauer, a writer from Springboro, Ohio, credits the “incredible networking opportunities” at the workshop for helping her land a job in social media marketing for W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon, who co-wrote the screenplay for A Dog’s Purpose, available in movie theatres nationwide, starting in January.
“I’ve had the pleasure of editing books for Nancy Berk and Barb Best and am now having the time of my life working as a social media director,” she says. “And none of this would have happened without Erma.”
Kim Reynolds, of Commerce Twp., Michigan, says the workshop gave her a big dose of “You can do it.”
“I made so many new friends and learned so much about writing that it almost paralyzed me,” says Reynolds, who pens a humorous blog, Kim’s Crazy Life, and writes for the Oakland Press.
At the 2016 workshop, Janet Coburn, a freelance writer and blogger from Beavercreek, Ohio, with bipolar disorder, “learned a thing or two about writing — how to write a better query letter, how to improve my blogs, when to consider self-publishing” — but mostly she learned to pace herself by finding quiet spaces and taking breaks.
“Am I glad I went? Yes. The experience was good for me in more ways than one. Paying attention to my own limits and not trying to live up to artificial expectations made for a good — and survivable — learning experience.”
After registering for the 2016 workshop, Kathy Shiels Tully, a regular contributor to the Boston Globe and magazines, felt so inspired about her writing life that she sent an essay for inclusion in Chicken Soup for the Soul’s latest book, The Power of Gratitude. It was accepted.
“I’ve sent a few stories in to Chicken Soup and have to say there’s something exciting knowing your story was picked out of thousands,” she says.
After the spring workshop, Helen Chibnik, a lifestyle writer and blogger from Middletown, New Jersey, found the inspiration to write a novel — and more.
“You would think that the workshop content would be the best part, but it wasn’t,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong. The content was worth five times the price. It was wonderful, and I still use the timer Cindy Ratzlaff and Kathy Kinney gave us. (And) Anna Lefler’s session inspired me to work on a novel, to write more and care less about what other people might think.
“But, for me, that workshop provided a community of people who think like me, who understand what it means to be a mom, a professional, a daughter, lose a loved one, and to fail and to still find something to smile about. People who feed on humor for therapy, even for survival sometimes. I don’t think there is another collection of smarter, happier and more insightful people than the Erma attendees.”
— Teri Rizvi
Teri Rizvi is the founding director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, where she also serves as executive director of strategic communications.