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Circle of giving

joanne_keltz_brokawToday is #GivingTuesday, and my friend Tim Bete challenged me to donate $1 for every word of the last thing I’ve written to the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. The last thing I wrote was a Facebook message to a friend, in which I used the words “Absolutely Fabulous” and “Sweetie darling” enough times to match Tim’s donation challenge.

Seriously, though, I will always owe a huge debt of gratitude to former conference director Tim Bete, who is the reason I was first able to attend a sold-out Erma many years ago. The story of how I ended up there is one of those destiny stories. It’s long but it’ll give you an idea of how influential and life changing attending EBWW can be.

In 2004, I had been writing a little humor piece and sending it to family and friends, while I was also writing feature pieces for some small religious magazines. I wouldn’t have considered myself a writer, let alone a humor writer. In February or March of that year, my uncle and aunt were visiting, and completely out of the blue, my uncle said, “Your writing reminds me of Erma Bombeck.” I’d read Erma’s column when I was a kid but hadn’t thought about her for years, so later, just for kicks, I googled her name.

The first thing that came up was the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. I read the description, looked at the list of speakers, and decided I needed to be there. I contacted EBWW only to find out it was already sold out. I got on the wait list and waited.

And waited.

One magazine decided they wanted me to go to Florida to cover baseball’s spring training; I’m not a sports writer or even a sports fan, but it would have been a new adventure. Only problem? It was the same week as the Erma conference. I still hadn’t heard if a spot had opened up, so just before I booked a plane ticket to Florida, I decided to see how far I’d made it on the conference wait list. I had a gut feeling that I had to be at the conference.

Rather than send an email, I called the conference contact number and got then director Tim Bete on the phone. He told me I was maybe #100 on the wait list. Oh well, I told him, it was worth checking. But Tim kept me on the phone talking about my writing, asking who I wrote for and what else I did, and after about a half hour of us chatting he told me he had a place for me at the conference if I wanted it. Did I want it??? I put together my pennies, and went.

It completely changed my life.

To be honest, I’ve never been super adventurous. But I got in the car and drove to Ohio from Western New York. I talked to strangers at the conference. I soaked up the knowledge from capable speakers. I went home with the assurance that I could write, and a support system of like-minded creatives to fall back on when I doubted myself.

After that conference, Tim started a Google group for humor writers who had a faith background. A few strangers joined the small group, and we became fast, close and devoted friends — online.

The years passed. I went to a few more Ermas, had similar amazing experiences, even had a chance one year to act as a first-round judge for the writing contest. But than I had to stop attending for financial reasons. I always felt a twinge of regret when I saw registration open.

Two years ago, a friend I’ve known only from that original online humor group Tim started 12 years ago asked me to come to a small conference in Pennsylvania and teach a session on writing humor.

His name was Jim, and while our group had supported each other over the decade through personal and creative ups and downs, I’d never actually met him in person. I also knew zero people who were going to be at the conference in Pennsylvania, but I went anyway. It was an amazing experience. I hadn’t been able to afford to go to Erma for years, but at this tiny conference I found a bit of the camaraderie I’d been craving since my last trip to Ohio years earlier.

One afternoon at lunch, I was talking to a group of women I’d only just met and somehow we got on the topic of humor conferences. “You HAVE to go to the Erma conference,” I said, and in just a few minutes, we four — those three close friends and me, the stranger — had agreed to go to Erma 2016.

We kept in touch almost daily over the next six months as we planned, plotted and prepared. Of course, a close friendship grew, and at Erma we not only solidified our new bond, the net was cast for these three amazing women to spread the Erma joy.

So the Erma influence circles round again.

That’s a long story, and doesn’t even begin to speak to the hundreds of things that have happened to me that came about because of someone I met at Erma — chances I took, adventures I’ve had, friendships that have changed the direction of my creative life for the better. The net this conference casts is vast and wide, and can’t be measured in how many book deals are made or paid writing jobs secured. It’s measured in people and relationships, and the way each creative life is inspired by another.

I often wonder what would have happened if Tim hadn’t found a place for me at Erma in 2004. Most likely, I would have thrown in the creative towel and gone to work at a “real job.” I didn’t consider myself a writer back then. I was a dabbler who typed words and dreamed dreams. Erma gave me the confidence and power to become a Real Writer.

If anyone ever questions whether they should go to Erma — or go again and again and again — I hope my story inspires them. It’s worth every penny and every effort you have to make to get there.

— Joanne Brokaw

Humor columnist and award-winning freelance writer Joanne Brokaw spends her days dreaming of things she’d like to do but probably never will — like swimming with dolphins, cleaning the attic and someday overcoming the trauma of elementary school picture day. She’s spent the majority of her professional writing career covering entertainment, freelancing and penning columns for dozens of newspapers, magazines and websites in the U.S. and Canada. She’s received three Evangelical Press Association awards and an Excellence in Writing Award from the Ozarks Christian News. A collection of her columns, What The Dog Said, was published in 2013.

Reflections of Erma