Thirty-four years ago, I was a first-time mother barely surviving my liberated effort to “do it all.” I moved frantically from long days as a newspaper reporter into long nights of a colicky baby, trying to prove myself perfect in both arenas. I wanted to quit the job, but I was fighting the voices of all my journalist friends who said if I quit my job I would NEVER. BE. HIRED. AGAIN. At least not as a reporter. And certainly not as columnist, which had always been my dream.
The voices won for about a year, but I finally raised the white flag at my job because I couldn’t be the kind of reporter I was (obsessive) and the kind of mother I wanted to be (present and pleasant). I’ll just do my best, I thought. I’ll find a way. It can’t be impossible. But as the days turned into months and my friends’ voices grew more haranguing, I started wondering if I would find a way.
Then, the miracle I needed happened when my local paper began running Erma Bombeck’s column. It became my North Star.
Erma made me laugh, of course, but she did far more than that. She showed me that a smart, witty woman could write about life at home and (gasp) get those words published. On her own terms. While actually being at home. She saved my dream.
This was long before Mommy Blogs existed, and the only way to publication was through the gatekeepers of newspaper editors. You had to find a paper that wanted what was then called “a local Erma,” and you had to get yourself there before a staff reporter convinced her editor that she had the goods to fit the position. And of course, you had to have a really good product to sell, and proof that you could produce it on a weekly basis.
I studied Erma, read all her books and columns, and, just after the birth of my fourth child in six years (a column in itself!), I had enough material to produce a highly readable, pretty funny, sometimes moving column about raising kids (and a husband). I’d also developed enough gumption that I could walk into the editor’s office in the new town we lived in and pitch it to him.
For the next 13 years, my family-life column ran in various local newspapers as we moved across the country, helping pay for soccer shoes and family trips. It kept my self-esteem buoyed when little else could, and when readers would write in and say I was “just like Erma!” my heart would explode at the compliment. I wasn’t anywhere near as talented Erma was, but at least I was heading in the right direction — a direction Erma had pointed out to me years before.
And now, she’s about to perform the same saving grace through the conference named after her.
You see, about 10 years ago the newspaper I worked for closed down, and I faced another fork in the road. Once again, I was fighting off dream-killers, only this time, I listened to them. Who could argue with the statistics? More than 14,000 journalists were laid off in 2009 and the blood-letting seemed to have no end. I was a small-time education reporter and religion columnist competing with big-name reporters from The New York Times and the Boston Globe and every other paper that had had a machete taken to its newsroom. It seemed pretty hopeless. And I didn’t have Erma whispering in my ear that dreams are worth following.
So, while younger, faster, less-afraid people jumped onto the blogging wagon and started making their names over the next decade, I moved into higher education. And the further I got from column writing, the less I felt I had anything to say. There were thousands of bloggers out there, for heavens sake! Who would want to read what I had to write?
But you know what they say about a dream deferred. So, this year, just as the “this can’t be all there is” depression was getting to be too much, I looked up the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. I got myself signed up before the cut-off and joined the Facebook page set up for first-time attendees and, suddenly, just like when I read Erma’s column, life had color again.
The Erma Tribe channeled Erma back into my life and the dream returned. I was able to shut out the negative noises and remember what she taught me years ago, rocking my finally-sleeping daughter and reading her column by candlelight: I can do this.
And I have, writing five blog posts (aka columns) in the past two weeks, more than I’ve written in the past three years. They aren’t perfect, but I’m back on the horse, holding onto the dream. So, tonight, when I say my prayers, they’re going to be in thanksgiving for Erma, who saved me a long time ago as a young mother, and whose conference is about to save me again. Amen.
— Renee Schafer Horton
Renee Schafer Horton is an award-winning former journalist and nascent novelist who lives in Tucson, Arizona, and writes at reneewrotethis.com.