Karen Chee and Samantha Schoech, winners of an unconventional two-week residency for emerging humor writers, ventured out of their hotel rooms to offer some serious advice to students in a media writing class at the University of Dayton.
“Being funny is not trying to be funny. It’s being observant,” Schoech, a writer and editor from San Francisco, told students in Mary McCarty’s class.
“I was looking out my hotel room window, and I saw something glowing in the distance. I thought, ‘Here’s my view of the river, my piece of the Dayton Riviera.’ It was actually the reflection from an aluminum roof,” she said to laughter.
Schoech and Chee, a recent Harvard University graduate who now works as a comedy writer and performer in New York City, won all-expenses-paid trips to the April 5-7 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and a two-week stay at the University of Dayton Marriott, where they’re both working on books of humorous essays. They are the inaugural winners of “A Hotel Room of One’s Own: The Erma Bombeck | Anna Lefler Humorist-in-Residence Program” that drew applications from 401 hopeful writers in 44 states, the District of Columbia and five other countries.
Their advice to young aspiring writers:
Have a thick skin: “Some people don’t understand that my pieces are satirical,” said Chee, who’s written a humorous essay for the Washington Post and collaborated on political satire for The New Yorker during the first week of her residency. “One person said, ‘I see you dabble in humor, but when I looked at your Twitter feed, it’s a bunch of nonsense.’” Added Schoech: “I could wallpaper my house with rejection letters I’ve gotten over the years.”
Don’t succumb to writer’s block: “I think writer’s block is you getting in your own way,” observed Schoech, who wrote an essay for her book that morning. “You just have to keep putting words on the screen and write through it.”
Cultivate discipline: “Just get your butt in a chair and do it. There are so many distractions, but when you’re done, it feels so good to have written,” Chee said.
Network: “I’ve learned everything in my career depends upon relationships I’ve formed along the way,” Schoech said. “If I were in college again, I’d spend my summers interning.”
Take a risk: “A lot of places feel intimidating, but if you have something you think is good enough (for national placement), just send it,” Chee said. “They don’t ask for recommendation letters, and if your pieces are accepted, it’s a great way to build a portfolio.”
Be present in the world: “I love improv. It’s so collaborative. You may not have an idea going onto the stage, but you can build off someone (else’s funny lines). You have no choice but to be present,” Chee said. “The key to being a good writer,” Schoech added, “is being a good observer.”
Schoech, who has written for magazines and edited two anthologies of humor essays, left her 11-year-old twins with her husband to work on her first book during the residency. Chee, who interned for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” dreams of writing comedy for a living and said she was inspired to write a book after reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants and David Sedaris’s Naked.
Beyond their own plush monogrammed bathrobes and free room service, these writers have been given the gift of time to write, thanks to a generous gift from Anna Lefler, a Los Angeles-based novelist, comedy writer and creative genius behind the program, bathrobes and all.
“This is two weeks out of your daily grind,” Lefler said. “My goal was to give two writers the opportunity to pull back from their regular routines and put their creative goals first. It’s a kick start — a chance to pour everything you’ve got into your work without interruption. I mean, who knows what talented writers can pull off if they don’t have to show up for their pesky day job or take anyone to the orthodontist?”
— Teri Rizvi
Teri Rizvi is founder and director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, where she works as executive director of strategic communications.