Raj Jaiswal twice missed out on registering for the University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop after it sold out within hours in 2014 and 2016. Then, it turned into a bit of an obsession.
“It became my forbidden fruit,” quipped Jaiswal, an emergency room doctor in New York City who has written comedy sketches, including a sitcom script.
En route to Mumbai, India, when registration opened, he checked on the availability of WiFi on the plane, but turned it down because of the expense.
“When I landed in Mumbai, I was still fuming from my decision not to pay for the in-flight WiFi and lamenting my middle-class upbringing. As I checked my phone, I realized that I had spectacularly miscalculated the time difference. Instantly, all my anger converted to shame and embarrassment. I’m Indian, we are supposed to be good at numbers and I got this wrong,” he joked, adding tongue-in-cheek, “I felt the disapproving shame of a billion people while waiting to collect my luggage. I felt so sad that I had not lived up to the cultural stereotype, something I have aspired to do all my life. The only saving grace from all of this was that at least I still had some time.”
He scurried to his hotel, checked in and logged onto the registration site on his international phone — only to discover the Internet connection was painstakingly slow and timed out after he partially filled out the form.
“I wasn’t sure if I had registered 11 times, or if it had even gone through,” Jaiswal says. Though this was not a “typical 2 a.m. crisis,” he told the desk clerk he was desperate. “There I was using a random stranger’s phone, putting in all my credit card details” in the middle of the night for a workshop 8,000 miles away.
Was it worth it?
“I don’t know if the world should be subjected to my writing, but the workshop invigorated my writing spirit,” says Jaiswal, who impressed fellow attendees with his on-the-spot humorous writing about a Parisian dance contest in Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff’s “How to Uncover Your Own Voice” workshop.
Jaiswal discovered the spirit of the workshop, the reason why this spring’s gathering sold out in a record four hours and 42 minutes. It’s unlike any other writers’ workshop in the country. I’ve described it as part love letter, part family reunion, part pep talk.
Emcee Patricia Wynn Brown, who once tagged the workshop the “Woodstock of Humor,” offers this amusing take after the April workshop garnered the highest ratings in its history: “It’s Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and a bit of David Letterman — in the Bombeck kitchen.”
Stand-up comic Leighann Lord, who’s served as keynoter and faculty member, lovingly calls the workshop “our communal and biennial home.”
Every other spring, authors, bloggers, essayists and humorists make the pilgrimage to Erma’s alma mater to honor her legacy, laugh and soak in advice, tips and encouragement from other writers. They mingle with the Bombeck family and keynoters like this year’s Liza Donnelly, the brilliant New Yorker and CBS News cartoonist; John Grogan, author of the bestseller Marley & Me; and the hysterically funny Monica Piper, Emmy Award-winning comedy writer for the animated series Rugrats.
Beyond the laughter that reverberates for three days, the workshop has a serious mission — to inspire writers in the same way Erma felt buoyed by her English professor’s three simple words of encouragement: “You can write!”
Author and performer David Henry Sterry and his agent-wife Arielle Ecstut have brought their popular “Pitchapalooza,” described as American Idol for Books, only gentler,” to the workshop three times in an unusual return-after-return engagement.
The explanation is simple, Sterry says.
“This is the most supportive, generous, loving place writers can gather.”
— Teri Rizvi
Teri Rizvi is founder and director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, where she serves as executive director of strategic communications. The next workshop is slated April 2-4, 2020.