(Editor’s Note: Periodically we ask writers for personal stories about how the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop changed their lives, inspiring them to write books, pen blogs, perform stand-up comedy and take the next leap in their writing careers. If you missed the opportunity and would like to share your story, send a short note to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Writers talk about making the “sacred pilgrimage” to the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop along the banks of “the Dayton Riviera.” They describe it as a utopia for writers, dubbing it Brigadoon and the Woodstock of Humor. Beyond that, they call the experience supportive, encouraging — and empowering.
When we asked for personal reflections from writers, they told us they gained the confidence, writing know-how and connections to publish books, perform stand-up comedy, submit work for anthologies — and reach out to other writers for support.
“I’ve come out of the creative closet,” says Carol Zollinger, a first-time attendee. “I am no longer afraid to tell people I’m a writer. Interacting with the presenters and other attendees at Erma has given me a greater perspective on the creative process. I’m not Stephen King. I’m not Erma. But I write. I am a writer. I don’t feel shy anymore about saying that out loud to people.
“I made connections at Erma that continue to sustain me,” she adds. “We encourage one other when we post work, celebrate when someone has a victory, and commiserate a little when it’s hard. Just seeing other writers writing and having a sense of community around this creative work has made an enormous difference for me.”
Others received the inspiration to write books. “Three books published,” says Molly Campbell, “and it all started with (winning) the writing contest.”
Amy McVay Abbott is completing her fifth book, A Piece of Her Soul, which is dedicated to the late Erma Bombeck “and in honor of the staff and writers of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.” In an essay in the book, she describes EBWW as “part cheerleading camp, part motivational session, part belly laughs and part writing tutorial.”
Prolific author Allia Zobel Nolan left her first workshop in 2016 so inspired that she proposed a humor anthology, Laugh Out Loud: 40 Women Humorists Celebrate Then and Now…Before We Forget, published this spring in concert with the workshop. “I met a slew of fantastically funny women,” she says about how the collaboration unfolded. At this spring’s workshop, she participated in a book signing with half of the book’s contributors, all attendees. “(We) sold out all 100 copies of the book, I donned my sparkly top and no one noticed in Facebook photos that I had worn it 400 times already, lost weight and firmed up my abs from laughing so hard at keynote speakers, learned more than I could ever imagine about social media and what makes a good website, (and) talked to (and hope I encouraged) dozens of awesome writers in three speed dating events.”
“I’m mega-motivated after my first EBWW,” said Kim Robinson of Austin, Texas. “As an irregular blogger and a writer with just one novel under my belt, the genuine encouragement from known authors and vocational writers inspired me. The resources were phenomenal, presenters engaging, and being with other writers made me want to WRITE.”
Michelle Combs and Lisa McClinsey say they found the courage to perform stand-up comedy. “I can’t remember a time I’ve been comfortable in my own skin. I am introverted and awkward, and I’ve spent my life second-guessing my every word. Then I performed stand up at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. I learned after performing that I do have moments when I am right where I’m supposed to be. I never would have dreamed that would be on a stage,” says Combs, who recently participated in a reading and book signing event for Laugh Out Loud in Covington, Kentucky.
McClinsey found the same support: “I tried stand up for the first time. I’ve been writing humor for years, but I hadn’t performed for an audience before. I loved it so much I started working on a routine before I went home because I’m gonna do that again!”
Elaine Ambrose, whose tell-all memoir Frozen Dinners will be published in November, describes herself as “a goofy grandmother from Idaho” who “tried to keep a low profile, listen and learn” during her first workshop in 2014. “Within a few hours, I had several new best friends, and we were laughing hysterically. Being selected for the Stand-Up Comedy Night was a thrill, even though I was one of the last ones to perform and almost everyone had gone. Two years later, I had the honor to present two workshops at the EBWW and participate in the author book signing event. In 2018, I joined other humor writers in the publication of Laugh Out Loud.
“The workshops,” says the author of nine books, “have provided a world of comedy I had never known. I have lasting friendships, inspired writing and renewed focus on the power of humor in a crabby world. I’m grateful I took the chance on finding this new, powerful tribe.”
— Teri Rizvi
Teri Rizvi is the founder and director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, where she serves as executive director of strategic communications.