In 2016 I had the amazing opportunity to attend the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop for the first time. My favorite session was hosted by Alan Zweibel, an author, producer and former Saturday Night Live writer.
I jotted down notes feverishly because I knew I wanted to remember his advice and perspective, like this point, “As a writer what you remember is not the product but the process.” He told the workshop attendees, “The victory is in writing it.
“You can’t predict the response once you put it out there,” he assured us, but “you created something that wasn’t there. Just write and have lots of material…whatever your 1,100 jokes are.” (When Zweibel met Lorne Michaels, the creator of SNL, that was the number of jokes he had ready to pitch.) Zweibel exhorted us to “persevere, follow your passion; if you get a break, be prepared.”
He was right. Experience has taught me that I can only control my commitment to writing the story. I can spend a few weeks, on and off, fine-tuning a humor piece. Once it’s finished, I am often amazed at and gratified by the improvement. Yet sometimes when I share something I have diligently labored over, the response from readers is lackluster. At other times I cobble something together — combine snippets of various posts into a tongue-in-cheek reflection on marriage, for instance — and people love and share it. I have no idea why my audience responds enthusiastically to one but not the other.
I simply tell those stories I feel compelled to tell in the best possible way, work hard at my craft, and try to finish what I begin. Thanks to the workshop’s humorwriters.org platform, I have quite a lot of material now — not yet 1,100 pieces, but I’m working on it.
While writing for its site, I exercised the writer’s muscles of brevity and cohesiveness. Among the workshop’s growing community of poets, stand-up comedians, playwrights, journalists and humor writers, I also met and was inspired by several talented individuals who published books. I attended sessions that offered insight on the best possible approaches to independent publishing at the 2016 workshop. And since then I have often recalled Alan Zweibel’s and other writers’ assertions that success is found in the completion of a work. Thanks in part to all of this, I achieved my dream recently.
When I was 17, I wrote a novella — a story very close to my heart — and then held onto it for more than 20 years, returning to it for short bursts and then ignoring it for long years. At long last I finished it this year, publishing it in October. It’s a true victory to finally let go of a story that means a great deal to me personally. Relinquishing it to the world, I took a leap of faith to put something of mine out there that did not exist before. I’m successful.
Being brave (an attribute that is often spoken of in Erma circles, as it requires courage to write or perform humor), I even pitched my newly released paperback to a small gift shop near my home that showcases local artists.
Unfortunately, after doing so I asked the shop owner’s husband about items that baffled me: strange holiday-themed tongue depressors I saw in a jar on the checkout counter.
“Those are nail files!” he exclaimed. “Every woman recognizes a nail file!”
I lamely explained that I play guitar and type a lot, so I’m not a nails girl. It probably would have helped my case more if I had replied, “I’m not really a woman. You know how women used to take masculine names in order to get their books published? Well, Hillary Ibarra is my pen name. It felt more appropriate in this modern age to take a feminine name, and I like to look the part while pitching my book!”
But I also mistook some suncatchers for Christmas tree ornaments, so he undoubtedly thought I was an idiot. Perhaps I should have shouted proudly while making a hasty exit, “I have no common sense, but I can write!”
You can write. Erma heard those words from Brother Tom Price, and it changed her life. We all want to hear those words. The writers’ workshop offers a space in which we can affirm that truth for each other, encourage one another, and flex our bravery muscles together in order to at last finish a work dear to us and let it go, knowing that success will always be found in writing and completing it in the first place.
— Hillary Ibarra
Hillary Ibarra is the author — finally! — of The Christmas List. She has had several humor pieces published online, most at the incredible humorwriters.org. In 2020 she fervently hopes to return to Dayton, Ohio, for the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. She regrets that she had to miss this year’s workshop because her family was moving to Albu “quirky.” Read about her merry-go-round existence and the faith, family and friendships that keep it going on her blog, No Pens, Pencils, Knives or Scissors. This piece is part of a series of videos, blogs and social media shout-outs by “Erma Champions” during the workshop’s #25Kin25Days campaign.