We librarians are expected to check out your books and answer your reference questions, but we’re often called upon to perform other tasks. When a Facebook pal recently asked her fellow librarians: “What has been your most memorable ‘other duty’ since you began your career?” the responses she got might surprise people who think that library work is quiet, routine and humdrum:
Breaking up fights between moms in our play area.
Picking up poop in the Storybook Garden before the ice cream social.
I once guided the bomb squad as they slowly and methodically combed through our two-story library. Empty phone threat — phew!
Escorting a pigeon from the computer lab.
Breaking up a couple making whoopee in the women’s bathroom. (I was the very definition of “coitus interruptus.”)
Putting pajamas on a llama. (He was part of a story time presentation.)
Administering first aid to a patron who was stabbed in the computer lab.
I do Potty Story Time, so once every three months I spend 30 minutes extolling the virtues of pooping in a toilet to a room full of strangers.
Posing for stock photos.
Distracting a student (who’d threatened a prof with a gun before hiding out at the library) until the police arrived.
Checking to see if the dude who’d been in his car in our parking lot for hours, motionless, was dead. (He wasn’t. Just sound asleep.)
Holding a bag containing a baby wallaby so it would stay calm during a story time presentation.
Chasing down and tackling the jerk who grabbed our “Donate Your Spare Change To the Library” canister and ran out the door with it.
Helping patrons apply for Moose Permits.
Removing a black widow spider.
Climbing onto the roof to retrieve a young patron’s stuffed animal.
Administering CPR to a patron who had a heart attack in the Reading Room. (He survived.)
Making a sign for one of our bathrooms that said, “There is a live duck in the bathroom. Do not let it out. Use the other bathroom.”
So the next time the line backs up at your library’s circulation desk because there’s only one librarian on duty instead of the usual two? Don’t get angry. That other librarian may be busy fixing the furnace, holding a wallaby, shoveling the sidewalk…or saving a life.
— Roz Warren
Roz Warren is the author of Our Bodies, Our Shelves: A Collection of Library Humor. This essay first appeared in www.womensvoicesforchange.org.
Just call me Grandpa Groovy.
I’m undergoing a new stage in life. Cutting my second set of false teeth. A recurrence of midlife mischief.
As expected and dreaded, my face has indeed acquired considerably more character lines than when I cut my first set of choppers (and temporarily possessed a red Ferrari). This time, as fate would have it, one scary surprise has devolved: the hair on my arms, legs and chest have vanished. Without waxing.
But one ace in the hole has lain under my cap for years. I still have a huge load of head hair. Hasn’t even turned gray. Yet. Except my beard. So, as a natural born narcissist, I dye my beard to match my head hair. Well, matches, except when I become preoccupied during the dying process and leave the dye on too damn long. And I do that all the time. Scariest sight I’ve ever seen in a mirror. Terrifies others too, but I’m a prankster so that’s a bonus. Still, as a guy who couldn’t grow hair on his face until I was 36, even an exceptionally black and scary beard is better than no beard.
To unscramble my hideous hormones in time to maintain my image as a radical rascal, I’ve decided to recapture a particular piece of my youth before the parade passes by. I’ve let my stunning head of hair grow to hippy-length. Furthermore, I race around town spewing out hippy words like “Right on! and Uptight!” Even big hippy words like “Relevant!” and “Establishment.” Plus substituting the word “sir” with “man,” as in “Hey, man, what time does the ocean close?”
A few days ago, it was warm enough in New York City for me to wear a tank top. On the subway, I noticed two young girls no older than 45 or 50 staring at me, their faces wreathed with smiles. I knew my long locks had gotten their attention. Ah, I was young again. Stevo still had it. And just when I had been told that my hippy hair was making me too stuck up to live with.
Then, a few days later, I was toweling off after a shower when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. To my horror, I noticed a pathetic hunk of sagging skin hanging under my right arm. I checked my other arm. Ah, thank God. The skin was sagging there, too. Symmetrical sagging. A dream come true. Not! My God almighty! Those smiling subway girls weren’t admiring my daring hairstyle. They were giggling over my loose skin.
Blessed as I am with oodles of head hair, there’s still no denying that gravity can be vicious on an aging body. I’ve all but given up my membership to nude beaches. Still, I search for ways to at least make my aging face fit better with my comely coiffure. I ruled out Botox. No way, man. Allergic. To needles. But I’m super-allergic to wrinkles. Not to worry: turns out that lying down on my back makes facial wrinkles disappear.
Ya know, I’m almost certain I can recall Erma Bombeck’s puzzling out in jest once how to enter a room horizontally. With class. Clearly, Erma possessed a decided advantage. She was sane. In a recent nightmare, my grandsons carried me into a roomful of people for a grand entrance, with not a wrinkle on my face. Problem was, when I stood up, everyone shrieked and scattered. Everyone except those two gals from the subway who were pointing at me and laughing hysterically.
As the hippest hipster on the block, I’m not trying to find myself anymore. I’m just trying to do my own thang. I’m forbidden to buy a Harley Davidson to accommodate my second midlife crisis, but I do get plenty of second looks riding on a senior citizen tricycle, my long hair freely flowing in the wind. The other day, I peddled to the park and came upon another baby boomer who has adopted the hippy look. I’m such a trendsetter. He, too, was piloting his senior tricycle, probably cruising for chicks.
“Hey man, what up? Nice bell-bottoms,” I said.
“Sup, man? Nice we’re having weather.”
“Like totally, man. Nice we’re having weather.”
Instant bonding. Turned out we both love to play the boyhood game of marbles, but no one else will play with us. We agreed to get together some Sunday and play marbles.
Here’s a pathetic coincidence: Neither one of us can find our marbles. Lost. What are the odds?
— Steve Eskew
Retired businessman Steve Eskew received master’s degrees in dramatic arts and communication studies from the University of Nebraska at Omaha after he turned 50. After one of his professors asked him to write a theater column, he began a career as a journalist at The Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs, Iowa. This led to hundreds of publications in a number of newspapers, most of which appear on his website, eskewtotherescue.com.
Our mothers are our first and most important female role models.
In those early years, they are the center of our universes. We think they know everything.
A few years later, the eye-rolling starts and before long, we’re bound and determined to do the exact opposite of anything our mothers tell us we should do.
Here is the one thing you should know about my mom — she had perfect attendance in high school, a fact she never failed to throw in our faces.
“MOM! I think I have that flesh-eating bacteria. Or maybe leprosy. I can’t go to school today. Call the attendance office and tell them I won’t be in.”
“Linda. Get your uniform on and get to school. I had perfect attendance in high school, you know.”
Now, it’s possible it didn’t go down that way. Probably, she didn’t throw it in our faces at all. In fact, I may never even have had a flesh-eating bacteria.
Memory is a fallible thing.
Maybe it went something like this:
The young, sassy version of me standing in the kitchen, hands on my hips. “Pam’s mom is a nurse. Peggy’s mom works for Century 21 and wears a gold blazer. Lisa’s mom makes homemade ravioli on Thanksgiving. Have you ever done anything? What do you have for me to toss into this competition, Mother?”
And she’d be all lower-lip-trembling, blinking back tears, her voice breaking up “Well… I did have perfect attendance in high school, but, really, it was no big deal.”
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of those two scenarios. I don’t actually remember Mom telling us she had perfect attendance. As a little girl, I remember going through her big leather jewelry chest, one drawer at a time, and seeing that high school perfect-attendance pin laying there on the red velvet next to her class ring and some of the most amazing giant daisy clip-on earrings I had ever seen.
I just always knew my mom had perfect attendance in high school.
Some years after high school, she married my dad and before long, she had three babies in diapers at the same time. We weren’t multiples, we were just Irish. And Catholic.
Eventually, my youngest sister joined the family. Once all four of us were in school, my mom went back to work. It wasn’t gold-blazer job or anything like that, but still, it was a darn good job. I don’t think they gave perfect attendance awards at work, but if they did, she would have gotten one. Well, until the blizzard hit.
In 1982, St. Louis had a huge blizzard. Over 18 inches of snow fell on us on a quiet Sunday. The whole city came to a standstill. Monday was, of course, a snow day for us kids, but my mom was determined to go to work. She had all four of us out there digging her car out of its city block parking spot. And we did. We dug that car out. I remember thinking, “Now what, Mom?” I wondered if she was going to have us run ahead of the car and shovel the road all the way to Anheuser-Busch.
If there was a perfect attendance award at her work, she lost it that day. She couldn’t get to the office. She was not happy. My mom didn’t like to miss work. She wasn’t the type to not show up.
Because, as you know, she had perfect attendance in high school.
In contrast, I did not.
My siblings and I knew better than to try to fake illness with my mom to get out of school. Fortunately, she left early for work and my dad was the parent in charge in the mornings. My strategy, once I reached the devious and brilliant age of adolescence, was to wait for Mom to leave and then approach Dad.
“Uh, Dad? I have really bad cramps.” I would say. He didn’t ask questions after that.
That only worked until Mom found out, because even with menstrual cramps, Mom showed up.
The truth is, I didn’t even finish high school. I had to do that Catholic schoolgirl walk of shame, my white blouse untucked from my uniform skirt to cover up my burgeoning baby bump. I finished my diploma via correspondence courses. My mom made sure I showed up, even if it was by U.S. Postal Service.
My first daughter was born when I was 18. I was still living at home. I needed some time to get my mom-legs steady under me and learn how to handle this whole being-in-charge-of-another-human thing. My mom showed up for me through all of that.
Eventually, I moved out and then had a second child. When the marriage to their father failed, I found myself a single mother to two beautiful daughters. I had my kids and I had a job, but he took the only car we had so I had no vehicle and no money with which to buy one.
During that period in my life, my mom showed up at my house every morning. She picked me and the girls up, drove to my babysitter’s house so I could drop my kids off, drove to my office so she could drop her kid off, then she went to work. At the end of the day, my mom showed up to pick me up from work, then took me to pick my daughters up, took us home and finally went home herself. For over a year, five days a week, until I could afford a little used car of my own, my mom showed up for me.
Over the years, my mom showed up for a lot of things. Softball games, band concerts, birthday parties. Sometimes I landed on her doorstep with an overdrawn checking account or a failed marriage and she showed up for me then, too.
Looking back, I kind of wish we would have shoveled her all the way to work the day of that blizzard in 1982.
I can’t go back and do that, of course, but what I can do, and what I’ve tried to do, is follow in her footsteps and show up for my daughters. And while I’ve been tempted to join the Witness Protection Program during those teen years, thus far, I’ve been true to her example.
I’ve shown up for them because my mother, the most important role model in my life, always showed up for me.
Needless to say, I stopped rolling my eyes many years ago.
There’s a lot going on in my life right now. I’ve just started a new job. I’m in the middle of a divorce. Sometimes I need someone to pick up my kids for me and sometimes I need someone to pick up the phone for me. In any case, I know I can reach out to my mom, because where motherhood is concerned, she has perfect attendance.
— Linda Doty
Linda Doty is a writer. She writes on Twitter as @LindaInDisguise, she writes on her personal blog, Just Linda, and professionally on LinkedIn. Rumor has it, she even writes on bathroom walls. She’s a St. Louis native, has five daughters, ranging from age 12 to 31, and two grandsons with two more grandchildren (twins!) on the way. Linda works as an astronaut for a large corporation (not really, but it’s easier to say that than to try to explain what she does). She writes and writes and waits to be discovered, but is secretly terrified it will be by a concerned mental health professional rather than a big-time publisher.
“You don’t have to be 21 to have your whole life ahead of you.”
With those simple words, author and actress Kathy Kinney uncovered one of the secrets behind the enormous popularity of the University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.
This spring’s workshop sold out in five hours and 41 minutes, with writers making the creative pilgrimage to campus from all parts of the country, Canada and Spain. Thanks to the ongoing generosity of the Alumni Association, nearly 20 communication students soaked in the inspiration and writing tips, too, from an all-star roster that featured humorist Roy Blount Jr., novelist Amy Ephron, Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel and New York Times’ bestselling author Jenny Lawson.
Writers know this biennial workshop, launched in 2000, is not like any other in the country. I’ve described it as part love letter, part family reunion, part pep talk. Kinney, perhaps best known for her portrayal of the campy Mimi on The Drew Carey Show, and her writing partner Cindy Ratzlaff brought the encouragement writers need to face a blank page or forge through a horrible first draft.
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear,” Kinney said. “Just walk through it.”
Every time I enter the packed Dayton Marriott Hotel ballroom for the opening keynote dinner, I’m taken aback by the energy and exuberance, by the laughter and warmth. As the 20th anniversary of Erma’s death approached this spring, I felt her legacy even more deeply through a new generation of writers who gathered in her memory to laugh, learn and support one another on the often-lonely writing journey.
“We cannot think of a better legacy for our mom than this workshop,” said Matt Bombeck midway through the workshop as he introduced the new one-woman show, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, that sparked tears and laughter.
In her heyday, Bombeck’s column appeared in 900 newspapers. She wrote 12 books, nine of which appeared on The New York Times’ Bestsellers list. For 11 years, Americans woke up to her humorous segments on Good Morning America. A 1949 alumnae, she never forgot “three magic words” from Bro. Tom Price, S.M., her English professor. After she slipped a humorous essay under his door, he greeted her with words that sustained her the rest of her life: “You can write!”
That’s the spirit we try to bottle in an event that has, largely by word of mouth, gained national notoriety and a loyal following of writers who affectionately call themselves a tribe.
“What happens when 350 people, predominantly women, truck in from all across the U.S. to spend three full days laughing (and a little crying), eating (mostly desserts) and baring their souls to each other? Magic. In a place called Dayton. That’s not a punchline,” blogged Kimberly “Kimba” J. Dalferes, a former Justice Department official turned book author.
Creativity coach Julia Roberts called the workshop “a utopia for humor writers that only appears every other year, out of the mist, on the edge of the Great Miami River in Dayton, Ohio (like Brigadoon…).”
For me, the workshop’s power can be found in the small moments: At lunch one day emcee Pat Wynn Brown surprised long-retired school teacher Lori Mansell by “crowning” her queen. Refusing to take her tiara off, she enjoyed the curtsies and bows from other attendees all afternoon — then went home to Carmel, Indiana, and wrote and published her first essay.
“It’s never too late to start writing,” Brown said. “Our new queen once told her tap dance group in California she was only 76 ‘because they kick you out at 80.’”
It’s a lesson worth living: You don’t have to be 21 to have your whole life ahead of you.
— Teri Rizvi
Teri Rizvi founded the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, where she also serves as executive director of strategic communications.
Although I am not particularly squeamish about using public restrooms that may be described with a list of adjectives that does not necessarily include “sterile,” “spotless” or even “clean,” I have recently developed a strong aversion to entering a specific bathroom that is right down the hall from where I live. In my own house. And belonging to my own children.
This space, which USED to resemble a bathroom, but now has taken on a certain post-apocalyptic war-ravaged feel, is the only room in the house that appears impervious to the bi-weekly cleanings I pay someone else to do. Like a haunted attic that just won’t stay cobweb-free no matter how many times you dust, my boys’ restroom seems to revert back to its previously characteristic state of horror seemingly within moments of my cleaning lady’s exit through the front door.
“What is that smell?” I will wonder aloud, my nose wrinkling, as I pass through the hallway outside the kids’ toilet and contemplate whether someone has been careless enough to let an alley cat into our home. Perhaps my sons have somehow regressed to the point at which they feel the need to mark their territory, although the cheery pirate bathroom motif should really suffice.
I’ve tried ignoring the existence of the bathroom and hoping any visiting guests will do the same, but that’s about as difficult as concealing a crack den in an otherwise tidy two-story suburban residence — you’re just bound to notice one room is a bit…off.
So, on occasion, my husband and I will force ourselves through the threshold and survey the damage. Aside from the distinct aroma, we will marvel at the amount of toothpaste that appears to be growing up from the tile on the sink, like an insidious blue-green sparkly mold that has broken out of a science lab petri dish and intends on devouring our home, surface by surface.
Until we look closely, we’ll assume that something has exploded within the basin itself, as tiny white ricochet marks seem to cover the entire expanse of the ceramic. Upon further inspection, we’ll realize it’s a Jackson Pollack pattern of toothpaste, saliva and tiny bits of whatever else happened to be swirled around in someone’s mouth and then shot out in a detonating eruption.
My husband and I stand aghast for about as long as we can muster up the strength (which isn’t very long), before loudly demanding the presence of our sons.
“What is this mess?!” I will bellow.
“What mess? By the way, I got an eight out of 10 on my English test,” the older one will rapidly fire out, as he takes on the persona of a diminutive Jedi Master attempting to supernaturally compel our attention from the state of the bathroom to something else entirely.
“I think the toilet is dripping.” My younger son’s approach is to place the blame on anyone else, especially inanimate objects that cannot argue in their own defense.
“Oh, there’s some dripping going on, but not from the toilet…” I remark, while pointing my finger and furrowing my brow in a way that suggests less television and dessert if matters are not attended to immediately.
Painfully, I coerce my children into cleaning the bathroom. Unfortunately, my sons are about as effective at it as I happen to be, which is why I hire someone else to do it in the first place. Sigh. Perhaps she has a free day this week.
— Rachael Koenig
Rachael Koenig is a writer and humorist deriving most of her inspiration from her two sons, aged nine and five, and step-daughter, aged 13. Her site Maxisms contains personal stories and a collection of precocious, snarky and hilarious conversations between herself and her children. Her work has recently appeared on scarymommy.com, rolereboot.org, whattheflicka.com and The New York Times parenting blog Motherlode. She thinks of herself as more of an essayist than a blogger, because she is old-fashioned and grumpy and out of touch with modern social media vernacular. Also, “blogger” still sounds like something one would pull out of a left nostril. She can be reached on Facebook.
On the decorative cork board hanging beside my desk you’ll find this quote from Erma Bombeck:
“Writer’s block is just another name for putting it off. You can train yourself to shut out the world and write.” – Erma Bombeck
Never mind the fact that I was procrastinating when I wrote the quote for my board. I frequently defend my procrastinating by arguing with my Erma muse that she never had to avoid Facebook, which is the Devil’s agent when it comes to procrastination. On top of that, I have been having serious issues with maintaining focus of late, which I try to blame on peri-menopause but really, I’m just MORE distracted than usual. Which is highly distracted.
Procrastination and distraction are easily my biggest issues when it comes to writing.
They are closely followed, of course, by enormous self-doubt. That little voice on my shoulder sounds like a nasally 73-year old Italian woman from the Bronx. Her name is Dolores and she is constantly eating potato chips, which scatter crumbs that distract me, and then make me peckish, sending me in search of something to eat.
The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop could not have come at a better time for me, because I was in need of an intervention of sorts.
Fine, what I needed was a kick in the pants, and that is exactly what I got, in the best way possible.
There were plenty of reminders just to get back to basics. It shouldn’t have been such a relief to hear, repeatedly, that other writers — published authors, in particular — also struggle with the inner critic and that just sitting down to write is one of the biggest struggles; since I’m not unique in that, I need to quit fussing about it and just do it. I think some version of the idea of Anne Lamott’s aptly termed “shi**y first draft” was brought up in many of the sessions, and while Bird By Bird sits close at hand on my desk, all too often the concept eludes me as I edit that pile of crap instead of letting it build like a pile of fertilizer.
Anna Lefler’s session on “Novel-Writing for the Faint of Heart” was the session that kicked it all off because it spoke TO me and had me doing mental cartwheels down the hallway. (Mental because, really, there was enough comic relief already.) Quite honestly, I came away from almost every session with renewed focus and useful tools, accompanied by the feeling of “how did she know what I needed to be told?”
As one who is likely to sit back and observe (feeling like the clumsy kid on the playground just waiting to join in), the openness and support of everyone I talked to was overwhelming — a feeling of “I’ve found my people,” which seemed to be shared by most everyone I spoke with. There were no big egos present, just kindred spirits. This year, I pushed myself to put myself out there more than I did in 2014, and I didn’t collapse in a heap of embarrassment or anxiety (or the Erma flu, so insecurity may have paid off on that regard). I may be outright social for the next conference in 2018!
Ultimately, it is the spirit of camaraderie, the warm welcome, the feeling of inclusion in this magical club of writers and the heartfelt support offered that makes this conference so special. Over the course of the weekend, I felt the last piece of the puzzle snap into place as a long-overdue admission about my lack of love for some of the work I’ve been doing pushed me into resolution of my short-term goals and longer-term direction. It was freeing, to be honest.
I left brimming with inspiration, enthusiasm and with renewed focus. On the flight back to Dallas, when the fellow next to me asked what I do, it wasn’t an apologetic “oh, I’m a stay at home mom” or a mumbled “I’m a blogger.”
I said, with confidence, “I’m a writer.”
And since my return, with my Erma notebook full of reminders, I have banished Dolores and her chips to the VFW to play bingo while I write. Ciao, self-doubt. You can come back in time for cocktails, or when I’m trying to decide if that green dress I love still fits.
Many thanks to Teri Rizvi and everyone who makes the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Conference all that it is, and for all that it gives us. If I could bottle you all up and keep you on my desk next to my other items of woo woo, I would.
In your place, I happily use my “You Can Write!” mug or the conference wine glass to try to recapture a bit of what it felt to belong and be confident. (Ish.)
— Jennifer Belden
Jenn is a Yankee adapting to life in Texas, where she is is called mom by two sarcastic kids and one ebullient (and flatulent) spaniel and wife by one bossy guy. When she’s not writing on her blog, Momma on the Rocks, she can be found working on her first childrens’ book, drinking too much coffee and making creative excuses for avoiding the laundry.
I’m not sure anyone else has noticed this, but apparently what used to be 210 pounds in 2010 looks a lot like 240 pounds in 2016. I think I might be melting too.
Naturally, I have many pairs of the same pants I wore comfortably at this same weight six years ago. Today, I have to lay on the bed to zip them, and then I have the inevitable waistband fold all day. And I’m thinking I should be proud of myself because I can wear the same pants.
Oh, I can, but with a couple of glitches. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll put a bobby pin in the zipper to yank it up if I have to. It’s just that I can remember them being loose at this same weight six years ago. Apparently everything has been redistributed or something, or I am truly melting. That puddle under the Wicked Witch of the West got much wider after she melted. Why I can’t look like Glinda, Good Witch of the North, is beyond me.
I spend 30 minutes on the elliptical nearly every day of the week, and if I so much as look at a piece of penne, I gain three pounds. It’s enough to make me throw my hands up in the air and make the drive to Dairy Queen.
All of this is nothing new, of course. I’ve been wearing swimsuits that cover me from neck to mid-thigh since I was in fourth grade. Back then, I had a little red number that looked like a bandana only it had an “apron” on it. Even when I was in elementary school, I had to cover this midsection. I can truly say that my belly has never, ever seen the light of day, except for one quick drunken skinny-dip hot tub session that involved my best friend from second grade, all grown up before her wedding. I think her mom was there, too. And her younger sister. There were no men, naturally. But there was wine. Ah, everybody should do the same with their best friend from second grade. Come to think of it, we did that well past sundown.
I digress. I try to wear jeans at least three days a week so that I can remind myself to get on the elliptical. Jeans require that whole fastening thing. I could easily live the rest of my life with an elastic waistband. If you wear a long shirt, nobody has to know. The upper half of this Rubenesque-like body simply requires the extra-long, extra-large man-shirts they sell at Walmart, or what I like to call “tunics.” Coverage is key.
This whole conundrum can likely be attributed to gravity. That’s who I’m going to blame anyway. Somehow bringing a little proven science into it makes me feel better. It’s natural. It happens to all of us.
In my head, I know this. I realize I can’t look like I did in 1982, when my hair was feathered just so and I could still tuck my shirts in. But life being what it is, my head, and sometimes my heart, are still back in 1982, so I think the rest of me is just the same as well. But it’s not.
I can usually, and thankfully, fast-forward my whole being to the present. Then I’m grateful that I’ll be 55 in September, that I no longer, as my indomitable mother knew, care much about what other people think. But then again, she was a little bit of a thing. And one of those people who you would swear was 5’ 5” when she was really only 5’ 2” on a good day. She just stood above the rest of us, even though she was short.
Ultimately I gotta do my own thing. It might be a whole bunch of sweatpants. They make them really nice these days.
— Connie Berry
Connie Berry grew up reading and loving Erma Bombeck. She is former editor of The Catholic Sun newspaper in Syracuse, N.Y., and a new resident of Martha’s Vineyard where she was copy editor for the Vineyard Gazette. She lives on the island with her husband and youngest son. Her two older children read her blog, thejoblessgoddess.blogspot.com, from Syracuse.
Hello. My name is Leah and I am not a humorist.
Last month, I attended the Erma Bombeck Workshop where I spent four days surrounded by funny people…in Dayton, Ohio, no less.
Humor was not limited to sessions such as “The Secret to Writing Funny” by Alan Zweibel, an original Saturday Night Live writer, multiple Emmy winner and current executive producer on Showtime’s Inside Comedy or Wendy Liebman’s “Stand-Up Comedy Boot Camp.” Wendy has been performing stand up since 1985 on shows like Carson, Letterman, Leno, Fallon and Kimmel to name a few. These workshops were intended to help humorists learn to write funnier and learn the basics of stand-up comedy.
At the first networking event, I found myself in a sea of funny. I was intimidated for the briefest of moments. It’s not that I don’t have a sense of humor. I’ve made people laugh once or twice in my life. I’ll admit it was in person and alcohol was probably involved to some degree, but I can be funny. However, my writing doesn’t fall in the humor category as my pieces tend to make you feel something else. I focus on human Interest and have been known to make grown men close their office doors because they’ve been reduced to a blubbery mess upon reading one of my essays. Thank goodness my stuff doesn’t fall in the humor category or that would not be a compliment.
As I made my way around the room, the question inevitably came up time and time again, “So, what kind of writing do you do?” at which point I felt like I should just start my introductions with “Hello. My name is Leah and I am not a humorist” if only to get that out of the way. One particular woman was shocked to learn I was attending the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop if I wasn’t writing anything funny and had no plans of it in the future.
Woman: I’ve been attending Erma for years. How about yourself?
Me: I’m an Erma virgin (I had the button to prove it).
Woman: Oh, what kind of writing to do you do?
Me: Human interest mostly.
Woman: Then what are you doing here?
Woman: Human interest is great, but writing humor is so much harder.
Woman: Well, I’m sure you’ll get something out of it regardless. This is a great group!
Me: It was nice meeting you. I see someone I should say hello to across the room.
I spent the rest of the evening thinking of wonderful comebacks in defense of human interest and kicking myself for not thinking of them on the spot. In her defense, I don’t think she meant to trivialize the type of writing I do. …Okay, maybe she did. Either way, as a newbie and already feeling a bit like a fish out of water, I carried that conversation with me throughout the conference.
Here’s what I learned:
Erma Bombeck wasn’t solely a humorist. Even when she was being funny, there was always an element of human interest in her writing. She took the every day and shined a spotlight of reality onto it. She allowed us to laugh at what seemed monumental, breaking down what once appeared as insurmountable into tiny morsels of digestible truth. Most importantly, she gave us permission to laugh at ourselves and taught us we all experience the same daily tribulations when it comes to being a woman, a mother, a partner, a writer. She taught us to connect with others and ourselves and find humor in the ordinary because after all we’re all only HUMAN.
I spent the next few days attending sessions to improve my craft, getting advice from experienced and successful writers who were quick to share their wisdom with me, who connected and related to me as a writer yes, but also as a person.
Alan Zwiebel didn’t have a personal chauffeur drive him from the hotel to the University of Dayton. I know! Shocker right? He actually rode the shuttle bus, sitting next to me making small talk. He is down to earth and funny and approachable.
Anna Lefler, author of The Chicktionary: From A-Line to Z-snap: The Words Every Woman Should Know and Preschooled actually offered to take a copy of the pitch I had written for Pitchapalooza (an event, where 20 random attendees are selected to pitch their book to a panel of agents and publishers) back to her hotel room to review that night. I gave her my last clean copy and thought if I never heard back from her, I would use my handwritten one to do the pitch. That night, I received an email from her with detailed feedback showing she not only followed through but really took some time to review it. I am now her biggest fan. Buy her book! Buy two and give one to a girlfriend!
At the airport Starbucks while waiting for my flight, I spent some time with Cindy Ratzlaff. She is a Simon & Schuster exec who was named to Forbes 20 Best Branded Women on Twitter list. What did we chat about? It wasn’t writing or branding or pitching myself. Maybe I missed an opportunity there, come to think of it. However, talking about raising children in today’s world and how different that is than when we grew up felt like I was discussing parenting with a girlfriend, over a cup of coffee at my kitchen table.
Throughout the conference, I experienced so many of these moments that confirmed my decision to attend my first Erma. I learned about branding and novel-writing. I have a notebook full of tips on finding my voice, writing the perfect scene and crafting compelling essays. I gained confidence in myself and my craft and came back with a renewed spirit toward completing my novel. I came home braver, too, with the words of Kathy Kinney (Mimi on The Drew Carey Show for those of you who live under a rock), ringing in my heart: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”
However, the biggest takeaway for me was that I may have signed up for a conference full of humorists, but amidst the laughs I found the greatest example of human interest I have ever witnessed.
Erma would be proud.
— Leah Vidal
Leah Vidal, author of Red Circle Days, shares her work weekly at www.littlemisswordy.com. Her writing covers current events, health and wellness, parenting and daily tribulations. She is most at home sharing life’s little moments — those that plant the thought-provoking seed of self discovery. Leah’s blog has been featured and syndicated on BlogHer, Freshly Pressed on WordPress and fitness and parenting sites. Leah paused a career in public relations to raise two children and has never looked back, except on the days when it would be nice to have an office to escape to or at least a desk to hide under. Her family currently lives in Puerto Rico, where she is a fitness-focused (physical, spiritual and mental health) mom of two and wife of one, who enjoys combing the beach for sea glass, avoiding the kitchen and making words come to life.