The workshop for humor writing, human interest writing, networking and getting published

Erma Bombeck Wrighters' Workshop Banner

Six essays selected for Age Spots anthology book proposal

(The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop is teaming with prolific author Allia Zobel Nolan on a proposed humorous anthology on aging. The book, tentatively titled When Life Hands You Age Spots, Play Connect the Dots, will be offered through an agent to traditional publishers. Here’s Allia’s update on the project.)

“The time has come, the Walrus said, “to talk of many things: of shoes, and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and. . .Age Spots submissions.

First off, we want to thank each and every one of you (and there was a bigly amount, rest assured) who took the time and effort to write and submit their pieces. We enjoyed reading them and wish we could use them all.

Some essays didn’t make the running because they were previously published several times, didn’t hit the length requirement or duplicated a theme of another, stronger entry. We purposely chose pieces that were very different from one another. The selection process included readings by several people who came to a consensus about the ones selected for the book proposal.

Still, at this stage of the project, we only needed a sampling to accompany the proposal. So we chose six pieces, with the caveat that if — scratch that — when we get a publisher, the publisher will have final say about everything that goes into the book. So nothing is carved in stone at this point.

Now, (sorry to prolong the agony), but please know that we will need more material for the “real” book.  So when we do find a publisher, we’ll consider other pieces, including new, original material.  We may also be able to consider previously published material, depending on the house we snag.  So if you are not one of the six below, there is still a chance.  As we said, at this stage, we were just looking for a “sampling.” We understand your work is precious to you, so those who want to use their submission elsewhere and prefer not to wait, please feel free to do so.

Here are the writers who made the initial cut:

Barbara L. Smith
Amy MacVay Abbott
Fitzy Dean
Jennifer Byrne
Anne Elise O’Connor
Kaye Curren

What’s next? We will properly format the essays, contact the six authors for short bios, finish the proposal and send it out before Easter and Passover. Even then, the project may not be looked at immediately by publishers because of the holidays. So, we will wait patiently.

From the bottom of our hearts, thank you all for your efforts. We will keep you posted as the project progresses.

— Allia Zobel Nolan

Author 
Allia Zobel Nolan has published close to 200 books, some for children, others for cat lovers, some humorous, some devotional. A former senior editor at Reader’s Digest, she attended her first Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in 2016.

Surviving April events —
Tax Day and Easter

In April we will celebrate two major holidays. One is Easter and the other is the deadline for filing taxes.

I wonder if it is a mere coincidence these two days fall back-to-back this year or is it symbolic? One event brings to mind pain, suffering, anguish and the cruelty of those who rule, and the other retells the resurrection of Christ.

When you think about it, it’s amazing how far we have come since the imperial days of Rome and how tax collection was handled then. In that time, if you couldn’t pay your taxes, the government would throw you into debtors prison to languish until you made enough money to pay.

Here’s what happened to an ordinary Roman citizen who missed the April 15 filing deadline and was thrown into prison:

“Well, Citizen Arugula, do you have enough money now to pay your taxes and free yourself from this prison?” asks the tax collector.

“No, you nitwit. I’m chained to this wall in a dungeon. I can’t even scratch my nose. How am I supposed to make money for my taxes?”

“Have it your way, Citizen Arugula. I’ll check back in a year to see if you have what is due Caesar, including the compounded interest and a hefty penalty for late filing.

“It’s either that or you’ll have to build an aqueduct.”

A more humane system

This year I’ve decided to go to a tax preparation service to have my taxes done. A friend steered me to a new group called “Fred & Bubba’s What’s the Chances We’ll Make a Mistake and You’ll Go to Prison” tax preparation service.

I’ve always been against going to such places because I always figured I could do the taxes myself. I’ve done them many times in the past but I’m tired of having to change my name and identity every three to four years.

But tax preparation has grown so complicated that it now takes the average person more than 13 hours to collect the required documents, read the tax books, fill out the forms and pack their bags for debtors prison.

The system is so complicated that studies have found 50 percent of the time when people call the IRS with tax questions, they get wrong information. Hey, the IRS won’t lose everything and go to jail if they are wrong.

So, the other day I gathered up all my tax forms, W2 forms, purchase receipt slips, itemized deductions, tax credits, stock market losses, dividend and annuity reports, and grocery lists and packed them into a U-Haul van and headed out to Fred and Bubba’s tax preparation services.

I was assigned a very professional lady tax preparer named Bubba. She plugged all my information into a computer program, added in my personal deductions and made me give my real name.

I have to say the whole process was fairly painless. Where I had spent literally days and anguished nights poring over tax forms to see if I qualified for every break, the Fred and Bubba people had my IRS taxes prepared with all required supplemental forms nicely printed out and organized inside a pretty blue binder within just an hour.

Then she gave me the bad news.

“I’m afraid you owe the federal government so much money, we think you’re going to have to build them an aqueduct.”

— Myron Kukla

Myron Kukla is the author of several books of humor, including Guide to Surviving Life available at www.squareup.com/store/myronkuklabooks and Van Wieren Hardware in Holland, Michigan.

My inner youth has a thrill
at the liquor store

When I look in the mirror lately, there’s a curious older woman looking back.

She has grey hair at the roots, some wrinkles and two age spots on her cheek. Oh yeah that’s me, I have to remind myself.

Years ago, before the older woman showed up, when I was well into my 40s, I got carded at a grocery store. Among the apples, eggs and a family pack of chicken pieces was beer for my husband. It was a day I didn’t have much makeup on, my hair pulled back in a ponytail. I even remember the red shirt I wore.

As my groceries slid down the conveyor belt, the cashier grabbed hold of the six-pack and asked for my ID. I glanced up, then turned to the person behind me, thinking the cashier was talking to them. Nope — they had no beer. I looked back to the cashier and said with a big smile, “Really?”

But then I thought, OK, this is a scamI am so gullible, I’m not getting caught this time. So I looked around for hidden cameras, as I dug in my purse for my license. A little giddy, I asked the cashier, “Is this some kind of a joke? Are there hidden cameras somewhere?” She just shrugged, checked my ID, then handed it back. I thanked her profusely and told her she made my day as I floated away inches off the floor.

I came home to brag to my husband. He was happy for me, said of course I looked great, gave me a big hug. Then he reminded me that stores were now asking for IDs from everyone who looked under 35.

Thud. (That was the sound of my feet hitting the floor.)  

Oh, that’s right, I thought. Still, I’ll take it.

Now, I’m in my late 50s. I really didn’t think it would ever happen again. I thought I would have to settle for NOT being asked for my AARP card.

But, guess what? It happened again. Just last week.  I went into a liquor store for a bottle of wine. The cashier asked to see my ID. I joked, “Oh, are you asking anyone who looks younger than 60?”

She said, “No! You’re not 60?”

“No, but I’m pushing it,” I answered as I pulled out my license.

She took my ID and made some kind of exclamation, then showed it to the young cashier next to her. He laughed politely, probably thinking that everyone over 30 looks ancient — what’s the difference in a decade or two.

I did my shtick about hidden cameras because, really, could she be serious? I mean, I have been asked if I want the senior discount at the movie theater. I teased her that it must be a marketing ploy, as I would certainly never buy my wine anywhere else ever again. As before, I floated out, feet not touching the floor.

It’s nice to know that my inner youth stills shines through from time to time.  I don’t think she’ll show up again in a liquor store — my recent ID thrill was probably my last — and that’s OK.  I’m learning to love my older self in the mirror, wrinkles and all. She doesn’t look like how I feel, but she’s like a fine wine that gets better with age. Within her will always be my inner youth. And I’ll take it.

— Karen DeBonis

Karen DeBonis blogs about her wild adventures as a homebody, including writing (aka avoiding housework), meditating (aka napping) and serving a nightly smorgasbord to deer and other critters in her yard (aka gardening). She lives in a wonderfully emptied nest in upstate New York with her husband of 34 years.

A book in hand

Honestly, it is like giving birth, figuratively. What took two and a half years of frustration, brain-wracking, ripping apart and starting over,  and sitting glumly looking out the window has finally come to fruition: I am holding my own second novel in my hand.

My copies of the book are delivered about a month before general release. This is for marketing purposes. What this means to me is I get to run all over the neighborhood, waving the book around and whooping. It also means that I am only supposed to give my copies away to those who are in a  position to promote it for me: book reviewers, book bloggers, newspaper columnists, etc. I am sincerely going to try to limit myself to these people this time around, instead of handing my book out to all my friends because I am so excited. I ran out of my copies of my last novel in about an hour.

Would you like to know how to go about writing a novel? Me, too. I don’t think I do it right, but I am willing to share my process, perhaps as a cautionary tale to others who hope to become novelists.

• Get an idea for a book. This is called a premise. In the case of Crossing the Street, I knew I wanted to write a story about the friendship between a millenial woman and a precocious little girl.

• Start writing the book immediately. Hope that as you develop the characters, whom you love, an excellent plot line will develop right along with it.

• Get stumped, because that plot line is absolutely not materializing.

• Put in some very dramatic and tragic stuff that doesn’t work.

• Send all of this off to your publisher and editor, who concurs that this isn’t working.

• Go back to the drawing board.

• Call up some friends for advice. They give great advice. But the plot line still doesn’t work.

• Call another friend who is a published author. She gives you a private seminar in plotting.

• But the damn plot line you are desperately holding onto still sucks.

• Email your editor for help. He basically shoots down the whole thing (rightfully so) and says that you are trying too hard. He suggests taking an online course in storyboarding.

• DO THAT.

• Spend about four weeks working on a storyboard for the book. Make some great progress after throwing out the dramatic and tragic stuff.

• Get stuck two thirds of the way through the storyboard. Write another email to your publisher asking him if he could just provide you with one little plot event to bring a climax to the book so that you don’t have to crawl into a hole to die. He generously does this, knowing he doesn’t want your blood on his hands.

• Finish the storyboard and heave a huge sigh of relief.

• Get writing. Realize that you are completely failing at show, don’t tell (you can look this up; it pains me to even think about it at this time).

• In a panic, you email another writer friend, and ask for help. Apparently, this email alarms her. She replies that you need to calm down and take a few deep breaths. Then she sends you a very confidential excerpt of her work in progress that gives a terrific example of showing, not telling.

• You read the excerpt and wish you could write like this woman, but you actually begin to understand what all the hoorah about showing vs. telling is all about.

• You go back to your manuscript and take out all the telling.

• Then you start writing all over again, showing the hell out of everything.

• You finally finish.

• Your publisher says, “I think you got it. This was a hard row to hoe, but we can publish this. Here are my editorial suggestions.”

• You rewrite the book again.

• The copy editor then gets the book. She makes her suggestions.

• You realize you used the word okay forty million times in the manuscript, and spelled it differently every time.

• You rewrite the book again.

• You are getting sick to death of these characters, and you want to murder all of them. Plus, you hate punctuation marks all of a sudden.

• BUT WAIT. The book is finished! You have a cover!

• Thank God you have great author friends who agree to give testimonials. Praise heaven for these folks.

• The day comes. A box of books arrives. You hold one in your hand and take a selfie.

• You thank heaven you have that Photoshop App.

• Voila! A bestseller (hoping and praying) is born. Almost overnight!

— Molly D. Campbell

Molly D. Campbell writes a blog from her pantry, often in pajamas. She is a two-time Erma Bombeck Writing Competition award winner, winning honorable mentions in both the humor and human interest categories in 2010 and 2012. She’s the author of three books: Characters in Search of a Novel, Keep the Ends Loose and the newly published Crossing the Street.

Everyday miracles

One Sunday, my daughter, Mary, and I were discussing her Sunday school lesson about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

“I just don’t buy that story, Mom. How could anyone raise someone from the dead?”

Realizing I needed to find a way to field her youthful skepticism, I told her, “Jesus was able to do miracles.  He even said if we believe, we would do the works he did and even greater.”

“Oh pshaw, I can’t do miracles. Can you, Mom?”

“Well, once in church, a bunch of us prayed for Ethel Sawyer’s poison ivy and it disappeared. I guess that might be a miracle.”

“I’m just not sure I believe all that stuff,” Mary said, and she ran out the door to play.

“I have doubts sometimes, too, Mary,” I said to the door closing behind her.

A while after that our hamster, Tuggy, escaped his cage. Again. If we had known he was an escape artist, we would have named him Houdini II. Tuggy had in the past been retrieved from under the bed, from behind the refrigerator, and from the top of his cage. I shuddered to think what I would have to deal with if he got lost or killed. Tuggy had become, to say the least, Mary’s favorite pet.

This time, as Mary and I searched for him, we heard rustling sounds under the bathroom cabinet. The cabinet allowed no space to poke around for a soft, furry body or to entice with food, so we were left to cajole and coax. Nothing worked.

Mary’s sister, Jennifer, came out of her room from listening to us plot Tuggy’s rescue and said, “I think that rodent’s a goner this time. He’ll never come out of there.”

Mary looked stricken, and smacked her sister on the arm. “Stop saying that!”

“OK, cease the conflict, girls,” I said. “We just have to use our heads here.”

Using my head involved encouraging Tuggy to come out, yelling at him, and then pounding my fist on the counter.

“Mary, I’m at a loss. What do you think we should do?”

“I’m praying for a miracle,” she said.

“I thought you didn’t believe in miracles,” I said.

“What else are we going to do?” she asked.

I sat on the toilet seat and closed my eyes. In quiet meditation the answer will come, I thought.  Or is that medication?

Out of the blue, I stood up and shouted, “Tuggy, come forth!”

Mary and I stared at the floor in silence. Out scurried Tuggy, a little blinded by the light, but looking up at us as if to say, “You rang?” I gave a quiet chuckle.

“It’s a miracle!” Mary shouted, and scooped Tuggy up before he could change his mind.

— Kaye Curren

Kaye Curren has returned to writing after 30 years of raising two husbands, two children, two teenage stepchildren, three horses, umpteen dogs and cats, and several non-speaking parakeets. She used to write computer manuals but now writes humor essays, human interest stories and memoir. Several of her posts can be found on humorwriters.org and DivorcedMoms.com. You can also find her musings on her website/blog at writethatthang.com.

Slouching towards 60

Alas, another trip around the sun!

It’ll be 58 trips thus far, 58 springs, summers, winters and yes, happily, autumns J. I’m slouching towards 60 now. Sixty! Wow, although I’ll never be this young again, I certainly have never been this old.

What great gleanings have I picked up along the way? What significant insights have I sequestered? What daily declarations have I determined to live by?

When I turned 50, I was delighted because all of a sudden, I didn’t care anymore what people thought of me. I didn’t care if they thought I was a bad mom or not. I did my best, not my very best, but the best I could do at the time. As a lifelong people pleaser, this wasn’t easy, but I was finally free from those haunting voices of “What would they think?” and “Who do you think you are?” The relief was palatable, and the energy saved was redistributed into the continued task of raising the rest of my kids and crafting new ideas for my future. My blog was born shortly after this discovery.

Subsequently, as I slouch toward sixty, the fears that have anchored themselves into my being are finally being dislodged and although the consequence may be a little disorientating, definitely a little scary, Solomon’s grand declaration in Proverbs — Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths — has provided the necessary structural support for me to continue to release those anchors and begin to sail into broader seas.

One of the GREATEST things about getting older, for me, is the reconciliation of my self to my self. I don’t know if that makes sense. In some respects, I spent many decades being someone I thought I should have been. The kind of Christian I should have been or the kind of wife and mother I should have been. I think this is a real issue with people pleasers, but it might be one for a lot of other people, too. Now, I trust that I am walking with the Lord; I have seen Him do innumerable things in my life and in the lives of my family. I trust Him to continue to do so.

Finally, it’s funny how things simmer within us. Ideas that have been floating around finally come to the surface. I’ve wanted to write for decades. At first when I was fresh out of high school, the thought of writing was impossible, it really was, not only was the identity of being a writer repugnant to my insignificant self, “I was not worthy, not smart enough, didn’t have anything worthwhile to say….etc.,” but also the thought of staying on task was impossible to this hare-brained, emotionally undernourished, young adult. I had other things to figure out first.

Throughout my marriage, I dabbled in writing, penning some kids’ stories and keeping up with my journal. Two books came my way. The first, Maybe You Should Write a Book, was given to me by my ex-husband. That book sure whets one’s appetite with great stories of book successes from Peter Benchley to Mario Puzo. Ralph Daigh even tells his own Hemingway story. A real jewel. The other book, Bird by Bird, my writer godfather gave me around 2006. Inscribed with his bold handwritten script — NEVER BE INTIMIDATED — was almost a familial mandate to pursue this desire. The first thing I ever published was blessed by this man. Every time I crack open Bird by Bird and see his handwritten message, I can almost hear him in his booming voice say, “NEVER BE INTIMIDATED.”  More anchors cast away.

November is NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. I was going to participate, but was overwhelmed with other things in my life. But I did try to pray every morning instead of writing. Earlier in the year, I was chatting with a friend of my dad’s, Niel Davidson. He reads my blogs. What a nice guy! Anyway, I mentioned to him about writing a book, and he suggested I compile my blogs and columns. I had thought of that before, but his suggestion seemed to give the idea traction. So during November, I began to pray in that direction, but I really wanted an illustrator. So I prayed for one.

In December, I was on Facebook and noticed one of my friends’ kids had changed her profile pic to one of her illustrations. “Wow, she’s good,” I thought. I messaged her, we got together, and I now have my illustrator, and we are collaborating on this project, my first soon-to-be self-published book, The Plight of the Hare and Other Stories From the Shoe. We are very excited.

So now, as I slouch toward 60, I am slouching in front of my computer learning InDesign, typesetting my book, reviewing her wonderful sketches, and hoping, working, creating and still parenting toward a fruitful winter.

— Donna Fentanes

Blogger Donna Fentanes is a mother of 10 kids living in Pacifica. She mixes humor and philosophical musings with everyday life.

Putting a spin on aging

When spending time with female friends, there almost always comes a point in the conversation when one of us criticizes some aspect of her looks.

This is usually followed by one of two strategies: either the rest of us protest vigorously that, in fact, the woman in question is the most gorgeous creature alive, or else we offer up detailed examples of our own hideous flaws, causing the whole thing to erupt into a frenzy of self-loathing. Then we eat. Lather, rinse, repeat.

On one recent occasion, the self-deprecator among us was upset about discovering new wrinkles, or maybe it was her increasing ratio of grey-to-brown hairs. This type of age-related complaint quickly led to the deployment of a strategy more timeworn than any of our faces.

“Honey, those wrinkles mean you’ve laughed, and the grey hair means you cared,” one of the more self-help-y of us exclaimed, secure in the knowledge that her statement was backed up by countless Facebook memes, inspirational posters and cross-stitched pillows.

Wow! Was that what those things meant? Here I’d spent all this time thinking that wrinkles meant there’d been a gradual breakdown in collagen and glycosaminoglycans in the epidermis, and grey hair meant a depletion of melanocytes in the hair shaft. Nope! Actually, it all just means that the wrinkly, grey-haired person is a wonderful, deeply fulfilled human being!

As I sat there listening to our friend receiving praise for her beautiful wisdom, caring and zest for life, I found myself starting to become annoyed. Because whoever made up that whole “wrinkles-mean-you’ve-laughed” list totally quit on the job early. Wrinkles and grey hair aren’t exactly the only signs of aging out there — in fact, they don’t happen to be my main genetic legacies. I come from dark-circle, turkey neck, elephant-knee people. And I’m noticing that absolutely zero noble personal qualities have been manufactured to explain these.I guess people like me have the worst of both worlds — we’re still starting to look old, but we’re just the crappy kind of old, the kind that hasn’t been earned through courage, wisdom and grace. We just kind of let ourselves go. Meanwhile, we witness our loftier counterparts having neurotoxins injected into their laughter and wisdom in order to do away with these sterling qualities. Huh?

Something is definitely wrong here. So, for people like me, I’ve developed a more comprehensive list of the altruistic and life-affirming traits at the root of some of these other pesky signs of aging.

1. TURKEY NECK means you have vigorously nodded YES to life, over and over and over again. You’ve pretty much never said no to life, like ever. Wordplay bonus: It’s called ‘turkey’ neck not because it resembles the wattle of a turkey, but because you are always giving thanks and counting your blessings.

2. AGE SPOTS mean you are such a unique and distinctive individual, you have begun to manifest your own sassy leopard print pattern!

3. VARICOSE VEINS mean you have stood up (for hours and hours) for what you believe in. It also means that your path to truth and self-actualization is mapped out beneath your skin like a beautiful atlas of your life experience.

4. “ELEPHANT ELBOWS” and KNEES mean you have been flexible and accommodating to others, and also that you know how to bend without breaking. Wordplay bonus: it’s called “Elephant knees” because, like an elephant, you never forget your many beautiful and triumphant life experiences (unless you also happen to have dementia).

5. BAGS UNDER THE EYES mean you have seen so much, and you have accumulated the wisdom of what you have beheld. They are called ‘bags’ because they are filled with the abundant gifts of your memories.

I’m hoping to develop this appended list of age-related virtues into a meme or pillow designed to provide comfort and empowerment to those who don’t happen to have signs of aging with positive P.R. spin already written for them. Unfortunately, I’m at a bit of a loss to invent anything inspirational about facial hair. Suggestions are welcome.

— Jennifer Byrne

Jennifer Byrne’s humor writing has been published on The New Yorker Daily Shouts & Murmurs, The Rumpus Funny Women, The Hairpin, The Second City Network and McSweeney.net. She lives in southern New Jersey, which, sadly, is nothing at all like New York.

Expat mistake number 561

I wasn’t feeling great. I get kidney stones. Over and over.

Finally caved in and put a post out to the local expat community for a doctor recommendation. One came well recommended.

I made an appointment and hunkered down the next 24 hours. About an hour before I was supposed to be there, I decided to check the address. Found him. Knew general area. But he was the wrong kind of doctor and had a different specialty.

I was looking for a family doctor and a referral to the next doctor. But I had an appointment with an ob/gyn. I had heard stories about these appointments. I was looking to avoid this experience. At all costs. But the Swiss medical community (or the U.S. for that matter) doesn’t appreciate a last-minute cancellation. I went. Figured it was same general area. And I was desperate.

He takes my medical history. Then he asks the $64,000 question, “Why are you here?” WHY am I there?  What’s an acceptable answer?  I confused you with  a general practitioner? It ‘s been a few years?  Bring up the kidney stones?  I opted for a hybrid of the the three. He doesn’t blink. But he does jot some notes down. I imagine them to be something like this…”appears confused, disorganized thoughts, drug seeking?” He then tells me where I can change but that he doesn’t use drapes.

This exam is “European style” (his words).  Look, I’m all good with European style bread (last roll had carrots in it) or European yogurt or architecture or painting.  But this, this may be too much.  I can’t speak for all American women, but I’m pretty modest. The thought of lying on the table without a gown  was making me want to throw up. How are you supposed to pretend you are dressed and anywhere but there?!

Horrifying. I took my opportunity to explain my feeling that  American women (I had to lump us all together in my bid for solidarity — I needed the support)  don’t appreciate this policy. I went on to suggest he buy a few gowns to keep on hand for us. He just looked at me and pointed in the direction of the exam room. Fine. Have it your way.

Five minutes later, he launches into an anatomy lesson. Please, when will this end?! Then a lesson on ovulation. We discussed this already. I have three (delightful) kids. I’m 46. I don’t care if I ovulate ever again. I don’t want to talk about it. Not today. Not ever. I don’t need any lessons. If I want to know something, I’ll google it or go on YouTube or the public library. Or something.

Mercifully, it ends.

He made me an appointment with another doctor for the kidney stone thing. Thoughtful. But before I go, I’m going to clarify it’s the right specialist. I can’t do this twice.  And I’m going to see about buying some drapes of my own.

Sometimes I really miss Connecticut.

— Jennifer Dziekan

With a background in education, which oddly seems to mean nothing when it comes to her children, Jen began blogging in 2012 when her husband came home and said, ‘Want to move to Switzerland?” Both Jen and the blog survived a three-year stint as an expat in Switzerland. Home in Connecticut, she continues to blog about everyday life.

Reflections of Erma