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

Erma Bombeck Wrighters' Workshop Banner

Empty nest

Humorist Jerry Zezima has published his second book, The Empty Nest Chronicles. Written with warmth and hilarity, the book will appeal to parents who miss their kids but now have a chance to rediscover each other, to recall what life was like BC (Before Children), and to ask the eternal empty-nester question: Are we having fun yet? Jerry writes a nationally syndicated humor column for The Stamford Advocate (Conn.) and is the author of Leave It to Boomer.

Part love letter, part pep talk

(This essay will appear in the University of Dayton Magazine in June 2012.)

For three days, we laughed.

OK, we howled. So much so that we dubbed the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop the “Woodstock of Humor.”

But it’s not just the sound of laughter I remember from this spring’s gathering of 350 writers from around the nation.

My eyes closed, I listened to Suzette Martinez Standring’s gentle, melodic voice guiding a group of writers through a creative-writing exercise. A trained hypnotherapist and author, she urged us to tap deep into our subconscious, to use our mind like a “3-D coloring book” to create our own Instagram out of a long-ago memory.

I flash back to Jan. 15, 1988, to a quick break during the University of Dayton board of trustees’ meeting. It’s early in my UD career, and I’m worrying about getting this video assignment right.

Erma Bombeck ’49 sits in front of me and delivers an 84-second anecdote about how Marianist Brother Tom Price, her English professor, first told her she had a gift for writing. She speaks directly from the heart to the videographer as though he were a dear friend. No notes. No hesitation. No pretense.

Her words give me a chill.

“So I must tell you, you sort of slide things under the door and wait until the great critic comments on them,” she recalls. “And he saw me one day outside the cafeteria and he said three words to me, that’s all, just three words that were to sustain me for the rest of my life, I think. He looked at me and said, ‘You can write.'”

I can’t suppress a laugh when she quips, “I won’t believe him. And then I thought, no, he’s a man of the cloth. I mean he’d have to be on his knees for the rest of his life repenting for this if he didn’t mean it.”

Her words, filled with warmth and humility, spoke to this young writer. Years later, working with the Bombeck family and a group of alumni, I launched the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, a labor of love that we run on a shoestring.

This year’s workshop sold out in eight days, without any slick marketing. Jill Fales, a columnist for The Orange County Register, sat patiently by her computer and waited for online registration to open. “It was like getting concert tickets to the Rolling Stones,” said the first-time workshop attendee.

Writers know this workshop is different than any other in the country. It’s part love letter, part family reunion, part pep talk.

Authors, mommy bloggers and humorists all 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 celebrity writers like this year’s Alan Zweibel, one of the original “Saturday Night Live” writers, and the hysterically funny Adriana Trigiani, who’s created lively novels like Big Stone Gap.

To those who grew up with Erma’s columns hanging on their refrigerator doors, Erma always felt like she could be your next-door neighbor. Her writing captured the foibles of family life in a way that made us laugh at ourselves. “My idea of housework,” she once wrote, “is to sweep the room with a glance.”

We’ve tried to bottle Erma’s spirit.

“I don’t know of any other writers’ conference where the famous and the unknown sit side by side in mutual respect. That’s Erma,” observed Tracy Beckerman, a nationally syndicated humor columnist and author from New Jersey who found the confidence to write after attending her first Bombeck workshop in 2006. Today, she’s on the workshop’s faculty.

“When I came to my first conference, I had one column in one small-town newspaper. The support of this writing community is incredible,” she said.

Writers leave the workshop renewed and inspired, ready to find their own voice.

“People may tell you you’re the next Erma Bombeck. No, you’re not,” author and stand-up comic Nancy Berk cautioned writers in her “The Power of Erma” session.  “Do it your way. Listen to the voices that matter.”

Just like Erma did.

— Teri Rizvi

Teri Rizvi, associate vice president for University communications at the University of Dayton, founded the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in 2000.

Coming contractions

“Previews of Coming Contractions” and “Chase to the Cut,” humorous essays by Lisa Tognola, will appear in Not Your Mother’s Book…On Being a Parent and Not Your Mother’s Book…On Home Improvement. She highlights the humorous side of suburban life (the good, the bad and the ugly) in her Main Street Musings blog.

The tin files

Lucia Paul’s story, “The Tin Files,” will appear in the upcoming Not Your Mother’s Book On…Home ImprovementA humorous essayist from Minneapolis, she’s the author of Bad Catholic Mothers: A Book of Revelations.

A secret Bible

Angie Klink‘s new book, The Deans’ Bible: Five Purdue Women and Their Quest for Equality, will be published by Purdue University Press. Angie writes biographies, histories, children’s books, essays and ad copy. She received an honorable mention in the 2007 Erma Bombeck writing competition. Click here for Angie’s interview about the story behind The Deans’ Bible.

Toe jammin’

(This piece originally ran on Southern Humorists.com. Reposted by permission.)

I started the day bouncing around my hotel room on one foot, so guests in the room beneath may have wondered if I’d packed a pogo stick. Jet-lagged and stumbling, I careened into the desk chair that stood between me and the coffee maker. As I hopped madly up and down, I yelled names, not very nice names, names I’ve privately called editors who’ve rejected my work.

With tears rolling down my face, I plunked down into the offending chair. As I scrutinized my foot, I noticed that it now matched the black and blue workshop tote bag. Four toes were properly aligned in their normal state, pointing straight ahead. Alas, one lone piggy was signaling to make a right-hand turn. And my pedicure was ruined.

I’d waited two years to attend the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton. I admire Erma. When I was a young, insecure mother, her brilliant humor saved my sanity. Since the event sells out faster than a Kardashian sex tape goes viral, I’d chained myself to my computer desk before online registration began to ensure I got in. After months of planning, numerous flight changes, and several runway delays, I arrived the day before and claimed my name tag. No way was I missing this conference for a broken toe!

I scooted the office chair to the door and peeked out. Ice should temper the swelling. The ice machine may as well have been in the next county. It was too far down the hall for my achey-breaky toe to maneuver.

I rolled into the bathroom for water to brew coffee and wheeled back to the coffee maker. Waiting for the caffeine jolt to sufficiently erase my morning coma, I contemplated my next move. As I surveyed the room, I realized there was no bullet to bite on. This wouldn’t have been a problem back home in Texas. The closest thing I could find in Dayton was foil-wrapped dark chocolate. I’d have preferred an anesthesiologist.

I was motivated; if I had to gnaw my toe off, like some wild animal caught in a trap, I would. Instead, I grabbed the end of the toe, yanked it back into place, gingerly tugged on a sock, and crammed my injured foot into a shoe. I’ve never seen “broken toe” listed as cause of death on a toe tag in the morgue. I’d live until I could see my doctor at home.

A broken toe is such a wimpy injury. It’s hard to make it noticeable to elicit sympathy. If you’ve got a broken arm or a leg, people respect it. They cluck commiseration and pamper you with extra desserts. They sign your cast with colorful markers, creating witty sayings and drawing smiley faces. Stripping off my sock to ask them to autograph my toenail seemed too wacky. Even a Howard Hughes toenail wouldn’t hold many signatures.

By afternoon, still limping, I realized I’d left my over-the-counter pain medication in my hotel room. Going back for it or walking to buy some was definitely not in my throbbing foot’s near future.

I sat down next to another conference attendee, introduced myself, and asked if she had drugs. Her eyes grew wide, but before she could escape, I explained. After digging around for several minutes, she produced two well-worn aspirins in a Ziploc bag from the linty depths of her Dooney & Bourke. She generously shared, downing the second one herself. An aspirin in the hand is worth two back at the hotel.

Laughter’s a powerful analgesic. Over the next several days, 349 other humor writers often made me laugh enough that I temporarily forgot about my injured toe.

When I finally returned home and saw a doctor, my swollen toe had diminished in size from Ball Park Frank to Little Sizzlers link sausage. After reviewing X-ray films, the doctor prescribed a huge, black protective boot to clomp around in while I heal. I hate wearing the bulky thing, but I’m strapping it on the next time I go to the Dayton event. I’m hoping it’ll snag me an extra dessert.

— Hope Sunderland

Hope Sunderland is a registered nurse who’s retired her enema bucket and bedpan. She’s written for Gulf Coast Lifestyles, ByLine Magazine, Journal of Nursing Jocularity, New Christian Voices, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and contributes to TopFive.com, whose lists have been plagiarized by radio disc jockeys across the nation.

Handyman…not!

Mike McHugh, aka The Dang Yankee,” has two new stories appearing in the upcoming anthology, Not Your Mother’s Book…On Home Improvement.  This collection of funny tales by do-it-yourselfers from Publishing Syndicate will be released Sept. 10. Mike’s column is a regular feature in The Louisiana Jam, a local publication covering Southwest Louisiana.

A piece of her mind

Visit a universe where roosters crow 24/7 and The Rolling Stones perform unnoticed on the neighbor’s lawn. Journalist Amy McVay Abbott shares 35 of “The Raven Lunatic” newspaper columns in this romp of a book that will keep you laughing from start to finish.

Reflections of Erma