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Tweeting for the Pulitzer

Despite the ever-progressive state of the technological age, it seems if we want to achieve real success as writers, we actually must regress back to behaviors we learned in, like, high school.

In the olden days, writers wrote. They moved to the forest to cabins with no electricity and hunted or trapped their own dinner or better yet never ate at all because they were too busy chain-smoking and ignoring everyone they’ve ever met and WRITING. The more angst and reclusivity, the better their work.

Oh, to be Harper Lee.

Now, if I want to make it as a writer, my muse is a homecoming queen. Because everyone “likes” her.

Social media has invaded even the most lonely of professions, and just like the quill, the solitary life has been expelled from the writer’s toolkit by the landmines of the “Like Me” world.

I discovered my passion for the page right around the time I opened my first email account, then shrunk away to have babies for a decade. By the time I reappeared in my cabin clothes, inkwell in hand, I realized the party’s actually been moved to my high school cafeteria.

Here I stand, tray loaded with ideas and drive, wondering where to sit.

Front and center are the mommy bloggers, the “popular group” with mad skills for making the best (or even better, the worst) of their existence, but there is some mad back scratching going on over there. Not sure I can keep up with all that constant validation and remembering everyone’s names and pages.

Passing through are the crafty class clowns, who show up for roll call to post their status, then disappear and reappear at random to start a new planking, coning or flash fun movement.

Out on the lawn is the artsy group, who know just what filter to instagram their coolness through. Their lenses don’t care if you like them, but deep inside, they really do.

LinkedIn is the National Honor Society, all grown up. Don’t show up without a briefcase and resume if you want to be taken seriously.

And then there are the too-cool-for-school tweeters squatting under the bleachers as their thumbs procure clever punchlines that knock you out in 140 characters or less.

In high school, I constantly wished we could just skip lunch and get back to business. I still do.

I now pen the weekly Cracking Up humor column for The Orange County Register, a dream job in theory.  But to take the next step and get syndicated, I won’t be crafting an ingenious query and crossing my fingers for 4-6 weeks. Oh, no.

First, I’ll need to sneak under the bleachers and recruit 4,000 more Twitter followers, then comment and flatter my way through the center of the cafeteria until I convince you to follow the Conga line to my blog. All the while I’ll quip back to the clowns’ status updates and wear a necktie to widen my links, then take up photography so I can insta-open an account to make pinboards on snapfly.

With all this time spent “writing,” when am I going to find time to write?

But seriously, if you ‘like’ me, I’ll ‘like’ you. Follow me at www.momscrackingup.com and @autumnmcalpin, buy my book Real World 101: A Survival Guide to Life After High School on Amazon, and friend me on Facebook!

— Autumn McAlpin

Autumn McAlpin  is the author of Real World 101: A Survival Guide to Life After High School, a columnist for The Orange County Register in southern California and a regular contributor to humorwriters.org.

No laughing matter

(This humorous essay appeared in the Salem News on June 1, 2012. Reposted by permission.)

Last month, I attended the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers’ Conference in Dayton, Ohio.

People came from Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana and even California. As far as I could tell, I was the only one from Massachusetts. That is because it’s easier to fly to Juneau, Alaska, than to Dayton, Ohio, from here.

I realized this while scrolling through the airlines’ schedules. Dayton is a small airport with few flights from Logan and fewer nonstop.

Eventually, I settled on a US Airways flight from Boston to Washington’s Reagan International. Unfortunately, I had only 30 minutes to make the connecting flight to Dayton.

Should I not make it, there were few alternatives. Even in Washington, flights to Dayton were as scarce as pickle barrels. I pictured myself in desperation, boarding a Greyhound bus to Ohio.

Thus, I decided against checking a suitcase. If I missed the connecting flight, my suitcase could end up in Juno. Instead, I crammed everything into carry-ons.

My “pocketbook” was an enormous tote stuffed with clothes. When I reached in to pay for a headset, I pulled out my underwear.

During the flight from Boston, I glanced often at my watch. We were flying into a wind that would eventually morph into a storm. The turbulence created a drag, the pilot said, leaving me with only 20 minutes to make my connection to Dayton.

I showed the flight attendant my ticket, hoping she’d phone ahead: “Hold that plane!” Instead, she scoffed and said, “You’ll have plenty of time.”

When we landed and the doors opened, I resisted the urge to climb over the seats. I’d resigned myself to missing my connection at that point.

Imagine my surprise then to discover the flight to Dayton had been delayed by two hours. Thank you, US Air!

I found the gate and sat down to read. Later, I decided to go into the main terminal to browse the shops. As often happens, I got distracted. When I checked my watch, I realized my plane was boarding.

I rushed to the security checkpoint and got in line. As I walked through the full-body scanner, a security guard motioned to me.

“I have to go through your things,” she said, unzipping my bags. She took everything out, shaking the box of Cheez-Its along with my underwear. She examined my makeup case.

Then she said, “I have to feel you now.”

I heard her correctly — as did everyone else within earshot. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement.

“Do you mind?” she added.

What to say in a situation like that? If I acted reluctant, she’d be suspicious. On the other hand, if I acted enthusiastic, she’d wonder.

I nodded and glanced at the clock. My flight was leaving in 15 minutes. I cursed myself for straying from the gate.

As the guard performed her duties, I asked why I’d been singled out. It was my bra, she claimed. The multi clasps had created a blur on the screen. (Note to self: Leave bra at home while in the nation’s capital.)

Next, she sprayed my hands and forearms with a strong chemical.

“This detects the presence of explosives,” she informed me. I kept silent.

Finally released, I raced to the gate to find it empty. The monitor showed the delayed flight was now canceled. What?!

I approached a nearby agent.

“Didn’t you get our phone call about the cancellation?” he asked. Apparently, while I was buying Lincoln Memorial paperweights, US Air was calling my house to announce they’d canceled the flight.

“What can I do?” I wailed.

He checked his computer and said, “There’s a flight to Charlotte in 10 minutes,” then handed me a new boarding pass. “You might make it. I’ll take you.”

Together, we raced through the airport, the agent running ahead, me far behind, dragging my bags. Just like in the movies, the doors were closing when I staggered in, taking my seat on the tiny plane.

It was only after we were airborne that I realized I was going to Charlotte, which is in North Carolina. I’m no geography whiz, but isn’t there an easier route to Dayton?

I studied my ticket. Upon landing in Charlotte, I would have 20 minutes to make the connecting flight to Dayton. “You’ll have plenty of time,” the flight attendant assured me.

Needless to say, after three flights and 12 hours in airports, I made it to Dayton. When I checked in at the Humor Writers Conference, I was not amused. Nonetheless, I’ve got it all arranged for next year: I’m going Greyhound.

— Sharon L. Cook

Sharon L. Cook is author of the mystery novel, A Nose for Hanky Panky.

Kindred souls

The vast majority of writers who attended the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop told us they loved it.

The spring workshop garnered higher survey scores than either of the previous two — thanks primarily to a slate of “funny, smart, entertaining” keynote speakers, the Bombeck family involvement through readings of their favorite Erma columns and the quality and variety of workshop sessions.

More than 60 percent (212) of the 350 participants completed an online survey that rated the workshop’s sessions. The workshop received an average 9.09 rating, with that score escalating to 9.23 when participants rated the cost of the workshop versus the value to their careers.

“Truly, this was the best conference I’ve ever been to for writers,” one survey taker wrote. “Not only were the classes very informative, but my smile muscles hurt each night. …And a unique thing at this conference was the overall feeling of warmth and unity I felt throughout with kindred souls who were out to support each other and not compete.”

Participants offered us constructive criticism, too. Some thought the workshop focused too much on blogging. Others suggested that the breakfast roundtable discussions needed moderators. Lots wanted to be able to scan someone’s name tag and see a hometown. The food, depending upon who you asked, was either “wonderful” or “tasteless.”

Nearly everyone agreed on this point: “The desserts rocked.”

Here’s a sampling of comments from the more than two dozen pages of write-in observations:

• I am eternally grateful that the University of Dayton offers this fabulous gathering to honor Erma Bombeck. It is an incredible undertaking and not only honors her legacy but also truly helps writers to connect, learn about the industry and inspire us all to continue on wherever the path leads us. If I never wrote another word, I would want to attend this uplifting and glorious celebration of Erma and all things humorous.

• I loved, loved, loved the introduction to all the new publishing venues and social media opportunities. EBWW 2012 put me right at the forefront of what’s going on in the industry. Plus, I laughed liked crazy for three days. I came home filled with joy.

• I was so moved and touched by the Bombeck family. Having them read Erma’s articles was a stroke of genius.

• The atmosphere was charged, and the people were very lovely and genuine.

• When I came to EBWW in 2010, I had a blog and some dreams. I came to EBWW in 2012 having had several essays published and with a book contract. Did EBWW get me published? No. But did it make me believe I could do it? Absolutely.

Audio recordings of the individual sessions or the complete workshop can be ordered here.

The Bombeck family readings and excerpts from the keynote addresses can be found on the workshop’s YouTube site.

The next Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop is slated for April 10-12, 2014.

— Teri Rizvi

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

On role models

(This piece originally ran in The Orange County Register May 23, 2012. Reposted by permission.)

Kids aren’t the only ones who need the wisdom of others. Grown-ups continue to change, grow and pass through different life stages. We benefit from people who are further down the path of experience.

Last month, I attended the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, Ohio, where along with fellow Newport Beach columnist Shelly Volner, I spent the entire weekend laughing, crying and being filled with the courage to continue pursuing my dreams.

One keynote speaker, Ilene Beckerman, deeply touched me. As she spoke, I hung on her every word. No stranger to life’s pain, Beckerman lost her mother when she was 12, and was raised by her grandparents. Later in life, she had six kids of her own, and lost one at two years old.

She did not begin writing until she was 60. Beckerman, now 77, has authored five books. Her latest one, The Smartest Woman I Know, is about the lessons she learned from her grandmother. When I returned from the conference, I wrote to her:

Dear Ilene, I wanted to send my sincerest thanks for your moving and inspiring speech at the Erma Bombeck workshop. There is something in you, beyond your beauty, talent, creativity, wisdom, honesty and humbleness that makes me appreciate you so much.

…You are a role model for me. Not because your life is a perfect fairytale, but because you are so human. You have experienced pain as well as joy, tears, laughter, birth, death, gains and losses. And you have embraced it all with poise and humor. This adds to your voice as a writer, a woman, a friend, a mentor.

I bought books from several authors at the conference and on the plane ride home to California I picked, like a kid with a bag full of candy, what I wanted to read first. I chose The Smartest Woman I Know and, like a treat, savored every word, every drawing. I fell in love with Ettie and missed my grandma Sylvia Feinberg something fierce.

She wrote me back appreciatively and said, “Your e-mail knocked me out.”

Beckerman is not the first woman to move me in such a way. In college, Professor Werner was my favorite. I took three classes from her. She told us stories of being orphaned during World War II and how UNICEF saved her life, feeding her soup and giving her a coat. As an adult, she learned Swahili, and spent each summer in Africa as a UNICEF volunteer.

The first real boss I ever had opened a school for kids with special needs. She earned her Ph.D. at the age of 72, and well into her 80s she went to work every day an hour early to lecture the staff.

You will know when you have found a role model, because you will not want to be just like them, but be motivated by them to be the best version of you.

— Jill Fales

Jill Fales writes the weekly “Mom’s Voice” column for The Orange County Register. Inspired by the faculty at the 2012 EBWW, she’s now working with Greyden Press on publishing her first book, My Laundry Museum & Other Messy Gifts of Motherhood.

The write way

Inspired by the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, Polly Scott wrote and published a book, Forget About Grammar: How to Write a Better Blog Post. She teaches an online writing course and writes a humor blog, Coming to Grips.

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.

Reflections of Erma