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Mike Farley

Mike Farley writes a weekly humor column that captured first place in the 2012 National Society of Newspaper Columnists competition in the online, blog and multimedia category (under 100,000 monthly visitors). The Massachusetts writer claims it was a case of mistaken identity. He insists he writes “for people with nothing else to read.”  The judges differ: “Mike Farley’s writing captures the amusement and wonder in the everyday moments of family life. His columns about braiding his daughter’s hair and three-way conversations between husband and wife make you smile and chuckle out loud. He teases the reader into wanting more.”

A real mother

Just in time for Mother’s Day, Denise Malloy has released a book, A Real Mother: stumbling through motherhood. A columnist for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, she quips her bio reads like a bad joke: “After working as a lifeguard, a Peace Corps volunteer, a middle school teacher, a switchboard operator and finally, an attorney (but don’t hold that against her), she is uniquely qualified to do absolutely nothing. That is why she writes.”

When your friends are your material

I recently praised the witty writing on my friend’s blog and told her that she should consider submitting for print.

“Yeah, but I could never publish the things about my kids that you do about yours.”

Such candor validates her true friend status. And often as a writer, I wonder how many real friends I have left.

On the days I muster shedding my uniform drawstrings for appropriate lunch attire, I sit across from radiant women who bubble bathe and work out and wonder if they would invite me back if they knew …

… that as they lightly laugh, their words crank through a mind that twists their tragedies into plot points, conjugates their conundrums into dialogue that may or may not end up on the cutting room floor.

As writers, our worlds — our people — are our material. Do they know?

Weren’t they there in our workshops when proven scribes assured us to “write what you know?” Aren’t they privy to the fact that to invite us into their lives, they subsequently invite themselves onto our pages?

And if they know, why do they stay? To be exorcists to the alternating narcissism and self-doubt that taunt us upon deadline? To serve as tranquilizers for our relentless angst? Perhaps we are their projects.

As competent adults, it is my friends’ prerogative to remain in my world. But there are four little people with whom I cohabit, and as my progeny, are powerless– having been born into their role of my built-in and best material.

Their every charming antic is recorded on a notecard — their dialogue so fresh, their conflict so natural.  And ever so perceptive, they watch me view their best performances, and knowing they can do nothing to prevent it, murmur, “Oh great, she’s going to write about us.”

—Autumn McAlpin

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

Jerry Zezima

Jerry Zezima is the very model of a modern, middle-aged man — except that he’s now won four awards for humorous writing from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He laughs at the absurdities of life in his humor column for his hometown paper, The Stamford Advocate. His column is syndicated by McClatchy-Tribune and has run in newspapers across the country and around the world. A collection of his columns appears in his book, Leave It to Boomer: A Look at Life, Love and Parenthood by the Very Model of the Modern Middle-Age Man.

How to write for the young adult market

Novelist Katrina Kittle took a leap. After three very successful novels with some very grown-up themes, she turned her eye to writing her first novel for the young adult market. So what makes writing a novel for young adults different?

The best piece of advice I got on writing for young adults came from the amazing editor Sharyn November at Viking. She’s the one who encouraged me to write for a younger audience in the first place, writing me a letter out of the blue after she read The Kindness of Strangers.

She very kindly told me she loved the boys’ voices, thought I wrote young people well and asked whether I’d ever considered writing a young adult novel. At the time I hadn’t, and I didn’t really understand the difference between writing for adults and for younger people.

Based on her encouragement, though, I set out to do it. Her great advice came when she read a first draft of Reasons to Be Happy.

“I want you to forget your audience,” she told me.

I thought that was nuts, but she explained, “I see you picturing this room full of middle school girls. Forget them. I want you to write a Katrina Kittle novel like you always do. The only difference is that all the protagonists happen to be teenagers. Don’t change anything else.

That made such sense to me. Young adult literature covers every conceivable topic these days. There is nothing considered taboo. If you water down, sanitize or try to shelter readers from the reality of your topic, they will smell it a mile away. Teen readers are the same as … well, teens in general. There’s nothing they hate more than something they know is inauthentic.

—Katrina Kittle

Katrina Kittle, a member of the 2012 Bombeck Workshop faculty, has been blogging her own daily reasons to be happy since July 1. Today’s reason? Bowling shoes. This editor’s pick? You’ll just have to click here.

An authentic life

Some people know they want to be writers from the day they are born. Jim Higley isn’t one of them. Here’s the story of his successful but unlikely writing career:

I’m an accidental writer. Making a career out of the manipulation of 26 little letters was never on my radar screen.

But I’ve always been a passionate storyteller. A card-carrying member of the Heartstring Club. One of many Pied Piper-types who enjoy taking people on journeys of self discovery. Finding their own memories and emotions.

I never met a goose bump I didn’t like.

A few years ago, life tossed me a couple of back-to-back curveballs. Part One was titled, “Surprise! Here’s Cancer!” That was immediately followed by another life-changing sequel, “Surprise! You’re a Single Dad Raising Three Kids Alone!”

While those story lines brought a fair amount of pain, they also gave me the resolve to live a more authentic life. Fear of failure no longer was a roadblock to my dreams.

And I decided to become a professional storyteller. Whatever that meant.

That decision came one morning as I lay in bed after spending the night with a sick child who had projectile vomited his way through the wee hours of the night. And, as tired and grossed out as I was, what I found myself reflecting on was how much I loved this boy. And how crazy — and fulfilling — this parent gig really was.

So began my blog. And I wrote my first story about finding meaning in life’s nooks and crannies.

Somehow that turned into a weekly column on parenting in the Chicago Tribune for their suburban paper, TribLocal. That leveraged into other writing opportunities for the Good Men Project, Man of the House, LiveStrong and others. I was pinching myself. More importantly, I was finding fulfillment as a person. Enriched.

Very few stories received compensation. But I worked my way through the maze of it all believing there was bigger value in what I was doing and with the people I was meeting. Soon I was named the first “Dad” correspondent for NBC Universal’s iVillage. Then I was given a weekly radio show to host. And there was a book — Bobblehead Dad — which was really a collection of letters and lessons I wrote for my children durng my cancer journey. No one wanted to publish it when I first wrote it. Not a soul. But somewhere, somehow, through this crazy trip it found believers and people who made it happen.

And it all started with a puking son. And a belief.

In the power of storytelling.

—Jim Higley

Jim Higley, a member of the 2012 Bombeck Workshop faculty, is a full-time stay-at-home father, writer and the inaugural winner of Man of the House’s inaugural “World’s Greatest Dad Challenge.”

At the intersection of funny and feminism

A question that often underlies discussions of humor written by women is the question of feminism. It’s not exactly the politics of eyebrow plucking but more like the politics of making jokes about it.

Take this example from yesterday’s Chicago Tribune, the opening lines of a review of CHICKtionary by 2012 Bombeck Workshop faculty member Anna Lefler:

“Anna Lefler’s ‘Chicktionary’ is a wry celebration of modern femininity. Or an attempt to set feminism back a decade,” reporter Heidi Stevens writes. “It depends on your definition of feminism. Or maybe it depends on your definition of chick. Or is it your definition of funny?”

Erma herself was a lively and enthusiastic participant in these debates and the target of critics who didn’t appreciate the domestic brand of humor she was writing. “I had a member of the women’s liberation movement write to me and say, ‘Lady, you are the problem,’” she once said.

Others came to her defense. Patricia Leigh Brown said, “She made it okay to live in a ranch house with the requisite station wagon and golden retriever, because she could lovingly satirize the cliché.”

Erma could defend herself pretty well, too, of course. After hearing Betty Friedan speak, she said, “These women threw a war for themselves and didn’t invite any of us. That was very wrong of them.”

Those three quotes are all part of a summary of Erma’s life and career on the “New York Times Best Seller List” site, which goes on to describe Erma’s work on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment and her “firmly feminist” household: “Erma was the main breadwinner. Bill Bombeck eventually retired from his job as a school administrator in order to manage his wife’s career; at her peak she made from $500,000 to $1 million a year.”

In the case of the Tribune story about Lefler’s book (which, all kidding aside, is hilarious), maybe the feminism question is just a quick, easy angle for a busy reporter, but the trope comes up so often it’s hard to dismiss so easily. Is the book a “threat to feminism,” as the reporter asks at one point? That’s a term CHICKtionary doesn’t define.

Alternatives and attics

Kyran Pittman, a 2012 Bombeck Workshop faculty member, talks about making the jump from blogging to holding a copy of her book for the first time:

It’s a strange and interesting time to make a debut as an author in traditional media. It felt almost anachronistic to hold the hardcover of Planting Dandelions for the first time.

I grew up in a culture rooted in oral storytelling, and I cut my teeth as a writer through blogging, so I’m not especially sentimental about the passing of the age of print.

But I felt a pang for future authors who are unlikely to experience their work as a tactile object, as a made thing. I thought, my God, this could turn up in a yard sale or someone’s attic a hundred years from now. It was an extraordinary moment, and it’s not one I could talk anyone out of seeking, though there are so many alternatives open to writers today.

Kyran Pittman

Kyran Pittman is the author of  Planting Dandelions: Field Notes from a Semi-Domesticated Life, which will be published in paperback in 2012.

Reflections of Erma