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

Erma Bombeck Wrighters' Workshop Banner

Fashion forward

This is my granddaughter, Birdie. She is the most beautiful thing.

Notice the headgear. I know it ages me, but all I can think of when I look at the myriad bows and flowers her mother joyfully places on her tiny noggin is HEDDA HOPPER. Hedda was known for her flamboyant hats, and it seems to me that all of this Hollywood frippery is coming back, HOORAY! And of course, Birdie is a tiny, Hollywood gal herself.

Here is how I imagine her when she is five. A bit scrawny, with scabs on both knees. A Band-Aid on her forehead from falling off her scooter. Running shoes. A popsicle in one hand, a ripped teddy bear in the other. A rather soiled tee shirt (the park, earlier in the day), and a tutu. She hates ballet, but loves the costumes.

At 10: Soccer shorts, a grass-stained jersey, shin guards, lime green sunglasses, and at least four white plastic barrettes holding down wild, sun-bleached curls. Nail polish, each nail a different color. A backpack with polka dots.

Aged 16. She is almost six feet tall, and her legs seem to begin just below her chin. She wears outlandish combinations of clothes that would look odd on other teens, but on her look like a trend just about to break. She never chews gum; it gives her hiccups. Perpetually tan, she keeps a surfboard in her closet and a bathing suit in her purse. She has very short hair, because she is always in the wind, it seems, and long hair is way too labor intensive. She hums to herself most of the time. She just got the leading role in her high school production of that old chestnut, LA LA Land.

Aged 20. She looks like her mother. Fit. Tousled bronze hair, now brushing her shoulders. She smiles readily, and like her mom, her enthusiasm knows no bounds. She loves to run, and has a hard time sitting still. And behind her left ear, most days? A flower. She has a band, and Birdie is the lead singer. She plays the tambourine.

I hope I will still be around to admire her.

— 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 self-published her first book, Characters in search of a novel. Her second book, Keep the Ends Loose, was released by The Story Plant in 2015, and her third novel, Crossing the Street, is due out in May 2017.

What would Erma do?

How do you write humor in a crabby world? It’s difficult to be funny when the mood of the country is worse than the temperament of a pack of hungry junkyard dogs, strangers are yelling at each other on social media, and even my usual cheerful friends are picking fights, taking sides and stomping their feet. In the midst of the angst, I ask the redeeming question: What would Erma do?

Erma Bombeck’s talent propelled her above rancorous debate and petty sniping. She pounced on an important topic and turned the issue into a teachable moment or a silly punchline. Even those who may have disagreed with her were delighted by her creative wit and profound wisdom. Through 4,000 newspaper columns written from 1965 to 1996, she became America’s favorite female humorist and the best friend to more than 30 million readers. She is my hero.

What would she say about the current climate of chaos? In my opinion, she would offer an anecdote that portrays the weaknesses of our hectic, self-centered lives. For example, in her book If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits?, Erma writes about how she was trying to take advantage of some rare time alone to read a book in an airport waiting room. An elderly woman sitting next to her started a conversation, and Erma was irritated. Then she learned that the casket with the woman’s deceased husband also would be on the plane, and they had been married 53 years. Here is what Erma wrote:

I don’t think I have ever detested myself more than I did at that moment. Another human being was screaming to be heard…All she needed was a listener…It seemed rather incongruous that in a society of supersophisticated communication, we often suffer from a shortage of listeners.”

The book was written in 1978, and the message remains the same. Why are people so angry, and what are they demanding? They want the right to be heard. They want to matter. They want the rest of us to put down our business, look them in the eyes (through the magic of the Internet, if necessary), and say, “I’m listening.”

In Chapter 14 of the same book, Erma notes that life is not all fun and blue skies.

There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt. And how do you know laughter if there is no pain to compare it with?”

Erma was a member of the national Presidential Advisory Committee for Women and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Her advocacy was criticized by conservative groups, and some bookstores removed her books. The ERA failed, but Erma did not. She continued to amuse her readers with books titled, When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home and A Marriage Made in Heaven…or Too Tired For an Affair.

Erma Bombeck’s writing endures because she didn’t dwell on the negative or criticize others. Through all the problems of life, she continued to provide relief with humor and wit. I need to remember that as I’m sifting through the debris of dastardly discourse and wanting to fire off a curt comment. Through making jokes about stress, motherhood and life, Erma left us laughing. One last line: “The only reason I would take up jogging is so that I could hear heavy breathing again.” Thanks, Erma.

— Elaine Ambrose

Elaine Ambrose has written eight books,  including Midlife Happy Hour, Midlife Cabernet and Menopause Sucks. She’s an award-winning, syndicated blogger and frequent speaker at national conferences, including the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Find more details on her website www.ElaineAmbrose.com.

Is that a dog?

Years ago, we had new neighbors move in to the upstairs apartment in the house next door. One Saturday afternoon shortly after the couple had moved in, I saw them out with their dog on the grassy median strip dividing our residential street. The couple was talking with some other neighbors, so I went out to say hi.

After meeting the friendly guy and his girlfriend, with no introductions to their scruffy dog sniffing at my feet, a question formulated in my head:

“Is that a male or female dog?”

(Because, really, how can you tell without being, y’know, obvious?)

In a moment of supreme brain-body disconnect, the question that came out of my mouth, however, was:

“Is that a dog?”

Write that down as an excellent example of how NOT to make a good first impression.

But it still cracks me up when I think about it, even though it happened more than 25 years ago.

I probably take myself and the foibles of life too seriously much of the time. But I also love laughing at myself. Not in a way that feels like a self put-down, but in a way that makes me feel human and hopefully approachable, in an “I screw up, you screw up, we all screw up” kind of way.

If I’m at a party, I’m not always a great conversationalist. I’m not especially politically astute (although for some reason lately, I’ve had more of an opinion than ever before — go figure). I’m not good at remembering details from trips and vacations, so I can’t name that “memorable” restaurant on the lake in Skaneateles, New York, and I can’t discuss which historic sites we visited in Philadelphia.  (Other than the Liberty Bell, of course — the memory bar isn’t set that low.) I’m also severely “directionally challenged,” so don’t even ask me the best way to get from East Poestenkill to Cropseyville.  You might end up in Massachusetts.

But I can tell a funny story about myself and I always seem to catch a listening ear.

Our imperfection — our vulnerability — is a great human connector. Like the K’nex building blocks that my kids played with years ago, it pulls us together and helps us stick with each other. In fact, a little more self-deprecating humor and a lot more K’nexing may be what the world needs right now.

— 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.

At the heart of it all

My husband Matthew teases me every year. “You want that key in a heart necklace, don’t you?” or, “Oh, look at that heart charm. I’m going to get you that!”

He knows if he really did, it’d be the first gift of his I’d take back. I can’t abide hearts. But in the spirit of the holiday, I tolerate heart-shaped chocolates — if they’re dark chocolate. Milk chocolate is a greater abomination than cute jewelry.

Disliking hearts as I do, you can see why Valentine’s Day and I did not get along until 16 years ago.

Okay, there’s more to it than that. Truth be told, not once as a young woman did a young man declare his infatuation with, his adoration of — not even his hope-to-get-to-know-you-better feelings for me on that day. Nothin’.

I did receive a beautiful arrangement of flowers when I was 18, but imagine opening the card on your first V-day bouquet to discover they’re from your sister.

My older sisters received tokens every year. I think young men just threw roses at them in the hall as they walked to class, cheering and whistling and laying down their jackets over old bubble gum and spit wads to protect their lovely feet from the filth of a high school floor.

I was attractive, too…in my own way. I had a large nose, lazy eye, pimples, braces from ninth grade on, and the constant appearance of pink eye due to hard contact lenses that, while aiming to make me more attractive, were viciously sucking the juices out of my eyeballs. But, man, I was a looker. Really!

Ah, well. Valentine’s Day is for all lovers, but an anniversary? That’s for two. It just so happens February 14 is the anniversary of the day Matthew announced he wanted to be my guy for life.

Sixteen years ago, we were strolling the San Antonio Zoo when he popped the question. He had asked my Dad’s permission, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when he led me off into a little area by a lush pond. A large blue parrot perched there, squawking noisily. I gazed at the pretty spot absentmindedly and then turned to leave, coming face to face with my boyfriend. Smiling up at him, I put my hand on his chest.

“Wow, your heart is really pounding!” I said lightly, completely oblivious as I made to go around him. He grabbed my hand and whirled me back. I saw him kneeling with a small box in his hand, but I have really no clue what he said after, “Hillary…”

“No way!” I cried, cutting him off and trying to bolt as he gripped my hand tighter. He continued his declaration until a few seconds later I heard quite distinctly, “Will you marry me?”

“Yes,” I said in a shaky voice.

My ring was beautiful, and I even got flowers. I’ve been spoiled every year since, including one exceptional year when my Love lead me out to discover a wine-colored guitar in the trunk of his car.

Matthew has a running joke he’ll no doubt be employing until we’re 90. When some commercial, movie or TV program shows a man proposing, he always turns to me and says, “See, she doesn’t try to run away.”

Well, he needn’t worry. It’s hard to wander off anywhere with these four balls chained about my legs, also known as children.

Oh, and the beautiful blue parrot who witnessed our engagement all those years ago? We framed his picture to hang on the wall of our home.

It looks far better there than a heart would.

— Hillary Ibarra

Hillary Ibarra has had several humor pieces published online, most at the incredible humorwriters.org. She is hoping to publish a book this year that she began when she was 17 and recently rediscovered with the help of her children. She is the mysterious blogger at No Pens, Pencils, Knives or Scissors. In her spare time she likes to threaten to sell her children to the zoo, and their little dog, too.

It (usually) never rains in California

When I was notified I had won a prize for rainmaking, I was gob-smacked while trying to close my umbrella. The last one to win that prestigious award was Burt Lancaster whom I’m often mistaken for without my makeup.

I don’t know what came over me, but after some graffiti artist seeing the unwashed car wrote “dirty girl”(though I’m actually a “nasty woman”) on my car, I was glad his pen got stuck in the soot.

I was then forced to wash my car by hand — these lovely hands only meant for rocking babies and royal waving.

Here I was trying to be a good citizen by conserving water in our drought-forsaken state of California and was actually being berated for it.

Still, my car washing  did bring the rain and so I will accept graciously (unlike Bob Dylan), the most coveted “Raindrops Are Falling On My Head” accolade.

Now I’ve been receiving threatening notes saying, “ENOUGH ALREADY!”

What you should know is that I am only in charge of causing the rain though not always stopping it, so shush!

I admit the excess has caused distress.

Even the animals in my neighborhood are walking two by two seeking an ark or two-bedroom suites.

The rain caused a roof leak not covered by my homeowner’s fee as the house was remodeled 50 years ago by the original owner. Nothing is covered in my homeowner’s fee except for the battery in my smoke detector. (As I do not do much comparison-shopping, does anyone know if $7,500 a year is excessive for a battery?)

I made calls to various roof repair services. No one was available until June. I asked what I should do until then and, coincidentally, they all gave the same spiritual advice, “Pray it doesn’t rain until then.”

I realized the storm was a tad lucky for me as I wouldn’t have to attend yet another baby shower for my second cousin who was having her fourth child with her third husband, who had planned to drive me to the event.

He had also promised to have a vasectomy the first of the year, but he couldn’t start his car as his battery got wet and which left me stuck at home leaving me oh, so disappointed while I lit the fireplace and sipped my hot toddy.

But enough about family!

In addition, I was stuck all day watching television while stuffing my face with leftover pizza. Oh, don’t cry for me, Pizzerias.

Having nothing to do with anything, I’m very curious to know why you all set aside only 24 hours to celebrate “Pizza Day” when, in fact, I celebrate it all year…week in and week out with only holidays set aside for Weight Watcher’s meetings?

A bit of truthiness here; sometimes when one has supreme and potent power like myself, one must be cautious when making a weather request change. Results may have unexpected consequences.

I recall my last conjuring while wishing for a tan. I slathered sun screen all over my body, which takes a bucket or so, and issued my command while singing, “Here Comes the Sun” and then, waving my wand.

I quickly learned that when the sun also rises, it fades the drapes.

Along with a roofer, I am currently seeking curtains.

— Jan Marshall

Jan Marshall has devoted her life’s work to humor and healing through books, columns and motivational speaking. As founder of the International Humor & Healing Institute, she worked with board members Norman Cousins, Steve Allen and other physicians and entertainers, including John Cleese. Her newest satirical survival book, Dancin’ Schmancin’ with the Scars: Finding the Humor No Matter What! is dedicated to Wounded Warriors, Gabrielle Giffords and Grieving Parents. She donates a percentage of the profits to these organizations as well as to the American Cancer Society and the American Brain Tumor Association.

Not my privates you don’t

It’s 2004, and the day has dawned sunny and bright, giving me hope for my travels.

It’s my first trip abroad in 30 years. My driver drops me at the terminal in good time, leaving me two hours to get through security — maybe even time to loll in the café, sip coffee and obsess over my itinerary to Spain. I finger my boarding pass and peek at my ticket. Detroit to Madrid. Ten hours. I’m happy I brought my flight pillow and two bestsellers.

​Finally, my turn comes to put my jacket, carry-on, shoes and purse in the bucket and let them slide down the conveyer belt. Two men on either side of the screening booth look like the narcotics squad from “Law and Order.” ​I think, what can they do to a silver-haired lady?

“Step over here, lady,” the meaner looking officer says, motioning me into a large X-ray machine.

I enter the scanning booth and the warning bell goes off. I look around to see what has caused it. The two men also try to determine what caused the forbidden alarm.

​I look down. The shirt I’m wearing is a cute beige fashion T-shirt, given to me by my friend, Nancy, for the trip. I feel pretty sexy in it, but now, to my dismay, I see the neckline of my shirt is covered with gun metal studs.

​“Wow, I am so sorry, sir!” I say to the less threatening security guard. “I believe my shirt has set off the alarm. It has metal décor on it.”

​Both men stare at me. One of them turns to a guard at the next booth and asks, “Hey, can you see what set off the bell?” The third guard looks around at me and the people behind me.

​“Nope. Ya’ got me,” he says, and turns back to the people in his aisle.

​“Excuse me, I said, “if you will notice, I have metal buttons on my shirt, I believe they might be causing the alarm. Since I can’t take the shirt off here, can you suggest a solution?”

​The scary guard begins to rummage through my belongings that have already passed through the scanners.

The other guard says, “Lift your arms, ma’am. Keep them up.”

He proceeds to pat his hands up and down my body.  Passengers around me look on with sympathy, but they were not about to intercede. Feeling uncomfortable with this violation, I begin to panic. Having heard scary stories about TSA, I had promised myself I would be a little lamb and not be difficult. But now, the lioness emerges, and, as these two goons continue to rummage deeper into my luggage and pat harder in the wrong places, I lose it.

​“The problem, gentlemen,” I shout, with venom in my voice, “is my f–king shirt!”

The two men bolt upright as if they’d been shot in the rear with buckshot. Worse than that, they look as if they are delighted to collar a real perpetrator.

“OK, lady, step way over here!” the scary one says, guiding me further from my belongings and escape.

“Stand here and don’t move,” says the other. “Keep your hands out in the open. Don’t say another word.”

​Just as think I might be detained in a dark room with no food or water, another security guard steps up.  He looks over the situation thoughtfully. Then I hear him whisper to my two captors, “Guys, I think it might be her shirt.”

​After staring me down for a few seconds, the nicer guard, looking down at the floor, says, “You can go, Ma’am.  But don’t fly with that shirt again.”

“No problem,” I say, as I gather my things. “I wouldn’t want to meet up with you two again anyway.”

That brings a scowl from Mr. Meany, and when it looks like he might detain me again, I run like hell.

​— 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 and memoir, including two other blog posts on this site, humorwriters.org. Find her musings on her website/blog at www.writethatthang.com.

A Dog’s Purpose for a mom and daughter

Grace and I read A Dog’s Purpose over winter break in December, using two bookmarks.

It was the first time we have read a book at the same time. I had suggested it when I found out that the author W. Bruce Cameron and his wife, screenwriter Cathryn Michon, are part of the Erma Bombeck writers’ tribe to which I also belong. Though I’d never met either one, I felt a kinship with them. I needed to read and see their work. More importantly, my daughter and I needed something to bond us together during the trying times a teenager and her menopausal mom often experience. And we both love dogs.

On Jan. 26, we attended a private showing of the movie. Granted it didn’t officially open until Jan. 27, but I knew it would start playing a day earlier than advertised. I learned this a few years back when our family went to the theater to buy tickets the night before Divergent was to open. We discovered the movie would show in a few minutes, so we parked the car and went in to a practically empty theater then, same as now.

We chose seats two-thirds of the way up and in the middle, sharing a large bucket of butter-drenched popcorn for our dinner. I made a Snapchat video to commemorate the occasion. It was a privilege to sit alongside my 15-year-old daughter and pretend this was our private screening of A Dog’s Purpose, with the exception of a man down front and two women who came in during the previews and sat a few rows behind us.

We leaned close and talked in hushed voices about how the movie differed from the book, like only hearing “doodle dog” spoken once when it had been used repeatedly in the book. There were scenes in the movie that never occurred in the book, like the swallowed coin, and vice versa, like the police dog having two masters. That is, of course, the way it is with book-to-movie scripts to condense some dozen-plus hours of reading into less than two hours of screen time. Some don’t succeed with the transition; this one did.

On our way out of the theater, Grace said she thought the book was better because more things happened. I think the real reason that may be true is because the book gave us more time together as we plowed through its pages. She never wanted me to get ahead of her either, so it made it a fun competition as reading became a priority over other daily distractions, such as checking social media and putting away laundry.

But the movie was great, too, she quickly added. Greater still, I believe, was sharing both with her, from laughing and crying as we talked about the chapters each of us had just read, to whispering at our private showing between more giggles and tears.

The book and the movie certainly served their purpose for us. Five stars and two thumbs up for that.

— Lisa Marlin

Lisa Marlin, a marketing professional, started her career as a journalist. Her essays have been published on the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop blog and in The Denver Post, The Dallas Morning News and Dallas Child Magazine — penned under various last names that she has tried on over time. Four children call her Mom, and each of them has provided their (un)fair share of writing prompts throughout their 28, 25, 22 and 15 years of life. Find her at www.lisamarlin.com, on Twitter @lisa_marlin and on Facebook at @lisamarlinwriter.

Start texting like an adult

The subjective topics in academia seem to suffer from the highest amount of oral and written atrocities. Front and foremost in our high-tech world are the text-atrocities. (Look, I just made a new word, so it must be true.)

For example, should I happen to text you that 5 x 5 = 20 and insist that it’s just the “way we do math,” you would probably put up a great argument. Perhaps enough people would like to decide that Washington, D.C. is in Washington state, or that Hollywood is not in Los Angeles. The new President of the United States must be President Bernie Sanders if we think it so in our colloquial neck of the woods.

No, you say? We cannot change the facts, you say? If your so sure, idk what your talking about. I may as well SMH and go on. For one thing that’s 4 sure, textbreviation (another new word) has become a harrowing nightmare for most people who are Baby Boomers. So, to regain my sanity (it’s shaky anyway), I occasionally slip on over to Ellen DeGeneres’ Clumsy Thumbsy site for a chuckle and so that I can blame it on technology.

I am unsure whether to be more bothered by poor grammar and the endorsement and adamant defense of same or in the deleting of letters from words and then pretending they are words. Perhaps we can throw both abominations together and text like this:

I seen ur bae 2day. Wow, YOLO, but she b w/a dood.

While your officially butchering the English language, go ahead and make it good. How bout dis:

U go wit me? Hav u eat der?

I think, “Sure, I will meet you there. While you’re waiting for me, please do not text me in 21st Century Technobonics (new word #3), because when the bill comes for our meal, and I debate that $15 will pay half of the $40 owed because I just do Mat like dat, “you’re” blood pressure will arise to astonishing levels.

One of the main reasons I believe this has become the norm is the explosion of social media. If you ask millennials and America’s youth the social media platforms they use the most, you’ll probably get Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter. Those four sites alone total over 3.3 billion active monthly users. No one writes like Charles Dickens on these sites. Social media, along with texting, are the two main contributors to this, let’s say, grammar nightmare.

Furthermore, when I do something nice or give a gift, I have become so accustomed to being told “Your welcome!” that I finally have retrained myself to just realize that the welcome must be all mine. Okay, I can rationalize that you are (which contracts into YOU’RE) giving to me a benevolent verbal gratitude, so it must be MY welcome.

LMAO today reading an article about texting faux pas. It was reassuring to me that I’m not the only so-called “Grammar Nazi” left. Or, as a society, perhaps we can also alter other dimensions, such as math, geography, science and so on. And that, my friend, is my defense for penciling in “Rocket Scientist” on my resume.

— Gordon Hayes

Gordon Hayes hails from New York City where he is a marketing associate by day and blogger/wanna be funny guy by night.

Reflections of Erma