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

Erma Bombeck Wrighters' Workshop Banner

With a little help from my friends

Kristin ShawIt was the last session of the conference, and I knew it was coming all day. I spent time in the earlier sessions scrawling, and then rewriting in a neater hand, my pitch. Stuffing it into the new bag provided by the conference organizers, I took out a fresh piece of paper, and tried to write another pitch; one that I thought might be more exciting. More suitable. Funnier. Less like me.

I crumpled it up and met up with my friends outside the door; I was as ready as I was going to be. I let two of my friends sitting next to me read my pitch and I said, in my junior-high-school voice, “Is it dumb?” As any friend would, they said no. They gave me a few suggestions and we chatted along with the cacophony of 150 people in the room.

The session was called Pitchapalooza — an invitation to stand in front of a panel of four agents and professional writers and be judged, in a manner much kinder than American Idol, on a book pitch.  And there was a golden ticket at stake: an opportunity to be represented and a very real chance for a book deal.

When the time came to write my name on a small slip of paper to place it in the basket, I stalled. I felt unsure of myself and my pitch, and I chickened out.

“I changed my mind,” I told Angie.

“No, you did not. Go get up there and put your name in,” she said. She pushed me gently.

Leigh Ann chimed in with, “Go. You’re prepared to do this.  You can do this.”

I walked up to the judges’ desk and nervously made small talk as I waited for the person in front of me to finish filling out her slip. Sitting down, I prayed that my name wouldn’t be called.

And I hoped fervently that my name would be called.

I said I would do this for the experience, even if I bombed. I’d see it through.

Others paved the way for me with their witty, prepared, and smart pitching. With each one, I learned a little more, and mentally re-crafted the minute-long speech I had prepared.  When they called my name, I heard my friends cheer through the roar in my ears.

Have I mentioned that I don’t love public speaking?

The person scheduled to speak in front of me didn’t show up, so I was invited to approach the stage quickly, mercifully. Starting with a synopsis of my story and finishing with a brief bio, I finished before the judge could call time.  I stood there alone, on the stage, my heart threatening to beat out of my chest as the panel offered my kind and constructive criticism to improve my technique.

I sat back down and Angie hugged my shoulders in congratulations.  Fellow conference attendees caught my eye across the aisle to give me thumbs-up signs and encouraging smiles.  And my phone buzzed with a message from a new friend, someone I had long admired but hadn’t gotten to know very well yet. I didn’t think she had taken much notice of my work until she said, “You are good and deserve this chance.” Her message brought the bright sting of tears to my eyes.

I didn’t win the golden ticket, and I didn’t expect to. But with every risk, with every limb I scale, inch my inch, taking a chance is something I want to learn how to be better.

I’m lucky I have friends to push me out of the nest and try to fly.Erma drawings

Be that friend with every chance you get to help someone else stretch their wings, because it’s going to come back to you.  I promise.

(P.S.  Look — someone at the conference drew all of the participants in Pitchapalooza. I’m the one all the way on the right, above the woman with a cat stuffed animal on her head. Yes, a stuffed cat. Photo credit: Ronnie Walter.)

— Kristin Shaw

Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer, wife and mama to a mini-Texan. In 2013, her blog Two Cannoli was named a Babble Top 100 site, and she was recognized as Type-A We Still Blog awards finalist. She’s proud to be a 2013 cast member and 2014 co-producer of the Listen To Your Mother show in Austin. She was recently named a BlogHer Voice of the Year reader for 2014, and she writes for the Huffington Post.

What new car smell?

Judy ClarkeI’m not a car person, but I do become very attached to my vehicles and quite weepy when I hand over the keys. A few months ago I decided it was time to replace my 11-year-old Subaru Forester. It was a less stressful parting than usual because our grandson Miah bought it.

In years past, husband Peter did extensive research to scope car options for me, but dementia has him in a vice-grip. I did my own research and felt confident, thanks to encouragement from our son-in-law. When the day came to pick the car up, my friend Joanne, who is a car person, was more excited than I was.

My Dad’s car-loving genes didn’t jump into my pool. He bought a new car every two years except during WWII when he rode a bike to work. Automobiles weren’t readily available and gas was rationed anyway.

Dad was a car-washer, too — it was nothing short of a sin to drive a dirty car. Every Sunday, religiously, he washed his “machine” in the heated garage tucked beneath our little house. He even hooked the hose to the hot water tap in the basement. “You can’t get a car clean using cold water,” he preached. I didn’t get car-cleaning genes either.

On the other hand, a car-maintainer he was not. He once drove the 500 miles to visit us with a “little red light blinking” on the dash. The car was gasping for oil. Another time, a loud, repetitive flap-smack-flap-smack announced his arrival. Two tires had worn through to the steel belts. He grumbled about having to buy new tires. “Dad, do you ever check the oil, or have your tires rotated?” I ranted.

“Nope,” he said, “cars are supposed to last.” Since he traded every two years, it was a moot point.His vehicles still had their new car smell when he was ready for another.

When I picked up my new Forester, it didn’t smell “new,” but my old nose probably needed a tune-up. Joanne’s nose worked and she was giddy on Essence of New Car. She sat in the backseat while I got nearly a 90-minute instruction, not that I remembered it 60 minutes later! If I choose, the car will tell me its lifetime fuel consumption, accelerator opening ratio, journey time and distance, average vehicle speed for entire drive time, and mundane things I actually understand like engine oil status, tire pressure and maintenance schedule.

My car is way smarter than I ever was or ever will be. If I keep it as long as I’ve kept my others, I’ll be too old to drive anything except a three-wheeled scooter.

I’ve had it nearly two months and still haven’t been able to reset the clock to daylight savings time. The manual directed me to section 3, page 35, then 3-39, 3-45, 3-47, and 3-55 before I found “DST select.” It takes time to absorb all that information, so it still shows EST. That’s OK. I hate DST. I do not like to be outsmarted by a car, though!

The clock/calendar feature, if I could use it, would let me add birthday and anniversary reminders, but I already remember those dates without assistance.  This would help Peter — he doesn’t remember his own birthday, much less mine or our anniversary — but he doesn’t drive!

But new car smell? Um, no. What I smell is a faint Eau de Dog Vomit. I’d had the car less than a week when Nobby went on a short road trip with us. I thought he’d outgrown his carsickness.Wrong! When he started his telltale gulping, I couldn’t pull over quickly enough. He deposited his stomach contents down the opening in the seat cover where the seatbelts come through.  Usually-prepared me didn’t have anything to clean up with except three tissues. I improvised with plastic bags and a sheet of newspaper.


That same day I had a backing-up incident, first time ever. I realized I’d missed a turn-off and backed into the parking lot of a country church. A shrill, ear-shattering crunch came from the car’s nether region. I didn’t know what was wrong because I was slighly rear-end down in a shallow ditch. All-wheel drive hauled me out easily and I pulled forward into the lot. I’d flattened a mailbox that had already been knocked down, but there wasn’t even a scratch on the car. Whew!

Now, a rear-view camera connects to the multi-function display, but with polarized sunglasses the screen has a big brown smudge. I’m a good backer-upper, and side mirrors have always worked for me. Later I realized, even if I’d used the rear-view feature, the mailbox wouldn’t have been visible. A search in the owner’s manual warned, “You should always check the rear view…with your eyes and mirror. …Moving backward only by checking the rear-view [screen] could cause an accident.”

I rest my case.

In addition to being a mailbox flattener, I was still lost, my phone was dead and I couldn’t make the #!*^ GPS work either. Help came from a man working down the road.

We were an hour late.

The dog was fine.

The car was unscathed.

But my self-confidence was wrecked — State Farm Insurance doesn’t cover that.

— Judy Clarke

Judy Clarke is a wife, mother of two daughters, grandmother to two grown grandchildren, reader, writer and blogger in southwest Virginia. Her two non-fiction books, Mother Tough Wrote the Book and That’s all she wrote, can be found on her friends’ and family’s shelves, and she’s working on a novel, But why? (That’s the title of the novel, not a question to self).

Laughing through the pain

Allia Zobel NolanMost people have a hero.  Someone they admire.  Mine was Erma Bombeck. She did more for the American housewife than any other woman. She validated her and gave her a voice. For starters, she admitted she was one. Then she went on to build a career around writing about what it was like.

Bombeck was to housewives what Spock was to babies.  We grew up reading her.  Her material came from her own experiences. She held up a mirror to her life, burst out laughing, then sat down and chronicled it for millions to enjoy.

And boy, did we ever. We devoured each word of her columns, then excised them neatly with coupon cutters to pass along to a friend or hang prominently on the refrigerator door, under the cow magnet.

That’s because Bombeck was “Everywoman.” We were her; she was us. When she wrote about her adventures in “ma-ma” land, we roared, because they were our adventures. We could relate to dust bunnies under the bed so thick they clogged the Hoovers. We had served not-quite-defrosted white bread and Spaghetti-O’s (with ketchup)  for dinner (on occasion).  And we could recognize what a sardine sandwich smelled like after a month in a jeans’ back pocket.  We could identify with tile fungus. We knew husbands who snored. We had experience with neighbor’s dogs who pooped in our yards.

Indeed, Woman’s Day and Good Housekeeping gave us the ideal. But Bombeck gave us the truth. She was the first woman to hint that being a housewife might/just/could, possibly not be all it’s cracked up to be. Still, because she wrote about it with such hilarity and absence of malice, it was okay. So what if it were more fake geraniums than long-stemmed  roses; more Barney Goes To The Zoo than Martha Stewart moments? Every profession had its ups and downs. Truth is, the inanities of being a housewife were, for Bombeck, what made it such a hoot. Erma_Bombeck

Bombeck was first to go public with the idea that housewives didn’t have to be perfect.  She dispelled the myth of  “the total woman” as just that: a fairytale perpetrated by the same folks who brought us girdles and The Stepford Wives. And if you burnt the roast or hemmed your husband’s pants with a stapler, you weren’t odd. You were normal.

Bombeck made it okay not to look like a Barbie doll, cook like The Galloping Gourmet and keep house like Mr. Clean. In fact, if you managed to change the beds and shave your legs once a month, you were doing just fine. Indeed, and if you didn’t have a religious experience when you diapered the baby, you weren’t strange. She never said you had to love putting down toilet seats and cleaning chrome fixtures with a toothbrush, just that since you were going to do it anyway, why not have fun with it? She certainly did.

Bombeck not only raised the status of women as housewives and moms, she also put  “women’s humor” on the map. With her successes, (syndication in more than 900 papers and 12 bestsellers), she legitimized women’s humor as relevant commentary, no longer relegated to an occasional essay on the back page. Not surprisingly, she paved the way for zillions of Bombeck wanna-bes to be taken seriously.

What makes Bombeck even more remarkable is she did this under enormous hardship. She suffered kidney disease which eventually led to a three-times-a-day dialysis. On top of that, she developed breast cancer and had to have a mastectomy.

Through it all, she kept her spirits up and her writing jovial. “(So) I wrote all these books with a kidney problem,” she told an interviewer once. “That doesn’t affect your brain. It doesn’t affect your sense of humor.”

Thank goodness for us. Still, Bombeck was never the type to complain. She preferred to count her blessings, not her ills. When something bad came her way, she smoothed down her apron, and did what any good housewife would do: got on with things. But then, what else would you expect from someone who listed her hobby as “dust?”

Golly, I miss her.

— Allia Zobel Nolan

Allia Zobel Nolan is an internationally published author of 200 children’s and adult trade titles with close to two and one-half million books in print. Her books reflect her two main passions, God and cats, and include such varied titles as Cat Confessions: A Kitty-Come-Clean Tell-All Book, Women Who Still Love Cats Too Much, The Worrywart’s Prayer Book, and her latest, Whatever: Livin’ the True, Noble, Totally Excellent Life, a tween devotional She lives and writes in Connecticut with her husband, Desmond Finbarr Nolan, and their three feline children, Sinead, McDuff and Angela. She wrote this piece for her column in The Connecticut Post when Erma Bombeck died on April 22, 1996.

Fatty cat and me

Parri Sontag I have two cats. One’s a bag of bones and the other’s obese. I love them both, but there’s a special place in my heart for the fat one. We understand each other.

Matisse is a scaredy cat who rarely ventures from our property and likes to hang out by the back door, so he can scurry in quickly for a meal. Between meals, he hangs out on the windowsill, meowing at anyone who will listen.

“Hey there,” he calls. “Hey you. Yeah, you. I’m hungry over here. I need some kibble.”

“Don’t let him in. He just ate,” my husband calls.

“Don’t listen to him,” Teesie meows. “He’s a hater. I need a nosh.”

Teesie has problems. He gorges himself  like Henry VIII and seems to think our mud room is his private vomitorium. We try to give him a little at a time, so he paces himself. When he’s satiated, he walks away from the bowl and finds comfort nesting in a laundry bag full of dirty underwear. So we open the door to scoot him outside, but he races back to his dish for a few more nuggets, afraid it might be his last meal. Once evicted, he leaps back onto the windowsill and meows again.

“I’m hungry. Let me in. I need one more bite. Please! I’m starving out here. Look! My fur’s hanging. I’m going all Mary Kate Olsen as we speak.”

If we go out to the deck to light the barbecue, he scampers under our feet to his dish, like a P.O.W. who hasn’t seen food in a year, better yet five minutes ago.

I’m not sure if he has an eating disorder or feline dementia. He’s 10. Is there such a thing as kitty Alzeheimer’s? Maybe he really doesn’t remember scarfing down his dinner. Whatever the cause of his problems, they are borne of mental illness. Shouldn’t I show compassion?

He looks so pathetic through the window, with his little pink nose pressed against the glass … kind of like I looked on Jenny Craig when my family was eating lasagna and I was eating a chicken carbonara you could fit on a cracker. Maybe Science Diet is like kitty chow mein. Maybe it’s not his fault he’s hungry an hour later.

So I sneak into the back room, open the door and let him have one more nibble, while my husband shakes his head. In the world of addiction, I am what is known as an enabler. I feel sorry for my little fat friend, because it’s not his fault they don’t make kitty lap bands, Sensa or Zumba videos. Plus, I know what it’s like to have tiny morsels of goodness call to me in the night … and the morning … and mid-afternoon.

“Parri. There’s a whole bunch of chips here you missed. Come get their salty, starchy, fat-laden, cancer-causing goodness. … Parri, there are still some crumbs here that collectively add up to half a Dorito. … Parri, the crumbs are gone, but there’s still some salty residue left. Come lick my bag.”

I can’t open a roll of Ritz when I’m alone … or a quart of Breyer’s … or Girl Scout Thin Mints. I can’t break the seal on a jar of cocoa almonds … or take just one Chips Ahoy.

This is why I spring for overpriced single-serving snacks. Because once a package is open, I have to eat it — all of it. Food calls to me like a mythological siren, its enchanting music and voice luring me like a sailor to shipwreck on the rocky coast of its delicious island. My siren plays Barry Manilow’s “This One’s for You” and talks dirty to me in the voice of George Clooney.

“You want me, baby. I know you do. I’m all yours. Come swirl your tongue across my hard, salty body. You. Are. Mine.”

It’s like food porn: Fifty Shades of Lays.

Well, it’s over between us, George. You are a bad, bad man. You don’t love me. You’re a user, and this relationship is killing me. I’m ending it before you give me a double STD (Sugary/Salty Transmitted Disease).   I already have sleep apnea and my clothes don’t fit. I don’t need high cholesterol and cardiac problems.

As for the cat, starting now, he’s on a diet, too. I will not give into his begging and pleading. We are both shaping up right now.

“Stop looking at me like that, Teesie.”


 “No, you can’t have just two tiny morsels.”


“I don’t care that they give out after-dinner mints at the Olive Garden. No dessert tonight. Your belly’s already wiping up the deck when you walk.”


“Yes, I know there’s still some food in your bowl.”


“So what if there are cats starving in Ethiopia? This is America, man.”


“I said no.”

“Meow. Meow.”

“No means no.”

“Meow. Meow. Meow.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, alright. Just shut up and come in. …

“I’ll go grab the Cheeto’s, so you don’t have to eat alone.”

— Parri Sontag

Parri Sontag is a middle-aged, weight-challenged semi-professional dieter with a passion for musical theater.  An award-winning journalist and marketing/communications professional, she’s the author of the hilarious new blog, Her Royal Thighness: Torn Between a Little Waist and a Little Debbie that consistently delivers side-splitting laughs as she weaves poignant messages into relatable and universal real-life experiences. Parri is a recovering dodgeball target and Farmville addict, who has been mugged of her Halloween candy, ridiculed for hoarding pens and totebags and accused of picking a fight with Santa.

My bra-mance with Erma Bombeck

Helene Cohen BludmanHave you ever laughed so hard that you had to clutch your gut and gasp for breath?

For three days straight?

That was me and about 350 others at Destination Hilarity, formally known as the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, a veritable laugh-in and love-in for humor writers (mostly women). With so many giggles, guffaws, belly laughs and woo-hoos, my stomach muscles are still crying for mercy.

Spend three days surrounded by awesome comedic talent and a bundle of good cheer and this is what happens. While your stomach is in stitches, you fall in love.

My bra-mance with Erma and all the Bombeckians took flight, like lovebirds soaring, and I am still swooning.

Now, I didn’t expect the tone of this conference to be serious. Of course not. But I couldn’t have imagined being thrown into paroxysms of glee for three days straight. I think I was even chuckling in my sleep (my roommate Lois Alter Mark can attest to that).

The quality of the workshops was amazing. We learned about writing and editing and publishing, about finding your voice and writing concisely and perfecting your words until they gleam like polished silver.

Erma was all about finding the humor in everyday life. She found a treasure trove of material in her very own household. This was the lesson echoed by every presenter: the source of your material is right there. You just have to condense it into a nugget, and make it sing.

There is nothing in life that can’t be massaged into a piece of humor, keynoter Lisa Scottoline told us, and regaled us with so many funny stories about her family.

She also shared with us that her mother had gone into Hospice, suddenly, and Lisa was cutting her time at the conference short so she could go home to be with her.

And that was the other piece of this conference: pathos.

Amid the laughter there were tears. For Lisa’s mother. For Erma Bomeck’s untimely demise, which Phil Donahue described so eloquently. For Mary Lou Quinlan’s moving tribute to her mother, her greatest cheerleader.

I am still processing everything I learned, all the emotions I felt. And I can’t wait to apply all of it to my writing.

Takeaways from the Erma Conference

10.  It is good to have cake at every meal and snacks twice a day. And the Marriott and University of Dayton get (gluten-free) brownie points for trying really hard to please those of us with food restrictions.

9.  Erma keynoters rock. Each one was funny, warm, polished and down-to-earth. And good looking, of course.

8.  As a newbie, I wasn’t sure how I’d fit in. Can I tell you that this was the nicest, friendliest group of conference-goers I’ve ever been with?

7.  Generosity of spirit and wisdom. That pretty much sums up every presenter.

6.  Watching others pitch their books filled me with admiration for their talent – and the chutzpah it took to get up there in front of the crowd. I will try to do this at the next Erma conference.

5. The message that Erma said turned her life around: “You can write!” Erma went through the same self-doubts of most writers, but she took these words to heart.

4. Phil Donahue set the tone for the conference with his warm and funny tribute to Erma. Phil looks the same, talks the same and was total perfection.

3. Just as I thought that nothing could surpass Phil’s extraordinary keynote, along came Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serratella, blowing me away with their wit, writing smarts and sheer likeability.

2. The presence of Erma, as each keynoter and presenter kept her spirit alive in their comments. There were references to her throughout: her comic genius, how she blazed a trail, and as Phil said, “She wasn’t the first. She was the only.”

1.  Meeting new friends I have gotten to know online — and reconnecting with those I’ve met before — priceless.

Erma once said, “If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it.”

Erma, you were with us every minute. You would have been proud. Thank you for showing us the way.

—Helene Cohen Bludman

Helene Cohen Bludman blogs at Books is Wonderful about the quirks of midlife, parenting adult children, modern culture and, or course, books. She left a career in marketing to become a full-time writer.

My writing process —
or lack thereof

Lois Alter Mark My initial reaction to being invited to join a blog hop about my writing process was hysterical laughter.

“Are you serious?” I asked, wildly trying to visualize the way words get from my head to the screen. “What writing process?”

You see, this picture pretty much sums up how I do my best writing. But I’ll get to that later.

I was actually really honored to be included in that blog hop because I so love and respect the writers who were participating. Of course, I had to say “yes,” but, secretly, I’m still wondering what words of wisdom I can possibly impart and how anything I say will remotely help anyone who wants to become a writer.

So, with that disclaimer, if you’re still onboard, welcome into my head. I’m jealous you’ll be able to leave.

Why do I write what I do?

I write about things that interest me — and that means everything from my feelings about midlife to the songs I’m loving now to Cronuts — because I believe anything is more powerful when you’re passionate about it.

Also, I really like to share. There is nothing better than having a reader relate to what I’ve written and take some kind of action, whether it’s looking at an issue from a new angle, finding a new product, place or way to make a difference in the world or just spending a few minutes laughing. It’s so rewarding when readers leave a comment or send me an email telling me how much a specific post resonated with them. That sense of community is very important to me.

I’ll admit it. I love having people read my work. If I didn’t care, I would just write in a journal.

What am I working on?

I just got invited to be part of “Life Reimagined,” an amazing initiative from AARP, which I’m very excited about because it’s something I believe in strongly. I’m writing my first post, which will go up next week.

I’m also working on some fun pieces for USA Today, Boomeon, Manilla and Felicity Huffman’s “What the Flicka?” and am pitching some ideas to a couple of my favorite magazines. My dream is to write for O magazine and I’d love to write for Entertainment Weekly again.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, it inherently differs because it’s mine. It’s my voice, which is unique from every other voice even when we’re writing about the same subjects. My writing is very conversational and, for better or worse, I pretty much write the way I speak. Minus the New Yawk accent.

How does your writing process work?

Ah, the $64,000 question. And, by the way, why does that question use the word “your” when all the other questions use the word “my?” See, that’s the stuff that distracts me and makes it impossible to use the word “process” to describe my writing.

The truth is, I think I do my best writing while I’m lying in bed, trying to fall sleep. Ideas flow and marinate all night long — which is probably why I have deep bags under my eyes — and I write sentences in my head which I try to remember to spew into my laptop when I wake up.

People think I write fast and easily but, honestly, that’s because I spend so much time thinking about what I’m going to write. I just do it while I’m out shopping or eating lunch or watching TV rather than while I’m sitting at my laptop. Because if I sit down at my laptop, this is what happens:

Write a sentence. Check Facebook. Follow long thread about someone’s blog. Click onto that blog. Read it. “Like” it. Comment. Get ready to Tweet it. Want to tag someone else. Go to Twitter to find that person’s handle. Check out my new followers. Follow them all back. Go to fridge for an iced tea. See some mold on the block of Cheddar cheese. Google whether it’s okay to just cut off the moldy part. Ooh, look at the Anthropologie ad. Free shipping today! Spend 20 minutes and $150 on Why do I have a Word document open? Delete sentence.

Okay, I’m now exhausted. I hope you’ll check out some of my fellow writers’ posts because I’m sure they have some really great tips.

As for me? I have a post due tomorrow so I’m going back to sleep.

—Lois Alter Mark

Lois Alter Mark blogs at Midlife at the Oasis and The Huffington Post. In December, she was named the top blogger in Blogger Idol, the premier blogging contest for bloggers. She also won BlogHer Voices of the Year Awards in 2012 and 2013. After being selected as an Ultimate Viewer by Oprah, she accompanied her to Australia on the trip of a lifetime.

The Erma place

Yvonne RanselErma’s created a monster, albeit, a happy one.

It’s Thursday after that weekend in Dayton and  I am still walking on air, two feet above the ground. I smile all the time, even when my husband spills coffee on the newly washed floor or when a library patron rants about the slow Internet or it snows in April. I smile because I keep thinking funny things and run to write them down, or not, and then try in vain to conjure that hilarious observation.

I found it interesting, and somewhat threatening, that so many of the attendees were much younger than my just-went-on-Medicare self. (See? I can’t even write the number down, let alone say it out loud.) They were so cute and perky and somehow have already been blogging and tweeting their way into readers’ hearts among birthing babies, carpooling and all that laundry. And do they have any idea what they’re in for with midlife-crisis husbands, teenagers who drive, teenagers who drink, college kids who drink? There’s enough material there to last to assisted living — that euphemism for nursing home.

From the minute I rolled my little red suitcase into the lobby of the Marriott, I knew I was in the right place — the Erma place. Chatter and laughter surrounded me, and every look was a smile. I literally bounced up the elevator to my room, unpacked and proudly donned my identifying lanyard that just happened to match my outfit.

It was 5 p.m., and I needed a jolt of Pinot Noir for courage and serenity both. Stepping into the tented cocktail party, I took a deep breath and wandered over to one of the bar tables. The smiling and chatting and sharing and love never stopped from that moment on.

The creative business cards came out, and I bemoaned my boring one with its sole social media connection, my original hotmail address. Yes, I was on Facebook but rarely used it to share my writing — mostly recipes and Throwback Thursday photos. How astute these attendees with six connectivity options, including Youtube.

I wandered into the ballroom with my second glass of $9 wine (thank you, hubby, for not putting a price limit on my happiness) and thus began this remarkable weekend with the stunning Patricia Wynn Brown, emcee extraordinaire. Phil Donahue seemed overwhelmed by the loving attention of the attendees at his impromptu photo-op, some of whom may have been children watching his show with their mothers. I don’t think he remembered meeting me in the elevator at the 2002 conference, even though I am still embarrassed by the memory of my dry mouth and a squeaky “hi.”

Gina BarrecaMy love, yes, love, for Lisa Scottoline and Gina Barreca goes beyond admiration for their witty deliveries and meaningful advice to us fledgling writers. Growing up in an Italian family, I felt embraced by their ethnic narratives as if they were my own. Unwritten memories flooded back to me, and I knew I would make them part of my stories. When Gina was signing her book for me, she asked why I had a French name if I were Italian.

“Because my mother loved the movies and Yvonne DeCarlo!” And she laughed. I made Gina laugh!!

My goals before the next workshop are pretty lofty, but I soaked in so much information and advice from all the presenters to stoke my fires for quite a while — Anna Lefler and her repetitive editing; Donna Cavanaugh and her astute blogging hints; Dan Zevin and his humor journal; Cathryn Michon and her perseverance.

I can’t wait for 2016.

— Yvonne Ransel

Yvonne Ransel is a writer of essays — some humorous, some poignant — who is inspired by life’s crazy, everyday events. She was a librarian, then a bar owner, now a librarian again. She survived the ’60s and the millenium and the years in between as mother, wife and now grandmother of six. Her goals for writing and publishing between now and 2016 are quite lofty, but “Erma’s got my back.”

There’s a special place in Hell

Holly Kelsey-HenryI met Kim the first day of the conference. I didn’t want to like her. She was everything I am not. Kim is very tall and blond. I am very not tall and blond. She’s also beautiful. On a good day I’m cute, in a Joanie from “Happy Days” sort of way.

Before I could stop myself from being endeared by her self-depreciating wit, I found out she was also the global winner of the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition in the human interest category. And, wait for it. …She had never really written anything in her life.

I, on the other hand, have been writing for 30 years. I make my living at it. I’ve had a fairly good journalism career and have won awards for my writing.

Obviously, I could not possibly like Kim.

Still, I was impressed with her subtle lack of boundaries and her humorous sense of discernment, along with our mutual attachment to the bar at happy hour. I suspected we were both slightly introverted, even though we worked our way through the room, chatting with strangers and laughing in mostly all the right places. By the time dinner was served, I was tipsy. So, I followed my new friend to her table (which, it turned out, was the VIP winners’ table) and pulled up an extra chair. I didn’t realize my deviation from proper etiquette until a photographer came around with a large camera and asked, “Is this the winners’ table?” My answer was to head back to the bar for yet another glass of Chardonnay to contemplate calling a cab back to my hotel.

Instead, I swallowed my now pungent-tasting pride and returned to the table where Kim charitably explained that I was her “friend” and we wanted to sit together. At this point we had known each other all of two hours. She could easily have shunned me to my proper place. Instead, she was willing to appear equally ignorant of protocol and perhaps go down in history as the woman who thought it was OK to bring any old drunk to her assigned VIP table.

Now, beautiful, smart, talented, tall Kim was also…gracious. Great.

On the way back to the hotel, I read her award-winning piece. Of course I wanted to not like it. I wanted to find typos and smirk at her lack of creativity and shun her for her obvious absence of experience. Instead, I cried at the honest beauty of her words and fought back pangs of spiteful envy. I found myself chanting something I once heard Madeleine Albright say, “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t support other women.” And surely, I did not want to go to Hell.

Meanwhile, I continued my string of gaffes – such as getting my skirt caught on a rose bush on my very glamorous entrance into the Marriott, taking a selfie video while trying to get a photo of Phil Donahue after interrupting his dinner and locking myself out of my hotel room while wearing Hello Kitty jammies topped off with an abundant head of Phyllis Diller morning hair.

Kim, of course, continued to be recognized for her newfound talent and her beauty. “That’s her,” people whispered as we walked down the hall. “I think she’s a model, too,” one lady added. Despite my most fervent wish that she would turn obnoxiously arrogant, Kim remained charmingly humble. And, worse yet, I was starting to like her.

Finally, on day three, she showed up with a long plastic strip on the back of her new, stylish capris that stated repeatedly in 18-point bold typeface: “Size 8, Tummy Control.” For a moment, I considered leaving it there, but something in me said, “This is my friend, and I must protect her from all those women who might delight in Blondie needing tummy control.”

And so, I pulled the strip off and we giggled like eighth grade girls in sex ed class. Later, Kim ate a day-old burrito and vomited on her way to the airport and got stuck in Detroit (still vomiting) when her flight was cancelled. She was beginning to seem normal and almost lovable by this point, so I felt nothing but sympathy and concern for my new friend.

It has only occurred to me since returning home that Kim taught me quite a few things in the three days at the conference. Mostly, she taught me grace.

Oh, and always, always check your clothes for tags before leaving the hotel room…

—Holly Kelsey-Henry

Holly Kelsey-Henry is actually a really nice person who lives in Wisconsin. She is the owner of DownWrite Creative and makes her living as a writer — some days more profitably than others. She is a former award-winning journalist and still writes for newspapers and magazines. She and Kim have become good friends and now send each other emails on almost a daily basis.

Reflections of Erma