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33 going on 106

steven_eskewIʼve finally decided what I want to be when I grow up. A stand-up comic. Durn tootinʼ. And, since I served as my high schoolʼs class clown, Iʼve already landed a booking. Iʼve agreed to perform a comic monologue for our 50-year class reunion. I canʼt wait. Since Iʼm a New Yorker and the high school I attended is in Grand Island, Neb., that performance can function as a sort of out-of-town tryout.

Can a baby boomer be a late bloomer in showbiz? Nothingʼs impossible. Iʼve set a goal: If I donʼt become a comic on the stand-up circuit by age 73, then Iʼll … Iʼll keep right on trying until I do, by gum. Why was I ever a businessman anyway? I should have entered showbiz years ago. Itʼs in my blood. Every corpuscle.

Inspired by my Auntie Chartreuse who launched her stand-up career when she was over 70, I already know all the hoops Iʼll have to hop. Of course, I must keep in mind that Auntie Chartreuse had a secret ingredient: talent. Iʼll have to work on that. A lot. Yep, talent could come in mighty handy indeed.

For those laughing “at” me and not “with” me, may I point out that, in our advancing years, baby boomers consistently epitomize an admirable energy and enthusiasm for undertaking new challenges? The only rocking chairs that interest most of us are the chairs we sit in at rock concerts.

Surprisingly, my children and grandchildren actually support my goal for a career in comedy. (But, of course, theyʼre in the will. So far.). Some detractors call my aspiration a pipe dream, but my grandma always said to dream big and to ignore dream stompers, adding: “Reaching the dream itself is great but reaching  for the dream is whatʼs really great.” Grandma began a successful nightclub business after she turned 65. After 20 years, she “retired” to new challenges. Like painting, writing poetry and learning to swim.

Age is indeed just a number and the Fountain of Youth lives within each of us. Human beings donʼt simply grow old; we become old by not growing. We must dare to develop and cultivate goals. Itʼs never too late to change the direction of oneʼs life. End of sermon.

With Grandma and Auntie Chartreuse as role models, Iʼve known for a long time that life doesnʼt stop when one turns 60. Quite the contrary. Itʼs a renaissance. Who the heck isn’t aging? Well, thereʼs that group pushing up the proverbial daisies. Theyʼre not aging a minute. I LOVE aging and when I look in the mirror, I absolutely do not see a 68-year-old man. (Actually, I see a 20-year-old Native American woman. But I digress.).

I must confess, though, that nowadays when I drop something on the floor and squat down to pick it up, I do look around while I’m down there to see if thereʼs anything else I can grab just to save myself another squat.

But nothing will stop me. I expect to revel in a career as a comic for decades. However, is stand-up the sum and substance of my bucket list? No way. Iʼve said repeatedly that the No. 1 item on my bucket list is to be shot to death by a jealous husband at age 106.

— Steve Eskew

Retired businessman Steve Eskew received master’s degrees in dramatic arts and communication studies from the University of Nebraska at Omaha after he turned 50. After one of his professors asked him to write a theater column, he began a career as a journalist at The Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs, Iowa. This led to hundreds of publications in a number of newspapers, most of which appear on his website,

The Dayton Riviera awaits —
Are you prepared?

anna_leflerGreetings, ebullient EBWW attendees!  Allow me to be the first to welcome you to this year’s event, which promises to be the most spectacular to date now that arrangements for the kick-off vegan barbeque have been finalized.

In anticipation of the workshop, you are no doubt hanging ten on an emotional tsunami of excitement, suspense, and — let’s face it — steel-cold fear. Well, fear not! I am here to help you tame your anxiety and maximize the benefit to you of this extraordinary weekend.

The key to being a suave, successful attendee is, of course, preparation.  (Or, to use the professional conference-organizer term of art, “Having one’s shizzle in a sack.”)  Sure, you’ve got your neighbor lined up to collect your incoming copies of Yacht Management Magazine and moisturize your Gila Monster in your absence, but here are a few more things you can do to ensure that your EBWW experience is as smooth and satisfying as the rich, dark Daytonian coffee grown on the verdant hillsides of the local Marriott.

Tips for Your Trip to the Dayton Riviera

Start Networking Now

For many of you, the EBWW is the first foray into putting yourselves and your work “out there,” — and that’s great! But why wait ’till the workshop to begin building your fan base? Limber up in advance by whipping out your conference ice-breakers on hometown baristas, appliance repairmen, and EMTs — not to mention your boss.  Here are some tried-and-true faves:

“Hey, losers, I’m getting a book deal next week.”

“You can’t tell by looking, but I’m hilarious.”

“Um, hello?!?  It’s called branding.”

Schedule a Physical

I can’t tell you how many people I saw back in 2012 who clearly had not prepared for the rigors of workshop life.  There they were, splayed on the Marriott lobby sofas, listlessly twirling their badge lanyards and repeating the phrase, “potato croquette.”  Or tipped semi-conscious in the back of the campus bus, hiccuping their elevator pitch while still wearing complimentary hotel slippers. Consult your physician before departure about your particular health risks as well as the necessary vaccinations required for entry to Ohio. And start eating a daily continental breakfast now, for God’s sakes. At least give your body a fighting chance.

Secure Your Club-Level Keycard Upon Check-In

The moment you receive your official workshop name badge, lean in and say with quiet confidence, “I’d also like my Club Level keycard, please.” This will initiate a lively exchange during which the workshop representative will give an Oscar-worthy performance as a hard-working volunteer who has no idea what you’re talking about. Co-workers will be consulted, supervisors will be called, and hotel management will be brought in under duress. Pay no mind to this hubbub, however:  it’s all part of the good-natured “game” played by conference cognoscenti. Show everyone within earshot that you are a Person In The Know by refusing to back down until you have achieved secret Club Level access.  In the end, well…I can’t go into detail here, but trust me:  it will be worth it.

Take Your Passport

Why?  Because a trip that involves a passport is much more important and generates loads more envy than a trip that does not involve one. Everyone knows this.

Pack Plenty of Five-Dollar Bills

Like a secret handshake, there are some strategies for opening professional doors that only true insiders know.  At the EBWW, yours pivots on the effective use of $5 bills. Yes, that’s the key to a successful workshop experience:  lots and lots of Lincolns (humorist street-talk for five-dollar bills). Let me be clear:  you can not overwork this tactic. In fact, the more $5 bills you hand out, the higher your fellow attendees — not to mention influential workshop presenters — will hold you in professional esteem. Like Phil Donahue’s new haircut? Lay some green on him with your compliments! Enjoy the dinnertime banter at Table #27? Share the Lincoln love! Pumped up by Pitchapalooza? Say it with me: “Fiver!” Even if you have to dip into next month’s rent to keep up with the others, you won’t regret this priceless investment in your career.

I hope these tips and tricks have soothed your pre-workshop anxiety while whipping you into a pleasantly flocculent froth of excitement. In closing, have a safe journey to Dayton, don’t forget your matador costume (did I not mention that?) and I’ll see you on the Club Level!

— Anna Lefler

Anna Lefler, part of the faculty at the 2014 EBWW, is a writer, comedian and author of The Chicktionary: From A-Line to Z-Snap, The Words Every Woman Should Know. She is a staff comedy writer and performer on the Nickelodeon/NickMom TV show Parental Discretion with Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, where she also serves as a recurring on-camera guest. Her  work has appeared on several sites including Salon, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and The Big Jewel, and she has been a guest on numerous television and radio talk shows across the country. Her standup comedy has been seen in Los Angeles clubs, including the Hollywood Improv and the Comedy Store.

Embracing the power of bare arms

Sharon ShortA few days ago, I went shopping for the just-right dress for an upcoming important occasion — our first-born’s college graduation. I quickly found the just-right dress, nice but not too dressy for a crowded, sweaty sports arena on a late-spring afternoon.

Then I spotted another dress.

It was pale blue. Fitted bodice. Peplum waist. A-line skirt. Not the usual, loose-fitting style I go for, but so, so pretty.

It wasn’t quite right for wearing to graduation. I didn’t need a second dress.

On the other hand… both dresses were on sale. I even had a 50 percent off coupon. More importantly, I felt a sudden longing to try on something a little different, in both hue and style, from what I usually wear.

So I tried it on. The blue brought out the sparkle in my blue-green eyes. And it fit like a dream. I even thought, I look HOT in this dress. And I never think that about myself.

But then, as I stared in the mirror, a horrid feeling came over me. Not about budgets or the foolishness of buying a dress for an as-yet-to-be-determined event. But about the fact that the dress was also… sleeveless.

I have decent enough arms. I mean, they’re attached, and they function, and my skin is smooth, but I’ll admit it, I’m a bit chubby. Which means my arms are a bit chubby. Not particularly muscular.

I started to hang the dress back on the rack with its mates, but it was so pretty, that I just… couldn’t. I toted it with me to the register. Maybe, I thought, if the coupon covers both dresses…

It did, but I was still wavering. “Sorry,” I said to the check-out clerk — a slender, beautiful 60-something woman with a terrific smile. “I’m still trying to decide. I don’t really have an occasion in mind for this dress.”

“I do,” she blurted. “I’ve been staring at this dress for days. It’s so pretty! And I have a wedding to attend in a few weeks.”

Now, most women hate the idea of showing up at an event only to discover another woman is there in the exact same dress. (Well, not the exactly exact same. That could be awkward. And crowded. But you know what I mean.)

I didn’t know the clerk. There are no wedding invites on my social calendar. So the likelihood of us showing up at the same event at all, what’s more wearing matching blue dresses, is pretty slim. Nevertheless, I was about to put the dress back after all — and trying to think of a non-awkward explanation — when she leaned forward and blurted again, “But I can’t wear it. Because of my arms.”

She looked so sad, so shamed. So I did some blurting of my own. “What’s wrong with your arms?”

Her eyes widened. “They’re… they’re flabby. They look… old.”

Now, there was something about the notion of this beautiful woman, who’d lived long enough to no doubt experience and survive and grow from life, feeling so ashamed about her body — just as I had moments before with my worries about chubby arms — that incensed me. I wasn’t angry at her. I was angry for her. I was angry at the cultural voices that whisper in the backs of the minds of middle-aged and older and chubby and not quite perfect women that only young and beautiful counts. Only the young and beautiful and — oh, God, please, the smooth and firm and slender, too! — need feel comfortable (so whisper those voices in slithery, demeaning tones) in lovely arm-baring dresses, no matter that women of all shapes and sizes and ages might be and even feel beautiful in such clothing, if only we could ignore those silly voices.

Well, I thought, screw that.

So I said, “My arms are chubby.” I pushed the dress toward her, determined to buy it. “But I’m wearing it. Proudly. And you should too. Shouldn’t we get to wear what we want sometimes, without worrying about what other people think, without hiding ourselves because, hey, we’ve lived awhile, and maybe it shows here and there?  You’ve probably survived a thing or two, just like I have. That merits an occasional reward, right?”

Her eyes softened she stared at the dress. She said, “I’ve survived cancer. Almost a year now.”

I couldn’t respond right away. Finally, though, I said quietly, “Congratulations. You will look beautiful in the dress. Your arms will look just fine. I hope you get the dress.”

She nodded, smiled, and said, “I think I will.”

I don’t know if she did or not. But I hope so. What’s more, I hope that I’ll wear mine to some future occasion, and this woman will be there, too, in her copy of the blue dress. I hope we recognize one another, and that we laugh, two women happy to see each other wearing matching sleeveless dresses. And I hope we hug one another with our bare, beautiful, powerful arms.

— Sharon Short

Sharon Short writes the weekly “Literary Life” column in the Dayton Daily News. She is the director of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop and an accomplished writer. She has published two mystery series, a book of columns and the recent novel, My One Square Inch of Alaska. In 2014, she served as a finalist judge for the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition. Share your own “power of bare arms” stories and photos on this special Facebook page. Share on Twitter at #powerofbarearms.

Hair gone wild

Stacey Gustafson(This story appears in Not Your Mother’s Book…On Being a Woman, which was released in October 2012.)

Everything I needed to know about hair I learned from watching Charlie’s Angels. They say that your favorite hairstyle travels back to the time when you thought you looked your best. For me that was the 1970s, and my hairstyle of choice was called the Farrah, after the late actress Farrah Fawcett.

The Farrah was a style I could figure out. Cool, feathered, moussed a mile high, curled up tight with an iron. I methodically worked on it each morning before high school, loading on gel, wax and mousse. I finalized the ‘do with half a can of Aqua Net Hair Spray, thick and sticky. And I added a fake tan, orange streaks and all. Viola, ready for school. The big hair look — no one could do it better than me.

But today — 40 years later — my Farrah style was a bit more lax. But it is still there. As I was getting ready for date night with my husband, my daughter approached me in the bathroom.

“Mom, your hair looks so 1970s. Want some help?” she asked.

“I guess.”

After having two children and lugging them around to 2,890 baseball games and over 10,000 basketball practices for the last 17 years, I admit I’ve become a little lazy. I consider it fancy to put my hair in a ponytail and dab on lip-gloss. And who had time for a blow-dryer?

My daughter combed, twisted, teased and sprayed my hair. After 30 minutes grooming me, she turned me around to gaze at her creation. I was at a loss for words. Lady Gaga in her finest stared back at me, but without a long feather and a tiny black hat. Add a meat dress and I would be unforgettable.

“I think I can handle it from here. Thanks,” I said, as she walked out of the room.

I needed to get current and break from my old ways. I need age-appropriate hair, I thought. With that, I scheduled an appointment to update my look.

“What can we do for you today?” the gal at the salon asked as she pulled back my hoodie and yanked out the elastic band on my ponytail.

“I need an update. Surprise me.”

“But what do you usually do?” she asked as she massaged my head with aromatic oils.

Oh, we don’t want to go there. I have been through more styles than Imelda Marcos has shoes. Remember the shag in the mid 1970s made famous by David Cassidy and Rod Stewart? Shorter at the top, downward layers in the front. Blow-dry upside down after loading on tons of styling gels, fluffy and full.

Or what about the perm? In the 1980s, I was treated to a home perm kit, courtesy of my best friends. Major frizz. Topped it off with an application of Sun In. Teased the bangs out, piled high with a scrunchie. I looked just like a poodle. Gob on gaudy jewelry to complete the ensemble. My friends and I looked identical.

Thankfully I never attempted the Dorothy Hamill or the female mullet.

My stylist tapped me on the shoulder to shake me out of my daze in order to witness her magic as she transformed my locks. For an hour, she snipped and trimmed, paying careful attention to my face, hair texture and lifestyle. She did an awesome job fixing my hair, smooth side swept bangs and straight, glossy locks in the back. A natural look, I thought when I glanced at myself in the mirror. I liked what I saw.

“Thanks, I love it,” I said with a hug.

I purchased all the hair products she recommended. “I can do this,” I said to myself. Once at home, I darted into the bathroom to check it out in my own mirror.

I admired the reflection staring back at me. But what if I just brushed a little here? Or curled a tiny bit there? Within moments, my hair was fluffed, poofed and once again sprayed immobile. Aw, much better.

“Good morning, Charlie! I’m back. Miss me?”

— Stacey Gustafson

Stacey Gustafson is a freelance writer, humor columnist, artist, blogger and stay-at-home mother. Her blog “Are You Kidding Me?” is based on her suburban family and everyday life. Her short stories have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul and Not Your Mother’s Books.  Her work appears in Midlife Boulevard, ZestNow, Pleasanton Patch, corporate newsletters and even a commencement speech. She lives in California with her husband and two teenagers who provide an endless supply of inspiration. She writes about parenting and daily frustrations like her dislike of laundry, the DMV and being middle-aged. Visit her blog,, and Twitter @mepaint.

I’ll be right here waiting

Alisa Schindler“Tyler. Come on, it’s time to get up.”

I gently shake my ten-year-old. His strong, tan body is twisted in blankets, little stuffed animals cradled around his head.

“Wait,” comes his sleepy, muffled response, and I may or may not drop shorts and a T-shirt on his head before giving up and walking, in a weird side step, around his massive maze of cars, army men and dragons, from his room.

“Tyler,” I yell from downstairs. “Breakfast is on the table.”

“Wait,” he calls back. “I’m finishing my set-up.”

“Camp doesn’t care if you’re finishing a set-up. We’ve got to go.”

A small, distant, “wait” floats down to me. It is almost lost in the morning noise; a 5-year-old bouncing at my legs begging me to color for him, a Facetime conversation that my 8 year-old is having with a girl friend he’s had since he was two, the ding of the toaster, and the beloved pour and sputter of the Keurig.

At the table, spooning in some, uh, organic Reese’s Puffs, I again encourage him to hurry, but he is busy with the comics and ignores me. “Read this!” He says, pointing to Zits. “It’s funny.”

Then he points to The Lockhorns. “I don’t get it.”

Amusing. He’s already identifying with the teenager comic and totally doesn’t get Loretta thinking her husband is more of a meatball than her meatball.

“Tyler, get your sneakers on. I told you twice already.”

“Wait,” he says off-handedly, heading toward his laptop. “I just need two minutes on this game.”

“Tyler…” I warn thru gritted teeth.

“Wait,” he says again, almost pleadingly. His eyes dart from me to the screen. “One more minute.”

Seconds from me slamming the screen shut, he triumphantly does a last tick on the keyboard and closes it down. “Done!” He beams.

It’s hard not to beam back at that face, but somehow I manage a small growl.

Finally, everyone has what they need, and has done what they have to. “Okay, ready.” I shout to the air, because no way anyone is listening. Miraculously, my two younger boys head for the door and walk directly into the screen that they are asked not to run into, every day.

My oldest has disappeared. I find him back at the computer.

“You’re kidding me, right?”

He opens his mouth, but before he can say anything I beat him to it. “If you tell me to wait, I might lose it.”

He smiles, nods mischievously, and says in his playful, patronizing voice, “Oh don’t worry, little mommy. I won’t say that bad word. It’s all good. See?” With exaggerated slowness, he shuts the laptop screen. “All ready.”

“Uh, baby, your sneakers aren’t on.”

Again, that sweet, goofy smile.

In a few days, my beautiful 10-year-old will be 11. Soon, he will be running out of the house, instead of me pushing him.

Suddenly, I’m not in such a rush.

“Wait!” I want to cry. “Wait.”

— Alisa Schindler

Alisa Schindler is freelance writer who chronicles the sweet and bittersweet of life in the suburbs on her highly entertaining blog Her essays have been featured on and as well as in the book, Life Well Blogged. She is a member of “Yeah Write,” an online community for writers, where she has won the Jury Prize multiple times in the group’s weekly essay writing contest.  She has just completed her first novel that she feels comfortable showing to someone other than her mother.


How I discovered I’m not that open minded

Dwayna CoveyI have battled arthritis in my hips for many years. About 10 years ago I started paying attention to how complementary treatments could help with my energy level and pain management.  I was not a big one for being touched by strangers, so I kept pushing the thought of massage therapy out of my mind. I mean, really, who wants to lie on a table in a dark room with someone you don’t know touching parts of your body that hardly, if ever, see the light of day. Now I have birthed two children, and I don’t wear a bikini to the beach for a reason.

An opportunity for a chair massage [a quick 10-minute intervention] showed itself during an informational session for one of the programs in the school I was working at. I took a deep breath and sat down — and although my body was seriously tense at the beginning, I felt the muscles give way and relax at the very skilled hands of the massage therapist. I was instantly hooked — this stuff was like magic!

Soon, full-body massages found their way into my calendar every month. My body was responding well and I was letting go of my stranger-danger thoughts. Oh, how accomplished in my mindset I had come… well, temporarily anyway.

I was so wrong

A couple of years later, I was at a conference with several of my colleagues/friends, and we were talking about the pure joy and relaxation that comes with a massage. I was in full agreement, until the point when one friend [who we will call Beth to protect her innocence] said something around how freeing it was to be naked during a massage and to just let all inhibitions go. Ummm…really? Nakedness in front of a stranger? Not ME!

In that moment I felt like I had just stepped into a conversation that I might want to run from. I was having palpitations just thinking about this insane scenario. My friend (and friends at this point) were chuckling at my reserved behavior and asked why it was such a big deal, commenting, “You get naked in front of your doctor, don’t you?” In my mind that is completely different! My brain was doing some heavy rationalizing here.

Now for the moment of truth

When the receptionist asked if we preferred a male or female therapist, Beth instantly answered that she did not have a preference. I had a preference; yet in that moment of pure perceived peer pressure, my mouth lost control and blurted out, “I do not have a preference either.” Oh, my word, what had I just done? My mind kicked into its judgment stage and started beating up on my mouth for the moment of lost control. I opened my mouth to take the words back, yet my mind won and I stayed quiet.

I took some time to enjoy all that the spa had to offer — steam shower, mineral pool and sauna and wondered why on earth was this not part of my everyday living. This was truly the life — I was feeling relaxed and excited for my massage session. I sat in the comfy chair of the spa waiting room dressed in a fluffy, white robe and white slippers, sipping on a glass of refreshing lemon water.

I was feeling awesome, truly awesome until the moment of truth. “Mrs. Covey,” (in a deep-voiced tone). I looked up to see a man searching for me, a tall, large man with black curly hair. My first thought was, where can I hide — why, oh why had I thought that being open minded was a great thing to do?  My friend smiled at me, so I got up from my chair, mumbled something (likely inappropriate) under my breath, and went to greet my massage therapist. Believing in life lessons, I was already whirring about what I am meant to learn from this. Oh, I know. Keep my mouth closed!

The unlikely ordeal

We exchanged polite conversation on our way to the massage room, and I am thinking, this guy could be the massage therapist world cup holder and I was going to miss out due to my “issues.” I was now alone in the room getting comfy — I go to pull my robe off and realized, “Oh my word! I have no clothes on.” I wondered to myself if I could take a quick run to the locker room to get my undergarments.

I panicked, and jumped under the sheets — I was now breathing loudly as I was in mid-swing of a mild panic attack. Mr. Massage walked in. We decided on essential oils, type of massage (I chose the deep tissue as my shoulders were now up around my ears from the tension) and the music. And, off we went. I started to relax and told myself, “This is all a life lesson — quit being so controlling and open your heart and mind.” I was distracted. I began to do some yogic breathing and told myself I will not be putting my hard-earned money to waste. I will enjoy this!!

Just as I began to fade into the world of total relaxation, I heard something. What on earth?  What I heard is the breathing of the massage therapist. The guy was a heavy breather! I tried to close my ears, but impossible!  Have you ever heard a repetitive sound that drives you buggy? Well, this guy was a champion breather, dude. Oh, my soul, how did he hear himself think?

I figured I had about 50 minutes left of my time alone in a tiny room with no clothes on with a man I did not know. I felt like I was sinning! “Get a grip,” I told myself. I shut my eyes as tightly as I could, focusing on the music in the background and imagined that I knew this person, that he was indeed the massage champion of the world and that I was going to relax if it was the last thing I did.

The ordeal was over

I finally heard Mr. Massage say, “I will be right outside the door when you are ready.” Ah, I was done — I had lived to tell the tale! I do believe I beat record time getting my robe on and meeting him at the door. I actually felt a little bad for the guy as I am sure he was wondering why my muscles were so ridiculously tight and were just not giving to his skilled hands. Thank goodness, he could not read my mind!

As I made my way back to the spa waiting room I was contemplating my silly self and the choices that I had made earlier that day. My lessons learned — be true to myself, don’t cave in to peer pressure, keep my clothes on, and never, never say yes to the idea of a male massage therapist again. I may dream of being a totally free, open-thinking and loving human being, yet it is obvious, I am not quite there yet. And likely never will be!

— Dwayna M. Covey

Dwayna M. Covey, M.Ed., is a certified laughter leader, laughter yoga teacher and Reiki master.  Dwayna is passionate about supporting individuals and groups on their paths to positive communication and healthy work environments; her enthusiasm, authenticity and humor empower the courage in others to create the life they want.  Read her column, “A Dose of Dwayna”’ in the Bridge Weekly.

Turning your mess into a success

Judy CarterThey say that standing in front of people and speaking is the #1 fear people have. Guess what the #2 fear is? The fear of DYING. And…I’m sure high up on that list is the fear of dying WHILE in front of people.

If you think that making a living as a professional speaker means that fear goes away — guess again. As Erma Bombeck once said, “You need the courage to submit your story and find out how good or bad you are. And if you think it gets any easier for professional writers, you’re wrong.”

I always have anxiety when I have to perform, and that anxiety STARTS when I write new material. My creation process is a true MESS — trying to make sense of the tsunami of ideas in my head and the  misspelled phrases I’ve written on unopened junk mail, as well as the sometimes drunk rantings on my iPhone recorder. It’s a TRUE mess. Seeing that mess fills me with frustration and anxiety because of the looming gig on my calendar that demands it not be such a mess.

But what COMFORTS me is to realize that ALL of our SUCCESSES start out as MESSES. And the people who succeed have the willingness to navigate their way through the mess to find the great material that’s hidden within.

There’s nothing as unfunny and un-fun as writing a speech or writing comedy. Remember how on Seinfeld, Jerry and George would brainstorm ideas for their “show about nothing” — and everything came easily and made us laugh?

In the REAL WORLD, writers are often frustrated, anxious, doubtful and frequently find themselves staying up past midnight staring at a laptop and guzzling pitchers of coffee, DESPERATELY hoping something will come to them other than the AWFUL first, second and third drafts they’ve been staring at for hours.

So many people WANT to write a book, do standup, or be paid as a speaker, but give up too quickly because they’re weighed down by the feeling that every idea has to be perfectly formed in their head BEFORE they start writing it.

In my workshops, everyone learns that material doesn’t come out of you fully formed like a newborn colt that can just leap to its feet and gallop. New material comes out RAW and UNFORMED, and most of the time just lays there like a baby bird, until with rewrite after rewrite, you finally feed it enough that it can fly.

So… don’t paralyze yourself with the need to be PERFECT. The only need is to start. And whether you’re writing your story, a standup act or a speech, it doesn’t matter how you start; just START — and COMMIT and NURTURE and PARENT that idea, until it gradually takes on a life of its own.

— Judy Carter

Judy Carter, a keynote speaker at the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, is the acclaimed bestselling author of The Comedy Bible, which Oprah Winfrey touted on her show and the Washington Post described as a “number one comedy essential.” Ms. Carter began her career doing standup comedy and now teaches people to use humor in public speaking. Her books have helped people worldwide discover their creativity and launch money-making careers. She has appeared on more than 100 TV shows, and has shared the stage with Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, Deepak Chopra, Andrea Mitchell and Bill Clinton, to name a few. Her new book, The Message of You, teaches readers how to use life stories to inspire others and advance their careers. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Writing your own perfect ending

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry SterryA magical moment happens when a writer takes a deep breath and launches into a passionate one-minute elevator pitch of a book concept before hundreds of other would-be authors.

“It’s very touching,” says literary agent Arielle Eckstut about the emotion-charged atmosphere at Pitchapalooza. “These writers are wearing their hearts on their sleeves.”

Adds her writer-husband David Henry Sterry: “This is the first time some have said in public, ‘I’m a writer.’”

At the April 10-12 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, 20 randomly selected writers will get the opportunity to make a one-minute pitch — and perhaps write their own perfect ending. One winner, selected by Eckstut, Sterry and two other publishing experts, will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for the book idea.

Welcome to Pitchapalooza, billed as the “American Idol for books, only kinder and gentler.” Since 2005, Eckstut and Sterry have taken Pitchapalooza to approximately 150 bookstores, writing conferences, book festivals and libraries — from Cape Cod and Chicago to the far-flung states of Hawaii and Alaska. It has drawn standing-room-only crowds and captured attention from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, NPR and other media outlets.

“Our whole goal is to help people improve. There’s never a sense of humiliation,” said Eckstut, an agent-at-large with Levine Greenberg Literary Agency in New York and the author of nine books.

The event also illustrates the importance of tenacity. “In 2010 at LitQuake in San Francisco a woman pitched an idea for an anthology by American-Muslim women writing about their secret love lives,” Sterry recalls. “You could hear the murmur throughout the room. That pitch is a book waiting to happen, but an agent had dropped the idea.”

The lesson: an initial rejection doesn’t always determine a book’s fate.

“There’s a great expression, ‘Don’t quit five minutes before the marathon ends,’” says Sterry, who’s written 15 books himself. “I called up a publisher I knew, and it took about 10 seconds to sell that idea.”

The couple came up with the idea for Pitchapalooza after co-writing The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published and trying to figure out how to creatively promote their own niche book. They’re the founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping authors get successfully doctor logo

“We were at a party in San Francisco, and writers in the room heard the rumor there was a literary agent in the house. People started buzzing around Arielle like moths to a flame,” says Sterry with a laugh. “There were some great drunken pitches made that night. Later, we realized we might have hit upon something that could help us help writers and sell our own book.”

When the couple introduced Pitchapalooza at New York’s iconic Strand Book Store, “we thought it would be a terrible bust,” concedes Sterry. “We show up, and there’s a line out the door. We looked at each other and said, ‘What’s going on here?’ If it’s not Michelle Obama or a celebrity, it’s hard to get more than 15 or 20 people at a booksigning.”

Over the years, Sterry says they’ve heard “some amazing and some horrifying pitches.” One writer tried to pitch five book ideas in a minute. Another had an idea for a 30-book series. Another didn’t win at Pitchapalooza, but still ended up with a book contract.

“The writer was an arborist who had an idea that took off on The Elements of Style — only for fruit trees,” Eckstut says. “She had incredible expertise, and I knew just the right publisher.”

Writers don’t have to win or even participate in the Pitchapalooza contest to receive a professional critique of their book ideas. Eckstut and Sterry are offering writers who buy their book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, a free 20-minute telephone consultation after the workshop.Essential Guide cover

The two offer these tips for making a great pitch:

1.When pitching a narrative, memoir or creative nonfiction, make sure you have a hero we can fall in love with.

2. Don’t tell us your book is funny. Make us laugh.

3. Compare your book to a successful one. Show us where the book fits on the shelf in a bookstore.

And finally, “Don’t say you’re the next Erma Bombeck,” Sterry says with a laugh.

— Teri Rizvi

Teri Rizvi is the founder of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. By day, she serves as executive director of strategic communications for the University of Dayton.

Reflections of Erma