Last week I was at the Erma Bombeck Writing Workshop in Dayton, Ohio, surrounded by about 450 humor writers, all brought together by Erma Bombeck’s wit and her audacity to live her life large.
The conference and speakers were a great inspiration to me, and I dared see myself as rubbing elbows with the likes of Amy Ephron (bestselling author of A Cup of Tea and One Sunday Morning) or Cathryn Michon (Hollywood producer, writer/director/producer of Muffin Top on Netflix.) When I returned home, I faced the inevitable bitch in my brain who mocked me soundly for getting too big for my britches. This is the gap.
There’s a gap between who you imagine you could be and who you are now.
Erma Bombeck was raising three kids in a tract house in Centerville, Ohio, and she dared believe her life could be bigger than that, that her talent could bring her into millions of readers’ lives, onto television and more. It was not that her current life was lacking, but that she could pursue her gifts wherever they took her. She lived a fully realized and authentic life. The workshop that bears her name is a living legacy for how to do just that.
Because of Erma’s connections in the humor world and the respect she still commands, great speakers are the hallmark of this event. The keynoters alone were generous and inspiring, and I have to admit, bragworthy.
Roy Blount, Jr. (of Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me fame)
Leighann Lord (stand up comedian and syndicated humor columnist)
Just walking around hobnobbing and hosting sessions on humor writing and performing were comedy greats. I took a session with the Emmy Award-winner, Alan Zweibel — Gilda Radner’s writing partner on SNL and co-creator of The Gary Shandling Show. Like every comedian, he could recall his first joke to make it on air — you remember this one — about the new stamp commemorating prostitution from the U.S. Post Office, for 10 cents. If you wanted to lick it, however, it would cost a quarter.
Everything you ever dreamed of doing with your writing and sense of humor was modeled there, brilliantly. Stand-up comedy? Who better to mentor your first time on a stand-up stage than Wendy Liebman? She brought her skyhigh talent from her usual haunts like Jimmy Fallon and HBO, to our little Dayton, Ohio, stage in the main ballroom at the Marriott. Man, were we lucky. She was hysterical.
Is novel writing in your sights? There were agents, authors and even a Pitchapalooza to help you hone your next steps — whether you were in the get-your-ass-in-the-seat phase or the get-your-ass-out-there phase. I greatly appreciated the keep-yourself-going insights of Anna Lefler (author of Preschooled).
Want to speak? Write a syndicated column? Or work in a writers’ room? There were ample guides and sessions and experienced people to model all of that for you. I attended Joel Madison‘s workshop on the Writers’ Room. As we actively helped him punch up a script, he told us the writers’ room is one-third think tank, one-third competition and one-third pigsty, and the mental maturity level is equal to that of a 7th grade boy. (Duh, we’ve all seen TV sitcoms, right?) Does that sufficiently explain why those rooms are still 98 percent men? I think his other insight might explain it even better. He explained that Hollywood is not an idea business, it is a relationship business.
I came home AMPED UP. I had listened and laughed with Leighann Lord who spoke about her stand-up career, her parents getting old, her relationship to Erma and how she got started in the business. She was so connected to the audience, so alive with humor and goodwill, that I could see how I would like to speak, who I could become. Powerful. Funny. Inspiring.
I came home with a NEW VISION of who I could/should be. Yes, I was going to find time in each day to write my novel. Of course I’d be bringing my creative assessment tools into writers’ rooms.
Then suddenly, devastatingly, I …saw … the… gap.
First, you see your shiny future of who you could be. Slowly you remember who you are now. Plus, brave, beautiful you needs a nap. Needs to unpack. Maybe do some laundry. Not only do those visions fade, but your sense that you deserve them, or could realize them, begins to vanish.
Next thing you know, you’re pretty sure you’re stupid and can’t do anything.
And just in case you get any bright ideas about trying, you throw up resistance about even the smallest accomplishments — like making dinner. (OMG, At the Erma conference there were beautiful meals and fascinating — and funny — people, your mind says as your lifeless body throws some hot dogs in a pan.)
It took me several days to remember that there is always a retraction after a big conference. It is only natural. After great expansion, comes retraction like a rubber band.
At the conference you had an empowered feeling, praise, hope and constant companionship, and hey, you envisioned a bold and amazing self. It was there for you, and you knew you couldn’t go back to pretending that nothing you do matters.
Not long after you get home, and talk about it, you hear the “arrogance” in your stories. You see you had “fooled yourself.” Maybe you eat a cookie or two to feel better about your loss. Now you’re back to lowered expectations and “safety.” Now you clearly see the gap between who you are and who you know want to become, and it hurts. (More cookies, if you’re me. Maybe some jelly beans?) You go about proving to yourself that you can’t have that new vision, because of painful thought, painful thought and painful thought.
Who is telling you this new story of who you can and can’t be? You think it is just you, being realistic. You have to recognize that the icky, painful person in your head who is dissing you and keeping you down is not you. It is only a part of you. It is just one voice.
It is the gatekeeper — who will tell you lies and keep you afraid, rather than let you live a bigger life. It is one voice — like the mother in the Rapunzel story, Tangled, or the Old Nick in the movie Room. And just as those heroines had to distrust the gatekeeper, you have to face your fears, take the risk and see yourself in the bigger world. Remember when you walk through the fear, it will be exciting, with freedom, and sunlight and love.
I retract after each conference or event I go to. If you’re still in retraction mode — this blog’s for you.
It would be easy to pretend that I got going gangbusters the minute I got home. It would be easy to ignore that hard and painful week as unimportant. I was hoping, if I shared, this might help some others who are still in retraction. It’s time to reclaim your whole self and plot to quiet or escape the tyranny of your gatekeeper.
— Julia Roberts
Julia Roberts founded Decoding Creativity to help writers achieve clarity on their creative thinking style and process. She has her MSc in Creativity from SUNY/Buffalo State College and is a certified creativity coach (Martha Beck, Eric Maisel). She is the author of three books, most recently Sex, Lies & Creativity (Difference Press, 2014). She is also the founder of the Storytellers Summit, an annual virtual conference for writers.
Get ready to rumble for the 2016 conference! This year was a blast! I roomed with two writer friends with an adjoining room to two other Facebook friends. Another friend was just two doors away. We jokingly referred to ourselves as “The Cool Kids!”
Arriving a day early was an added bonus that allowed us to get settled in, meet people and have time to scour the schedule.
All three of us in room 473 got chosen for the Stand Up Comedy Night. There were endless rehearsals, and I actually knew their routines by heart. I couldn’t keep my own routine straight in my head. This caused our relaxation period, complete with Jellyfish shots. Who knew they calmed the brain so well?
I sponged in so much from each presenter:
Cathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff: In the keynote luncheon, “If not now, when is the time to become the queen of your own life?” This will be a reference guide for my new woman’s group, The Solid Rock Sisters.
I wish the conference was an additional day. I missed their class, but I bought their book. I am working on my Queen-self currently. Their story is so honest and inspiring. I wish they were my neighbors. Their keynote at lunch was fabulous.
Alan Zwiebel: Be prepared when opportunity arises. If I ever need a talking horse, put syrup on their lips and they look like they’re actually speaking. (A reference to when Saturday Night Live interviewed Mrs. Ed after Mr. Ed died. Hilarious story!)
Katrina Kittle: Use vivid descriptions. Show the reader: She did not just drop her purse. “Her Dior purse spilled over and four tampons rolled onto the meeting floor.” Take the reader into the story.
Judy Carter: Everyday life is really funny. Your pain has a humorous side, as well.
Elaine Ambrose: Snag the reader with the first line and keep it rolling. Be aware that you might lose the reader if the first paragraph isn’t compelling.
My example from a story offering tips to moms with young kids, “Moms, the string from a pork roast should never be used for an at-home tubal ligation, even on your worst day.”
Make sure to laugh and sing every single day!
Wendy Liebman: Funny lady. Wish I learned more about her stage presence and her craft. I so love her style of humor.
Leighann Lord: She made me laugh and cry at her dinner speech. She was funny, tender and real. I love her even more now.
Pitchapalooza was great! With only one minute to sell your book, your words better be well chosen and interesting. Get them down, Anne!
My face was soaked watching Barbara Chisholm performing At Wit’s End. I was close enough to watch Erma’s family reactions. One tear from her daughter and I joined right in. What a lovely performance and a sweet tribute to Erma.
And from my roommates I learned things that I will carry with me for life. They transformed me with their talents, such as:
In Yiddish, schvitzing is sweating. Thank you, Parri Sontag. I’m now bilingual and can sweat like a Jewish gal.
The Oscar Meyer bologna song, Bob Dylan style, from Linda Roy. I sing it daily now.
How to hide under-eye circles, from our class president, Vikki Claflin. Priceless!
The magic of fishing panties and tequila from Kim Dalphres. I’m cool now!
Marsha Kester Doyle taught me to steal a half bottle of wine (okay 3/4). Bless her heart.
It was so much to learn in so little time, and the staff was so sweet and professional, as always.
This really is a sisterhood. There is so much sharing of ideas and contacts, without competition. It’s takes a village to make a writer.
Can’t wait until 2018. I will be 30 pounds thinner then. Oh, wait! Now that I am a queen, I love myself as I am. I will just show up as myself, wearing a majestically jeweled crown, with a big smile on my face! I’ll blend right in with all the other queens.
— Anne Bardsley
Anne Bardsley lives in St Petersburg, Fla., with her “wrinkle maker” of a husband and two spoiled cockatoos. She’s still recovering from raising five children. She is so happy she didn’t strangle them as teenagers as they’ve given her beautiful grandchildren. She is the author of How I Earned My Wrinkles: Musings on Marriage, Motherhood and Menopause. She blogs at www.annebardsley.com.
1) 350+women ( and a handful of men) in a room, bus or hotel is very loud. Pack earplugs. And pray for the poor bus drivers.
2) Food, especially chicken and desserts, are plentiful. Bring more elastic waisted pants.
3) The currency at this conference is business cards. And Erma Bombeck-etched wine glasses. And laughter.
4) It’s possible to make new and instantaneous BFFs. Even so, introduce yourself to someone new every chance you get.
5) There’s so much to learn besides writing stuff. Be open to possibilities. Presenter Shannon Olson had the cutest haircut and she let me take pictures of it so I can show my hairdresser how to cut my hair.
6) Don’t bring any books, crossword puzzles or any other personal pastimes. You won’t have time for any of them.
7) But bring an extra suitcase for all the books you will buy.
8) Dayton in the spring can be windy and cold (2016) or warm and sunny (2014). Pack accordingly. Everything you own.
9) Take the day off Monday after the weekend. You will not be useful to anyone. Not even your pet.
10) Remember that no one cares what you write (or don’t write) or what you wear. And if you are cold, Gina Barecca will loan you her coat and Hermes scarf. (Emphasis on loan — she will chase you down the hall if you “forget” to return them).
11) The name “Trump” was said 134 times. Please, God, let that not be a name we discuss next conference.
12) Bring a case of reading glasses next time. Even though I brought four pairs, I only came home with one.
13) Laying in bed after a long day, reading all my new friend’s blogs, with the strawberry yogurt Chex mix that was provided as a snack after lunchtime, was divine.
Oh, and one more: Don’t get caught using the men’s restroom. The next time you try, there will be a sign on the door that says, “This restroom is for men only.”
— Rebecca Sydeski
Rebecca Sydeski writes a (hopefully) humorous blog on the subject of airline passengers, from her perspective as a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline for the past 37 years. Her blog can be seen at http://galleytalk.blogspot.com.
What happens when 350 people, predominantly women, truck in from all across the U.S. to spend three full days laughing (and a little crying), eating (mostly desserts) and baring their souls to each other?
Magic. In a place called Dayton. That’s not a punchline.
Last week, the tribe of Erma gathered once again for the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. This is a biennial event, and we had not been summoned since 2014. That’s a long time for tribe members to be out in the world without their safety net. The nice thing is that it’s a big net, and it’s strong enough to hold everyone.
Why am I sharing this? Because for those of us hanging out here in the middle-aged cheap seats, sometimes it feels a little lonely and the bleachers look a bit empty. A gathering such as the one last weekend reminds midlifers that we are not invisible; what we have to say has meaning, purpose and validity (and that we can still party like rock stars).
This event was not all hugs and kisses and tequila shots. The conference was jam-packed with workshops, speakers and keynotes. We began each day at 8 a.m. (I know, right?!) and the evening activities — dinners, speakers, book sales and did I mention tequila shots?—often extended to way past this midlife gal’s bedtime.
In the conference sessions I attended, I could not scribble fast enough to capture all the writing, publishing and comedy gold that was shared. However, I did manage to grab a nugget or two that I frantically scrawled in my workshop notebook. Here are a few gems:
Kathy Kinney, famously known for her portrayal of Mimi on The Drew Carey Show, is also a wonderful writer. I’ve just started reading Queen of Your Own Life (which Kinney co-wrote with her best friend of over 30 years Cindy Ratzlaff), and I’m loving their wit and wisdom.
Wendy Liebman, a gifted comedian (she’s been featured on HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central), coached the brave Erma women (and a few men, too) who performed stand-up the last night of the conference. This, in addition to her work as a presenter and panelist. Clearly a true believer in giving back to the community. New fangirl here.
It was a crazy thrill to listen to Alan Zweibel discuss the ups and downs of his amazing career. He was genuine, funny and truly insightful. I also loved this quote from him regarding the writing process: “Working with a writing partner can be like having a deranged pen pal.”
Leighann Lord brought down the house with her delivery of the final night’s keynote. Standing ovation type of stuff. I highly recommend checking out her syndicated humor column The Urban Erma.
Brian Klems is one of my favorite folks to follow on Twitter — @BrianKlems. He dishes writing wisdom every day. Also check out his book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl.
Gina Barreca’s new book If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse? was released just last week by St. Martin’s Press. Barreca delivers the battle cry for loud smart women everywhere.
From a conference rich in information and insights, my biggest takeaway by far was this: finding your tribe is life-affirming and feeds your soul. You can quote me on that.
— Kimba Dalferes
Kimberly “Kimba” Dalferes is a native Floridian who currently pretends to be a Virginian. Her accomplishments have included successfully threading a sewing bobbin, landing a 35-pound Alaskan King salmon and scoring a ceramic sangria pitcher at an estate sale for $1. She also sometimes writes books such as “I Was In Love With a Short Man Once” and “Magic Fishing Panties.” Her humor column – Dock Tale Hour – is published by Laker Magazine. She is often found hanging out on her blog The Middle-Aged Cheap Seats.
(Editor’s Note: This column appeared in the Dayton Daily News on April 10, 2016. Reprinted by permission of the author, Mary McCarty.)
I rarely put my pen down during last weekend’s ninth biennial Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. I was too busy writing down nuggets of writerly wisdom.
From novelist Amy Ephron, for instance: “When you write a book, you’re on a journey by yourself. You learn something about traveling alone.”
Or from standup comic Leighann Lord: “You can procrastinate on a lot of things, but there’s no time to procrastinate on your passion.”
Or from firebrand feminist humorist Gina Barreca: “Every woman has a history. Every woman in this room has a story to tell.”
But the words I can’t forget came first-time attendee Lori Mansell, who told her fellow writers, “I feel like I’m just getting started. And you are, too.”
Her message resonated with every writer who feared it might be too late — who is racked with remorse over what hasn’t been accomplished.
Every writer, in other words.
Mansell made us all see it in a different light.
Emcee Pat Wynn Brown surprised Mansell by announcing her selection as “Queen” of the weekend — one of the workshop rituals that bring so much fun to this very serious business of writing. “It’s never too late to start writing,” Brown said. “Our new queen once told her tap dance group in California she was only 76 ‘because they kick you out at 80.’”
Mansell had dreamed of becoming a writer for a very long time. During her 25-year teaching career she often promised students, “I’m going to put you in my book!”
Somehow, life kept getting in the way of writing. Mansell was raising four boys when her first husband died from lung cancer.
She went back to school to support them and earned her teaching degree. When that didn’t bring in enough reliable income, she earned her master’s, too. She had three daughters with her second husband, but he died, too.
She was caregiver for her son Jim during his final years battling multiple sclerosis. He died at 31.
Mansell married a third time 17 years ago and her new husband suffered a debilitating accident and once again, she became a caregiver. Jack died last July.
“All this time I was so busy with my life, and I’m a very active person,” she said. She took stock of her life and decided, at long last, that it was her time.
And then her daughter Julie Osborne, also a writer, encouraged her to join her at the Bombeck workshop at the University of Dayton March 31-April 2. It sold out in a record five hours, 41 minutes, attracting 350 writers from across the country, as well as 50 faculty, keynoters and guests.
Mother and daughter were honored when Bombeck family members hand-delivered Dorothy Lane Market “killer brownies” to the mother-daughter duos in attendance. They were shocked when Mansell was called to the stage to be crowned “Queen Lori” by none other than actress Kathy Kinney, who portrayed makeup-drenched Mimi for nine seasons on The Drew Carey Show.
“This is the best thing that ever happened to me in my life!” Mansell exclaimed. “I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and you’ve all inspired me. I’m going to write a book. It’s never too late.”
The workshop’s founder, Teri Rizvi, said Mansell represents “our whole mantra and our message that anyone who truly wants to do something can do it. The message of the workshop — ‘You Can Write’ — is a powerful one that resonates with people no matter how old they are. Everyone needs those words of encouragement to actually start to put words down on paper.”
That theme was emphasized in the keynote speech Kinney delivered with Cindy Ratzlaff, with whom she co-authored Queen of Your Own Life: The Grown-up Woman’s Guide to Claiming Happiness and Getting the Life You Deserve.
“You don’t have to be 21 to have your whole life ahead of you,” Kinney said earnestly.
“But it helps!” she quipped, before getting serious again: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear. You just have to walk through it.”
Mansell spent the rest of the workshop — and the days that have followed — walking on the other side of fear. Osborne wrote about it on her blog, “Tales of Oz”: “My mom was a lifelong Erma fan with a dream to be a writer, so I knew this conference would be a perfect Christmas gift. In the end it was so much more.”
Osborne described the aftermath of the crowning of Queen Lori: “Throughout the afternoon fellow writers greeted her with bows and hand kisses. Selfies with the royal family became commonplace. The queen perfected her regal wave.”
Back home in Carmel, Indiana, Mansell confesses, “I didn’t want to take my tiara off.” She puts it on when she writes because it makes her feel good, and it reminds her of the empowerment — and the support from a community of writers — she felt at the workshop.
“Oh my goodness, I just wrote my very first story for the Internet, and it is such a thrill for me,” she told me.
Here’s a woman who has lost three husbands and a son, yet still can say, “I have been so blessed. My cup runneth over.”
After the workshop, she said, “I feel that I’m not alone. And who would ever have thought I would meet the Bombeck family?”
All weekend, her new friends told her, “Just write. Just write it down.” And that’s what she’s doing.
“I have been so busy with my life that I never got it all down on paper,” she said. “But now is my time. And I owe it all to Erma.”
— Mary McCarty
Mary McCarty is a columnist for the Dayton Daily News and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Dayton, Erma Bombeck’s alma mater. She’s also served on the faculty of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and emceed the Erma Bombeck Writing Awards Competition ceremony.
In summer 1974, Watergate heated up and was about to boil over. At 16, I headed to my first writer’s workshop with equal amounts of trepidation and optimism. In my suitcase, I had a pair of blue Adidas tennis shoes and black leather slip-ons with three-inch wedge heels. Since freshman year, I worked on my high school newspaper. My small group of nerd friends in high school shared my love of writing.
The 2016 presidential election heated up and was about to boil over. At 58, I headed to my second writer’s workshop with equal amounts of trepidation and optimism. In my suitcase, I had a pair of white New Balance walking shoes and black leather Walking Comfort slip-ons with rubber soles. After a career in health sales and marketing, I started writing again in 2009. My small group of nerd friends on the Internet shared my love of writing.
My parents drove me to the dormitory where I stayed for two weeks. I had no idea what to expect. Within minutes, I met new friends from all over the country, including my roommate, Michelle from Dayton, Ohio.
I drove my black SUV from my home to the writer’s workshop in Dayton, Ohio, a five-hour drive. I had no idea what to expect. Within minutes, I met new friends from all over the country. I had a room with a king-sized bed.
At the first meal in Studebaker Hall, I dropped my cafeteria tray and scattered my breakfast all over the floor. That did not come out right.
During the first meal, the wine steward asked our table if we wanted red or white wine. All chose red but me. The steward came back the second time with another bottle of red. I shouted, “Hey, I am the white girl.” That did not come out right.
The classes and my teachers were amazing. Many wrote and designed for newspapers and magazines, or taught those who did. We published a paper during the two weeks. I interviewed and wrote about T.K. Ryan, writer and cartoonist of “Tumbleweeds.” His studio was about two miles from the workshop; I walked across the Ball State University campus in those blasted wedge shoes, regretting every step. Before I met Ryan, I met his assistant, a college student assisting Ryan. His name was Jim Davis, and he also wanted to be a cartoonist. Wonder what ever happened to him?
The classes and my teachers were amazing. Roy Blount Jr. was our keynoter on the first night. The next morning opened with Alan Zweibel, whom Lorne Michaels plucked from an NYC improv club as an original “Saturday Night Live” writer. Zweibel got Lorne’s attention with this joke, eventually the first “Weekend Update” quip Chevy Chase told.
The Post Office announced today — [ looks around, lost ] Just a second, I lost my place. [ shuffles his papers ] Oh! The Post Office announced today that it was going to issue a stamp commemorating prostitution in the United States. It is a 10-cent stamp, but if you want to lick it, it is a quarter.
A host of other A-list writers presented and networked all weekend. If you wanted to talk to “Dear Amy,” you said hello to Amy Dickinson. Kathy Kinney, Mimi of “The Drew Carey Show” fame, keynoted with her writing partner Cindy Ratzlaff. She and Cindy were so much more than the one-dimensional Mimi. Their message, “There is no infinite amount of joy and happiness and success.”
The longer I stayed at the workshop, the more I enjoyed my new friends. I was Dorothy Gale when she transformed from drab, sepia Kansas to the technicolor glory of Oz. I felt so affirmed; I knew writing is my passion.
The longer I stayed at the workshop, the more I enjoyed my new friends. Like Elphaba in “Wicked, I am “Popular” just like Elphaba; I felt so affirmed: I knew writing is my passion.
At the end of two weeks, my mother picked me up. I chose Ball State as my university and thirteen months later started J-school. I graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s in journalism and had incredible experiences and an excellent career.
At the end of the weekend, I drove out of Ohio and crossed the Ohio River both at Cincinnati and Louisville before arriving home to my supportive husband and paper-strewn office, where I will write until I no longer have breath.
— Amy McVay Abbott
Amy McVay Abbott is an Indiana author of four books, including A Piece of Her Mind and The Luxury of Daydreams. She likes to hear from readers at her blog.
“Hi, I’m the one with the cat that got stuck in the furnace last week,” said Mary Levad Lovstad, one of the first attendees I met at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. At that moment, she’d confirmed that I was in the right place, one where my peeps, cheerleaders and agenda-free friends gathered to listen to incredible stories, and share in our joy and sorrow.
For three nights, every two years, humor writers descend on Dayton, Ohio, to be reinvigorated by Erma’s reminder, “You can write!” I came to find my direction again. My spark had faded, and I need my butt kicked to get out of the funk. For the first time in 21 years, I did not have children to consume my time. With both of my kids in college, pursuing their own dreams, I was out of excuses.
When I arrived, I noticed other writers felt the same way I did, sorely lacking the mental energy needed to write and publish. Social media overwhelmed us, enthusiasm waned and inspiration was in short supply. We needed our tribe to feel whole, likeminded women who would push us forward and pull us up.
As I reconnected with amazing women, we shared our hopes, dreams and adventures since the last Erma workshop. As the attendees rolled into the Marriott, Elaine Ambrose, award-winning author of eight books, sat next to me and asked, “How’s the stand-up going?” Wow, she asked about me! At breakfast, Abbie Gale told me her social media story and the way a hashtag, #IndieFilm, had turned her family upside-down when an independent filmmaker contacted her. Now her son has a role in the upcoming The Moleskin Diary. During lunch, Gina Valley told me about her current projects, like finishing her humor books on parenting disasters, polishing a crime thriller and then casually mentioned that she has seven kids, eight in the summer. If she can find the time to write, what’s my excuse? Stephanie Mark Lewis and I joked around and she shared her latest book idea, one in the same vein as Gone Girl. By the evening, I felt at home, a place saturated with quirky, enterprising, passionate writers. And they welcomed me to their table.
Presenters like the talented Alan Zweibel, winner of multiple Emmy awards and the original writer of Saturday Night Live, provided inspiration during the workshop sessions. He had me at, “I love short stories.” He even took a copy of Are You Kidding Me? My Life With an Extremely Loud Family, Bathroom Calamities, and Crazy Relatives and signed his book, Lunatics, “Hi, Stacey. Can’t wait to read your book. Love, Al.” We were on a first name basis! Joel Madison, writer for Rosanne, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Larry Sanders Show, helped me figure out what I didn’t want to be when I grew up, a screenwriter confined to a small room, like Room, where mostly men gathered for 12-15 hours per day. In his session, we punched up his script and in response to my suggestion, he said, “Really good. That’s exactly what I’m looking for.” Thanks to Wendy Liebman, comedian and semi-finalist on America’s Got Talent, I discovered that I loved the rush of stand-up comedy. On the last evening, I did a four-minute stand-up routine and afterwards she texted, “You are a natural!”
Keynote speakers inspired, as well. Kathy Kinney, Mimi on The Drew Carey Show, and her best friend, Cindy Ratzlaff, author, speaker and entrepreneur, invigorated the workshop. Statements from their book, Queen of Your Own Life, electrified us. “Welcome to the second half of your life, or what we believe can be the best half of your life.” Leighann Lord earned a standing ovation for her keynote as she shared family stories about dealing with aging parents. We applauded when she said, “Finding your passion is the gift you give yourself. Pursuing your passion is the gift you give others.”
On Sunday morning, I lugged my binder, mugs, books and scraps of notes back to the airport. Back to California. I felt refreshed, and stories tumbled in my mind, begging to be written and submitted. The beauty is in the journey, whether or not I get paid. I know I have something to say. Laughter can change the world. The time to do it is now!
It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else. – Erma Bombeck
— Stacey Gustafson
Stacey Gustafson is an Amazon bestselling author, humor columnist and blogger who has experienced the horrors of being trapped inside a pair of SPANX. Her book, Are You Kidding Me? My Life With an Extremely Loud Family, Bathroom Calamities, and Crazy Relatives ranked #1 Amazon Best Seller in Parenting & Family Humor and Motherhood. Her short stories have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul and seven books in the Not Your Mother’s Book series. Her work appears in Midlife Boulevard, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and Better After 50. She was named EBWW’s Humor Writer of the Month. Enjoy her blog, Are You Kidding Me? at StaceyGustafson.com or follow on Twitter @RUKiddingStacey.
Chatter filled the room as we squeezed through the crowd between clusters of reuniting friends.
We didn’t know a soul, so we retreated to our room until the opening dinner in the hotel’s huge ballroom. There we sat at a table tucked in the back and, by the end of the night, made two new friends. We were a mother-daughter pair of newbies. Actually, we were known as virgins, officially “Erma Virgins” to be clear and precise as all writers should be — a tip gleaned in the days to follow at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, Ohio. My mom was a lifelong Erma fan with a dream to be a writer, so I knew this conference would be a perfect Christmas gift. In the end it was so much more.
Day one started with a decision to “divide and conquer,” to soak up more knowledge from concurrent sessions jam-packed with knowledge. As I furiously jotted notes and snapped iPhone shots of PowerPoint presentations, I was convinced of several things: 1. My website wasn’t as good as I thought. 2. Any type of writing class in my first 50 years of life would have been enormously helpful. 3. The experts and fellow writers were community, not competition. By the end of the first day, we had conquered nothing except finding bathrooms and snack tables.
By day two we gave up on conquering and focused on companionship. Together we attended the first workshop on branding using social media tools. I peered over at Mom’s notes knowing she had no idea what Facebook Live was on “The Facebook,” as she called it. I was clueless, too. I did, however, receive one of the most important pieces of advice from presenter Cindy Ratzlaff when I asked about my brand and audience. After sharing a few sentences of my background and writing topics, this stranger responded assuredly without pause, “Write to people just like you — an empty-nester Christian mom.” That one sentence provided instant clarity.
Feeling empowered and now connected with other attendees, Mom and I found our way to lunch as the program began with the coronation of the conference king and queen. As Master of Ceremonies Patricia Wynn Brown spoke of a mother-daughter team she had met the previous day, the story grew familiar. Emotions overcame me with her words, “Will our new queen, Lori Mansell, please come forward with her daughter Julie?” On the stage, Kathy Kinney (aka “Mimi” from The Drew Carey Show) placed a jeweled plastic crown on Mom’s head, and the newly crowned queen was offered a moment at the microphone, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and you’ve all inspired me,” she began. “I’m going to write a book. It’s never too late. This is a new beginning.”
With that, the Erma Virgin had become the admired Erma Queen, inspiring more than 350 attendees from all over the country. Throughout the afternoon fellow writers greeted her with bows and hand kisses. Selfies with the royal family became commonplace. The queen perfected her regal wave. And just before we departed back to our Indianapolis castle, it could be nothing less than a divine hallway encounter that we would run into the Bombeck family. I know if Erma were still alive that she and Mom would have been great friends.
At least friends on The Facebook.
— Julie Osborne
A former editor, feature writer and columnist for Current Publishing in Indianapolis, Indiana, Julie Osborne recently launched into the freelance world with her blog, Tales of Oz. By sharing her tales of an empty-nester Christian mom, she hopes to not only inspire and encourage readers but also to empower them to be intentional with how they live, parent and learn from those who cross their yellow brick road.