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

Erma Bombeck Wrighters' Workshop Banner

Strange but true tale

The 2016 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop was great, fantastic and all the other superlatives found in the dictionary.

myron kuklaThese are always fun conferences with a lot of laughter and fun. Here’s my true story from this year’s gathering.

Prior to the conference, I’d been putting notices on the Erma Bombeck Facebook page that I was looking for a male to share my hotel room at the conference to save on expenses. This guy — who calls himself the Urban Cowboy Poet — contacts me and we agree to share the room at Conference Central at the Marriott.

Except, I forget to tell my wife and muse, Madeline, that I’m sharing my room with this guy I’ve never had contact with until the day before I leave for Dayton. When she hears the news, she’s shocked.

And she goes: You’re sharing a room with a complete stranger? You don’t know him. He could be a serial killer.

And I go: Hey, if it were a Serial Killer Mystery Writers conference, I might have concerns. But this is a humor writers group, and the guy is the Urban Cowboy Poet from Cleveland and wears Hawaiian shirts and a straw hat. How deranged can he be?

And she goes: Well, I don’t like it. I’m worried for you.

And I go: Look, the worst thing that can happen is he’ll make me listen to his book pitch.

How right I was. On the second morning, we get up to get ready for the conference and Urban Cowboy Poet gives me a stand up reading of one of his cowboy poems — in his underwear.

It was the strangest thing that ever happened to me at a writing conference. But the poem was pretty good.

— Myron Kukla

Myron Kukla is a Midwest writer based in Holland, Michigan, Tulip capital of the world. He is the author of several books of humor including Guide to Surviving Life: A 3,487-step Guide to Self-Improvement and Confessions of a Baby Boomer available at www.squareup.com/store/myronkuklabooks. Email him at myronkuklabooks.com.

A legacy like no other

Wanda ArgersingerWe came from all directions dragging our baggage stuffed with the tattered egos, unrealized dreams and the belief that we may never write again. Some are close to quitting, yet others are hoping to begin. We carried our wounded souls looking for those who would hoist us from despair and support us while we recovered and learned to laugh, dream and once again put words on the pages we were meant to write.

We desperately sought the laughter, camaraderie and electrically charged air of others like ourselves. We were in need.

Recognizing family was easy — they are those who came seeking similar affirmation of who they are. The bodies, the faces, the ethnicity, the coloring may have differed, but we knew none of that mattered, we were with family.

“These are my people,” could be heard over and over again. “This is where I was meant to be.”

After attending five times I shouldn’t be surprised, and yet I am. How can this place, so many physical miles from where I live, feel so much like where I belong? How can these people who look nothing like me, feel so like my family?

I have never attended any other conference where the attitude of the attendees actually infiltrates the air. You walk and breathe support, love, hope, admiration, curiosity and absolute acceptance of who you are.

Information is not considered wealth to be hoarded, but rather fertilizer to help young writers grow into who they were meant to be. Laughter is treated as food for more laughter, and no one leaves hungry. Encouragement is offered by all to all. Belief in others isn’t written as a rule to be observed, but exists in every step taken, as if planted in the very ground we walk. Impossible stories of success are shared.

We leave recharged, reinvigorated and ready to write the stories in our hearts, in our minds, and the ones that live inside our souls. We have new friends, so many memories, bags full of encouragement and a belief in our abilities to do great things.

Writing still doesn’t come easy. It is elusive. But the belief in our ability has been seated in our minds, hearts and souls. There was laughter, excitement, encouragement, creative nourishment and support for all. No attendee leaves untouched, or unchanged.

The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Worship of 2016 was the best so far. I should know. I’ve been to five. On or around December 1, 2017, 11 a.m. Eastern time you will find me sitting in front of my computer, credit card in hand, ready to register for the 2018 EBWW experience. April 5-8, 2018 I will once again be found in Dayton, Ohio, back with my family in the most supportive, positive, life-enriching environment I’ve ever experienced.

Thank you, Erma, for opening the door.

— Wanda Argersinger

Wanda Argersinger writes from the beaches of the Florida Panhandle, while trying to stay out of the sun and enjoying a top-notch margarita or two. Her humor is shared on her blog, books and publications near and far. You can read more about her life In the land of confusion on her website.

Whim to revelation

Becky Koop, 2016Registering on a whim years ago, I slipped away from family obligations to enjoy my first Erma workshop. It is no exaggeration to say I laughed ‘til I cried.  But what I remember most is wondering if … IF I could be the kind of writer people would actually want to read.

My first piece of Erma swag, a deeply yellowed and slightly crunchy mousepad, now hangs on my office wall as a reminder of when the writing seed planted. Over the years, Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” nestled next to Erma’s mousepad. A plaque “Well behaved women rarely make history” joined the wall party. A flying pig landed nearby proclaiming anything is possible. And, a knight in shining armor, sword in motion, stands tall to slay my inner critic. But, while my walls sag with the paraphernalia of encouragement, my writing never works itself loose from the hard drive.

Last fall, while cleaning the tumbling debris of a decade-old clutter pile, I uncover a tiny watercolor quote long forgotten. “Don’t wait for your ship to come in if you haven’t sent one out.”  Karma speaks — it’s time to sail.

A self-diagnosed introvert, I can competently address a room of 500 people, but in a social gathering, walls are my friends, observation my forte. Sometimes in uncomfortable situations, I experience a quirky mix of verbal diarrhea and tongue tie. After a cocktail party-ish gathering, my thoughts swim furiously, rerunning dialogue over and over, revising spent script, longing for another chance meeting to perfect tone and vocabulary.

In my world, EBWW is a 56-hour cocktail party. For 2016, I make a commitment to myself. Instead of rerunning the cocktail chitchat through my mind, I decide to set sail, focus on the presentations, and share my ideas without apology. I leave EBWW the first two nights overwhelmed by encouraging feedback from attendees who listen without judgment, and faculty who embolden with abandon.

Then, in the waning hours of the conference I share my projects with a few newly met attendees whose judgmental criticism slaps me breathless. “Oh, that’s wrong, that’s not a good idea.” “That’s not what people need. Don’t do that.” “You’re way off… that’s not right … you don’t really know –”

And that’s the precise moment the workshops coalesce into my own writing revelation.

A month ago, I would have sponged up those judgments and let them swim like sharks in my head until they devoured all the positive feedback I’d collected.

But not this time. I listened politely. Then with Cindy Ratzlaff‘s voice still flowing through my thoughts said, “You’re not my audience. I’m a photo-taking, travel-loving, almost grandma, recovering helicopter mom, who works every day to silence the call of judgment. I experienced an epiphany moment (thanks Adair Lara), when creating such a vivid scene for discovery (thanks, Susan Pohlman), that I live a message rooted in my childhood backstory (thanks, Judy Carter). I’m determined to spread my message. Don’t tell me that I’m wrong. I merely see the world through a different lens. It’s taken me 55 years to understand that I am Queen of my own life, and the rest of my life starts today (thanks, Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff).  I’m going to use every single bit of talent God gave me in this life (thanks, Erma). And, frankly, if you don’t back away now, I’m enlisting the help of my new Italian cousin, Gina Barecca, to help me show you what kind of impact a loud, smart woman can make.”

Of course, I’m still working on the introvert stuff, so I didn’t actually say anything aloud, but as soon as my naysayers paused, I excused myself and slipped away. The next time I see them, I’m going to tell them that I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate the sweater they’re wearing (thanks Alan Zweibel).

Drifting off to sleep Saturday night, the only rerun in my mind is the lovely lullaby Leighann Lord so beautifully and humorously crafted.

– Becky Berens Koop

Becky Berens Koop is a freelance writer, recovering helicopter parent and the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writing Competition Local Human Interest winner for her essay Revealing Ink. Having shed her technical skin for creative pursuits, Becky believes she is finding her voice (thanks, Sharon Short) and starting to polish her craft (thanks, Katrina Kittle). She shares her ongoing recovery from helicopter parenting at CopterDetox.com and struggles daily to view the world through nonjudgmental eyes. Follow her on Facebook and learn more at BeckyBKoop.com.

This little Poppie went to market

Jerry ZezimaIn nearly 38 years of marriage, I have found that food shopping is a matter of putting the cart before the horse’s behind. This explains why I am the designated driver whenever I go to the supermarket with my wife, Sue.

It also explains why I had the same job recently when I stopped and shopped at Stop & Shop with my granddaughter, Chloe.

The difference is that Chloe likes to go food shopping with me, whereas Sue would rather leave me home or, if I must accompany her, ditch me at the deli counter because, as she has always known, I am full of baloney.

On our most recent visit to Best Yet (we refuse to shop at Worst Yet), Sue asked if I wanted bananas.

“Yes,” I replied. “And do you know why?”

“Why?” Sue wondered warily.

“Because,” I announced triumphantly, “they have appeal.”

Sue sighed and said, “I don’t know why I take you shopping.”

Still, the supermarket is the only place where she doesn’t want me to get lost. If I wander off with the cart, or linger in the beer aisle, or get into a traffic jam in the frozen food section, which creates so much tension among shoppers that I am surprised there hasn’t been a push-by shooting, Sue will come looking for me and exclaim, “There you are!” when she finally finds me.

I am not much help at the checkout, either. I’ll just stand there while Sue pays for the groceries, which she also bags because she is afraid I’ll drop a watermelon on the eggs.

Things went much more smoothly when I went food shopping with Chloe, who’s almost 3. According to her daddy, Guillaume, who accompanied us, Chloe is obsessed with Stop & Shop.

She also likes other stores, including Costco, which she always spells out, saying, “C-o-s-t-c-o, Costco!”

Recently, we took her to Dunkin’ Donuts, another favorite. As we were leaving, she found a piece of paper in the backseat of the car.

“Look, Poppie!” she said to me. “A receipt from Costco!”

Then she spelled it out.

But for Chloe, Stop & Shop is the place to be. That was amply evident when Guillaume pulled into the parking lot on a brisk Saturday afternoon.

“Stop & Shop!” Chloe exclaimed, spying the supermarket sign from her carseat.

After we got out of the car, Guillaume put her in the child seat of the shopping cart, which I got to drive. “We’re going to Stop & Shop, Poppie!” Chloe informed me.

“Yes, I know, Honey,” I responded cheerily. “We’ll have fun.”

Did we ever. As I maneuvered the cart through the fruit and vegetable section, Chloe picked up a packet of strawberries.

“Strawberries, Poppie!” she said. “They’re red!”

Then she turned around and dropped them into the cart.

“We really don’t want strawberries,” said Guillaume.

That made no difference to Chloe, who picked up a packet of blueberries.

“They’re blue!” she said as she dropped them into the cart, too.

I steered the cart through the next aisle.

“Bananas!” said Chloe. “They’re yellow!”

I pointed to the apples and said, “What are they, Chloe?”

“Apples!” she squealed. “They’re green!”

“And how about these?” I asked.

“They’re red!”

It went on this way for the next 45 minutes. When we got to the checkout, Chloe said, “Number 5, Poppie!”

We were, indeed, at checkout number 5.

Guillaume bagged a few groceries, including a pineapple but minus the strawberries and blueberries, which he put back when Chloe wasn’t looking.

As we rolled back out to the parking lot, Chloe said, “Bye-bye, Stop & Shop!”

When we got back in the car, I said, “Poppie drove the shopping cart. Did I do a good job?”

“Yes, Poppie!” Chloe said. “You did a good job!”

And I didn’t even make any banana jokes.

— Jerry Zezima

Jerry Zezima, who served on the faculty at the 2010 EBWW, writes a humor column for the Stamford Advocate that is nationally syndicated through the Tribune News Service and regularly appears in the Huffington Post. He’s written three books, Grandfather Knows Best, Leave it to Boomer and The Empty Nest Chronicles. He has won six humor-writing awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and was named EBWW’s Humor Writer of the Month twice. He is currently president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Of creativity, comedy and humanity

Berk, NancyEBWW faculty member Nancy Berk spends her days interviewing celebrities — everyone from James Earl Jones and Dolly Parton to Buzz Aldrin, Deepak Chopra and Cheech and Chong — all for Parade.com and her popular podcast Whine at 9.

This month she added two more EBWW keynoters to her lengthy list of big-name interviews — Roy Blount Jr. and Kathy Kinney, who played the iconic and unforgettable Mimi on the Drew Carey Show.Roy Blount Jr.

“I love that within Kathy Kinney is the vulnerability that allowed us to embrace the headstrong, lovable Mimi, and that Mimi Bobeck’s sassy attitude gave Kathy Kinney a big shot of strength to shoot for her dreams and help others reach theirs, Berk wrote in a March 24 piece. Kathy Kinney

“I don’t think that everybody has to go to full warpaint, which is what Mimi wore you know, but for me, it certainly helped balance who I am,” responded Kinney, who became “the queen of her own life.” Listen to the podcast and read the interview.

With Roy Blount Jr., who has two dozen books under his belt, Berk chatted about chickens, tambourines and writer’s block.

“I would say about every second minute I’m at a loss for words,” conceded Blount who described his writing and rewriting to Berk as a “tortured process of striking words, revising and replacing.” Read the interview here and listen to the podcast.

What advice does the prolific writer have for those trying to express their creativity? “You have to find those little details,” Blount said, and “realize the comic potential.”

wendy liebmanIn 2015, Berk interviewed comic Wendy Liebman, a semi-finalist on America’s Got Talent (Season 9) who’s performed on Leno, Letterman, Fallon and Kimmel. This week, Liebman is traveling to Dayton, Ohio, to teach a stand-up comedy boot camp and emcee a stand-up comedy night at #2016EBWW.

Liebman’s advice to future contestants also will work for EBWW attendees trying their hand at performing comedy: “Be yourself, have fun and hydrate!” Read the interview and listen to the podcast.

In 2012, best-selling author, screenwriter and essayist Amy Ephron joined Berk on her podcast to discuss the paperback release of Loose Diamonds…and Other Things I’ve Lost (and Found) Along the Way. She’ll talk about her life as a writer in a keynote address at this week’s EBWW.Amy Ephron

And for those heading to the Erma workshop this week, you can catch up with the Bombeck family in person — and you can listen to them share their memories of Erma in a podcast and Parade.com feature story.

In Berk’s Parade.com piece, Matt Bombeck, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, concedes, as a child, he was clueless about his famous mother’s profession. “Someone asked what she did,” he remembered, “and I said she was a syndicated communist.”

— Teri Rizvi

Teri Rizvi is the founder of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and executive director of strategic communications at the University of Dayton.

Stink avoidance, cookie acquisition and other survival skills

Kathryn LeehaneAs the youngest of six kids, I was farted on a lot. At least once a week, one of my brothers would sit on my head and let one rip. Eventually, I learned to recognize the warning signs — the glint in their eyes, the snickers, the less-than-stealthy movements — and I’d scramble behind the couch before a stinky butt made contact with my face.

As you might imagine, growing up in a large family taught me a variety of survival skills. Both of our parents worked, and from 3 p.m. to 6  p.m., the house turned into an after-school-special version of Lord of the Flies. Allegiances formed and reformed, depending on the day’s battle. Duplicity and creativity were crucial in order to persevere.

I developed hiding strategies and evasive maneuvers, in addition to gas-avoidance tactics. While I was not the fastest or the strongest, I was the smallest so I could hide just about anywhere and devour the best snacks. If I wasn’t hungry, I would stash the food for later. It took expertise to effectively conceal the nacho-cheese chips. My favorite food-hiding spot was the bathroom cabinet, behind the toilet paper that nobody ever put on the roll. To think my evil plans would have been foiled with just one ounce of responsibility.

Our bathroom wars were not isolated to food and toilet paper. With eight people vying for the toilet, I was forced to pee in the sink on more than one occasion, though I figured this made me a problem solver. That tendency towards flexibility benefited me in other areas as well. There was only one coveted frozen pizza left? No problem, I’d eat it for breakfast before anyone else got their paws on it.

But life wasn’t all theft and deception. I learned the power of teamwork. With a partner, one of us could act as lookout while the other stole enough cookies for the both of us. We’d toast our victory with milk, never once considering the release our personal gas supply as a weapon.

Now that I’m older and have children of my own, I’m grateful for these life lessons forged from strife and sibling rivalry. Especially when I hide in the closet eating dessert for breakfast.

One time the entire family walked in on me, brownies in my hand, my chin covered in chocolate crumbs. I channeled my best-actress skills and said, “Oh hey. Would you like some protein bars with spinach and tofu? They’re delicious.”

Both kids turned away in disgust, and my husband gave me a conspiratorial wink. Thank goodness he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut. He must have been afraid I’d fart on his head.

— Kathryn Leehane

Kathryn Leehane is a writer and humorist living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two children and a ferociously snuggly pit bull. Along with inhaling books, bacon and Pinot Noir, she writes the humor blog, Foxy Wine Pocket, where she shares twisted stories about her life as a mother, wife, friend and wine-drinker in suburbia. She is a contributing author to several anthologies, and her essays have also been featured on Redbook Magazine, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and more. You can follow Foxy Wine Pocket on Facebook and Twitter.

Mah jongg maven

Natalie CinelliMah jongg is not a game for the faint of heart. I should know. I have the battle scars to prove it.

For one thing, beginners can’t just jump into a group of mah jongg players. Every week the clubhouse in our active adult community is filled with women sitting at card tables playing mah jongg. These women have been playing for years and grew up watching their mothers play.

I am not one of those women. My knowledge of mah jongg comes from reading The Joy Luck Club.

I was told, “You have to take lessons.”

So Stella took on the task. She agreed to teach me and my friend, Gayle, how to play. For three weeks we went to the clubhouse and Stella patiently explained the rules of the game. The set consists of 152 tiles and four racks. A National Mah Jongg League card issued annually lists 50 combinations of winning hands.

Stella didn’t need to look at the card. She had it all memorized in her head. Gayle and I took turns studying her card and looking bewildered. We were trying to figure out the suits. Craks, bams and dots swam around in our minds. Dragons, flowers, winds and jokers, too.

Stella showed us how to build a wall of tiles in front of our racks. We learned the Charleston. Charleston? Isn’t that what the flappers did during the Roaring ’20s?

Somehow we muddled through. We even won a couple of hands. Most of the time my head was splitting. I needed a long walk or a glass of chardonnay after these lessons.

One week Stella forgot to show up. She knew the card by heart, but she couldn’t remember our lessons. This is what happens when your teacher is 90 years old.

Now it was time to join the big league. However, Gayle and I had a problem. We needed to find two more women to play with us. The first two women who sat at our table were beginners just like us. They thought they knew it all.

“Yes, you CAN use a joker in a pair!” No, you can’t. My head was splitting again.

Next time an experienced player approached our table hoping to play. She sat down, played one game and then announced, “I can’t play with you. You’re not fast enough.”

Another woman asked, “Do you even know what a hot wall is?” No, we have no clue. She abruptly left.

Finally, Gayle and I found our foursome. All at the same level. Eager to learn. Eager to enjoy.

Maybe too eager.

“Shh,” the women at the next table scornfully hissed. “You’re making too much noise!”

— Natalie Cinelli

Natalie Cinelli is a freelance writer who has had articles published in the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and American Baby magazine. She wrote a humor column, “In a Nutshell,” for the Suburban News in Reading, Massachusetts. She also worked as a lifestyle editor and columnist for the Lawrence Eagle Tribune in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

EBWW — a cast of characters

Janine TalbotIn just a few days I will be happily surrounded by a hoard of smart, funny, wisecracking women (and a few less men) whose mission to the naked eye is to inspire each other. This crew is already preparing the newbies — those who have never stepped foot into such a swarm of knowledge, camaraderie and good old guffaws — by sending a warning that they may wet their pants from hysterics. We are not your normal workshop attendees. We are humor writers swooping in from various parts to attend the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

For me and for many others, Erma was and will forever remain the Streisand of humor columnists. As a teen who loved to write, I was enamored by her humorous view of life as a woman whose identity was firmly and unabashedly connected to marriage, motherhood and carpools. Back then I had nothing in common with Erma, but even so it was a dream of mine to draw readers by so easily exuding that same style of wit and wisdom.

At EBWW an enthusiastic assortment of talented professionals will graciously and openly share their knowledge. We, as workshop participants, are privy to their most relevant advice and their little tricks as if they’re telling a secret to 350 pairs of ears. They embrace us all — the closet writers, those stretching out their writing limbs to find a home for their work, and the newly published seeking to refine their skills for the next challenge — with tremendous support. And then they make us laugh our butts off.

We each find our way to Erma in various ways. Maybe a friend who previously attended this invaluable conference recommended it. Possibly you follow a particular speaker who will present a session. Or, like me, desperate to connect with like minds, you googled, “I want to be Erma Bombeck.”

At noon on the day of registration, when I would have normally been glued to my computer ready to lunge at the sign-up page, I was on a flight between Budapest and Delhi. Deciding it was too difficult to try and somehow register was not an option. A few weeks prior to the trip I stuck a check in the mail after begging my sister in Kansas to Get Me In That Workshop No Matter What. She hunkered down at her iPad and managed to push through until her mission was accomplished, making up for all those times she tortured me when we were kids (she tells it a bit differently).

How you get there isn’t what matters most. It’s that a part of you feels like you’re coming home. Once you’ve experienced EBWW in all its glory, it’s almost impossible not to start planning for the next one.

I’ve been waiting for two years to get back to my people. Thanks to Erma and the unstoppable, dedicated crew that reverently carries on her message, there’s a place for us.

— Janine Talbot

Janine Talbot has been writing since before her eighth grade teacher accused her of plagiarizing a poem she wrote. She has published locally in guest editorials, and her lyrics received honorable mention in American Songwriter Magazine’s Lyric Contest. At 50-something and experiencing the empty nest (i.e., a spare bedroom with a desk), she is diving into the blogging world, sharing her stresses about her long-distance daughters, a spouse who lives for SpongeBob marathons, a blind golden retriever and a cat she swears screams “Now” at feeding time. She blogs here.

Reflections of Erma