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A class act

Phil_and_Pat_Wynn_BrownThe vast majority of writers who attended the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop told us they loved it.

In particular, they loved Phil.

Phil Donahue’s poignant, inspirational talk garnered the highest ratings for an opening-night speaker in workshop history and set the tone for the three-day gathering. Attendees called the legendary talk show host classy, authentic, warm, funny and gracious.

“He was phenomenal. Inspiring doesn’t even cover it,” wrote one attendee. He “moved me to tears,” another observed. He “wowed me regarding the power of the pen and humor to change the world. (And he) reminded me that everyone, including me, makes a difference.”

A record 66 percent of attendees completed an online survey that rated the workshop’s sessions. The overall workshop, its cost vs. value, and the networking opportunities all received scores of 9 (out of 10). More than three-quarters said the knowledge and connections they gained at the workshop will cover the full cost of attending or far more than the cost of attending.

The emcee, keynoters, faculty, stand-up comedy night and Pitchapalooza all received high marks. “Patricia Wynn Brown is an amazing emcee. She has the rare combination of intelligence, compassion, beauty, elegance and a sharp wit,” one attendee said.

Pitchapalooza, billed as the American Idol for books, only kinder and gentler, “was sensational,” another attendee wrote. “I loved hearing the pitches and couldn’t wait for the judges’ comments, which were often humorous, always constructive and so helpful for me in crafting the pitch for my own novel.”Pitchapalooza_panel

Approximately 350 writers from all parts of the country converged at the University of Dayton, Bombeck’s alma mater, for the April 10-12 biennial workshop that’s become so popular that it sold out in 12 hours. It’s here that Erma first heard the words, “You can write!” from an English professor.

Highlights among hundreds of write-in responses include:

• “I’ve been to many different conferences for many different subjects in many different places. This is by far my favorite. Granted, the topic is dear to my heart. But the feel of the EBWW conference is very much like going to visit family, even though it was my first time and I hadn’t met anyone attending before. I like that it’s relatively small. It feels like a warm hug.”

• “I was amazed at the high caliber of speakers. Keep that! I also liked the accessibility of writing rock stars. But also, the high level of competency — from organizing to emceeing — was wonderful. I felt welcomed, was inspired, laughed and cried, and learned.”

• “I will definitely keep coming back and will continue to be an Erma evangelist! I absolutely love how accessible all the speakers are and the myriad networking opportunities you provide. Thank you so much for all you do to put together such an incredible conference and make us all feel so welcomed and valued.”

• “The workshop is so energizing, so supportive, so accessible to authors and faculty, it is amazing.”

workshop program• It is always good to have a mix of marketing, craft, inspiration and connection. I believe you achieved this in spades.”

• “The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop is truly a class act!”

• “By the time 2016 rolls around, writing will be my career — not just a dream for the future!”

• “The best thing about this conference is the lack of competitive spirit. Everyone wants everyone to succeed.”

• “World class.”

The food, depending upon who you asked, was either “awesome” or “lacking in every way.” The best comment? “Keep the cake, no matter what the national health movement is.”

Writers offered us constructive criticism, too. Attendees want more writing exercises in the workshops and greater focus on the craft of writing. Some recommended tracks for beginners and more established writers. A few suggested better organized breakfast roundtables and larger rooms for the workshops. Finally, a number recommended more down time between the afternoon sessions and the dinner program.

In addition to survey responses, more than 50 writers tapped out literally thousands of words to capture their experience at the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. For links to their newspaper and online stories, blogs and podcasts, click here.

Audio recordings of the individual sessions or the complete workshop can be ordered here.

The next Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop will be held in the spring 2016. The date has not been set yet. To keep in touch, like our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter and subscribe to our free monthly e-newsletter. To subscribe, visit our blog.

— Teri Rizvi

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

Laugh-in, love-in

PitchapaloozaPennsylvania blogger Helene Cohen Bludman describes the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop as “Destination Hilarity — a veritable laugh-in and love-in.”

Oregon writer Jane Rosen uses these words: “Inspirational. Side-splitting. Magical. Generous. Heartwarming. Authentic.”

California columnist Jill Fales writes, “Imagine luxuriating in your dreams and having your courage and resolve fostered to achieve them.”Gina, Gingy, Suzanne

Ohio blogger Lisa Packer notes the workshop’s “got-your back, supportive, inspiring atmosphere.”

In all, more than 50 writers tapped out literally thousands of words to capture three laugh-filled days of learning and networking at the University of Dayton, Erma’s alma mater.

Here are links to their newspaper and online stories, blogs, podcasts — and even a video tribute to EBWW faculty member Cathryn Michon’s new movie, “Muffin Top.”

Elaine Ambrose: Laughing With Erma Bombeck and Her Friends

Meryl Baer: Top 10 Reasons I Loved the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

Gina Barreca: Worshipping at the Erma Altar

Amanda Beam: A Life More Ordinary

Tracy Beckerman: The 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop Left Me Speechless (Which is Quite an Achievement for a Writer) and How Spitting Cheesecake at EBWW Can Advance Your Career

Nancy Berk: For the Love of Erma (a series of Parade.com interviews and Whine at 9 podcasts about the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and the enduring power of Erma)

Helene Cohen Bludman: My Bra-Mance With Erma Bombeck

Mandy Brasher: Loving My Mess

Valentine J. Brkich: Like a Sore Thumb — A Man’s Perspective of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop 

Phil Donahue selfiePatricia Wynn Brown: An Open Letter to Mr. Bombeck and Erma on My Right

Kathy Buckworth: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

Liz Carey: Taking Care of Business From a Million Miles Away 

Barbara Cooley: Women at Work

Norm Crowl: Chasing Dave 

Kimba Daleres: The Erma Zone

Shannon Duffy: Thank You, Erma

Jill Fales: Mom’s Voice: Doing the Write Thing

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp: What to Really Expect at the EBWW in Dayton, Ohio; There Are Many More Stories I’ll Tell; An EBWW2014 Photo Collection (set to Matt Nathanson’s song “To The Beat of Our Noisy Hearts”; and Muffin Top, The Song: A Tribute to Muffin Top, The Movie 2014

Astra Groskaufmanis: Anything to Declare?

Ann Guaglione: Like a Virgin 

Holly Kelsey-Henry: There’s a Special Place in Hell

Sarah Hunt: Long Live Erma

Nancy LaFever: Erma Wine Glass Finds A Big Sister

Michelle Lamarca: First Day of School — Erma Style

Anna Lefler: The Dayton Riviera Awaits — Are You Prepared?

Lori Fetters Lopez: I Will Forever Miss You

Leighann Lord: Have Wine Glass, Will Travel

Lois Alter Mark: Thank You, Erma Bombeck 

d. d. Marx: My Weekend With Erma Bombeck…in Spirit 

Kate Mayer: Phil Donahue Saved My Writing Soul 

Maggie Millus: Post EBWW Conference Blues 

Meredith Moss: Writers Gather in Dayton and Dayton is a Town Built on Brains 

Michelle Newman: Anything is Possible

Lisa Kendall Packer: My Weekend With Erma

Gianetta Palmer: I’ll Never Tell…One Tale From the EBWW and We Heard You…Another Thought on the EBWW 

Yvonne Ransel: The Erma Place

Marci Rich: Erma Bombeck: No Ordinary Woman

Jane C. Rosen: Writing With Purpose, or How I Found My Mojo at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

Jessica Rosenberg: Processing the Post-Conference Chaos 

Linda Roy: The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop: Where Life is a Bowl of Cherries…And a Piece of Cake

Anne Saker: In Bomburbia: The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop 

Kristin Shaw: With a Little Help From My Friends 

Amy Sherman: EBWW in a Nutshell and How Do You Spell Your Name? 

Terri Spilman: The Power of Humor

Suzette Martinez Standring: Wannabe Erma Bombeck 

David Henry Sterry: Phil Donahue on Books, TV, Muhammad Ali and Erma Bombeck and Pitchapalooza Photos

Laura Stoll: Finding Humor When Nothing’s Funny

Rebecca Sydeski: Clueless in Dayton 

Janine Talbot: When Tact is the First Thing to Go

Leigh Ann Torres: Why You Should Attend the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

Ronnie Walter: Erma 

Linda Wolff: Making Friends, Finding the Funny and Sharing French Fries

Barbara Younger: Keepin’ em Laughin’ at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop 2014 

For photos from this year’s workshop, visit the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop Facebook page.

— Teri Rizvi

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

With a little help from my friends

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

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

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

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

“I changed my mind,” I told Angie.

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

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

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

And I hoped fervently that my name would be called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Kristin Shaw

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

What new car smell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yuck.

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

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

I rest my case.

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

We were an hour late.

The dog was fine.

The car was unscathed.

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

— Judy Clarke

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

Laughing through the pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golly, I miss her.

— Allia Zobel Nolan

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

Fatty cat and me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop looking at me like that, Teesie.”

“Meow.”

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

“Meow.”

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

“Meow.”

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

“Meow.”

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

“Meow.”

“I said no.”

“Meow. Meow.”

“No means no.”

“Meow. Meow. Meow.”

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

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

— Parri Sontag

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

My bra-mance with Erma Bombeck

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

For three days straight?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaways from the Erma Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Helene Cohen Bludman

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

My writing process —
or lack thereof

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

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

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

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

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

Why do I write what I do?

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

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

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

What am I working on?

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

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

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

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

How does your writing process work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Lois Alter Mark

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

Reflections of Erma