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The good news, according to Erma

DONNA FENTANES Recently, I wrote a blog post titled “Though Dead, Yet They Speak” marking the 20th anniversary of the deaths of the Monks of Tibhirine and Henri Nouwen.

But there is another person who also had a profound impact on my life like those gentlemen. And through her humor and writing, she spread good news to other women. I forgot about this lady who died 20 years ago yesterday in my hometown of San Francisco. And even today, she still speaks.

The ’90s were a blur; from 1990-1999, I had six children. I was actually living the life Erma had been writing about for decades. Nineteen ninety-six was one of the few years of that decade I didn’t have a child. I had one at the end of 1995 and would have another in the summer of 1997. I had two in the ’80s and two more in the first decade of the 21st century. A total of 10. I would’ve engraved and framed the words Erma would have crafted regarding my chosen lot in life. And yet, that is just what she did throughout her career: craft words and stories that highlighted the life of the American woman, the American mother in particular, and all her cares and responsibilities. Women, who felt invisible doing all that needed to be done to maintain their homes, could turn to Erma and laugh as if they were sitting at their kitchen table with a good friend. That good news produced laughter, encouragement and perseverance. Definitely good news for the weary woman.

Perhaps I couldn’t have grouped her with the monks and Brother Nouwen anyway because their content and their lives were definitely different than Erma’s. So it seems. The monks by their lives’ and Henri by his writings changed my life spiritually. But Erma packed a spiritual punch in many of her writings as well, and it behooves us to remember and admire how she wove great truths into her writings.

Of course, we all remember her essay, “When God Created Mothers.” She loosely translates the Genesis record and she nails it on the head as she describes the mystery of motherhood and its incalculable worth. She wraps up the essay with the sublime:

Finally the angel bent over and rang her finger across the cheek.
“There’s a leak,” she pronounced, “I told You that You were trying to put too much into this model.”
“It’s not a leak,” said the Lord, “It’s a tear.”

“What’s it for?”
“It’s for joy, sadness, disappointment, pain, loneliness, and pride.”
“You are a genius,” said the angel.
Somberly, God said, “I didn’t put it there.”

Her words were not just for the mother, “the one who was overkidsed, underpatienced, with four years of college and chapped hands all year around,” but for any woman. Many of her writings were for women in general, and for older women in particular. And for the woman who looked in the mirror and thought it was too late for her, she wrote these gospel-like words:

“For years, you’ve watched everyone else do it. …And you envied them and said, ‘Maybe next year I’ll go back to school.’ And the years went by and this morning you looked into the mirror and said, ‘You blew it. You’re too old to pick it up and start a new career.’ This column is for you.

“Margaret Mitchell won her first Pulitzer Prize for Gone With the Wind in 1937. She was 37 old at the time. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith was elected to the Senate for the first time in 1948 at the age of 51. Ruth Gordon picked up her first Oscar in 1968 for Rosemary’s Baby. She was 72 years old. Billie Jean King took the battle of women’s worth to a tennis court in Houston’s Astrodome to outplay Bobby Riggs. She was 31 years of age.

“Grandma Moses began a painting career at the age of 76.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh followed in the shadow of her husband until she began to question the meaning of her own existence. She published her thoughts in A Gift from the Sea in 1955, in her 49th year. Shirley Temple Black was named Ambassador to Ghana at the age of 47. Golda Meir was elected Prime Minister of Israel. She had just passed her 71st birthday.

You can tell yourself these people started out as exceptional. You can tell yourself they had influence before they started. You can tell yourself the conditions under which they achieved were different from yours.

Or you can be like the woman I knew who sat at her kitchen window year after year and watched everyone else do it. Then one day she said, “I do not feel fulfilled cleaning chrome faucets with a toothbrush. It’s my turn.

I was thirty-seven years old at the time.”

She preached that we can have a second act, or a third act; shoot, some of us can have sequels.

In 2007, more than 10 years after she died, the year my first column was printed, I was 48 years old at the time. Act II.

— Donna Fentanes

Blogger Donna Fentanes is a mother of 10 kids living in Pacifica. She mixes humor and philosophical musings with everyday life.

On swim suit shopping and other mortifications

Jennifer BeldenMy new neighborhood has been rife with the activity of new pools being built and existing pools being serviced, signs that summer and swimsuit season is near.

Confession #1: I hate swimsuit shopping.

Confession #2: I have been wearing the same two swimsuits since 2009, the year after my daughter was born. In that time, I have gained weight, lost it, gained it back and lost again.

If you look at any family holiday pictures, you would be hard pressed to guess the year by looking at me because I have am wearing the same two suits, due to the warped mentality of “I’ll buy a new suit when I lose weight.”

Don’t get me wrong — I really like these suits. But seven years is a long time, so off to the mall I went.

The swimwear store displayed suits in blocks of color on floor racks and up the walls. After I’d searched all the racks twice, an anorexic 20-something salesperson approached and asked if I needed help.

I explained: “I’m looking for a suit. I need a LONG tankini and bottoms that are not a bikini — something with tummy coverage.”

She looks at my tummy. She looks at me.

She pulls a few suits from the rack.

They all have tiny bikini bottoms. With strings on the sides. I sigh.

Patiently, I start: “Gee, those are SUPER cute. But I need a swim bottom that is more like a brief.”

Salesgirl: *blinks* Offers the suits she has pulled.

Me: “No, see *embarrassed laugh* I can’t wear those bottoms. I prefer more coverage.”

*Silence*

Feeling desperate, I stammer on. “Look, I had a C-section and my tummy is, well, it’s no longer flat. Low-cut bikinis hit my C-section line. Do you have any bottoms that offer more coverage?”

Salesgirl: *blinks* She pulls another swimsuit. This one is also a bikini bottom, but without strings. Instead, it has plastic rings on the sides, so my hips can look like Play-doh extruding from a mold.

Me, now irritated, because she is going to make me go THERE, oh yes, she is. I breathe deeply. I count to 10. It does not help.

“No,” I say through gritted teeth, “Those are still bikini bottoms. I had a C-section. I look like a sharpie, and my tummy will hang over that bottom. I NEED a swim brief. Or boy shorts. Or a tummy tuck, but I doubt you’ve got one of those in the back.” Her semi-vacant eyes go WIDE.

I take the suit I’ve found and stomp off to the dressing room. Shortly she drapes a suit over the door — it has a tummy-coverage bottom! However, still lacking understanding, she has also offered a tight cropped top which squeezes everything I have out the bottom.

If you want to look like you are sporting a flesh-colored inner tube, this was the suit to get.

I wrestle out of the snug-fitting top, vowing to hit the gym harder, and quietly hand back the suits with look of defeat.

She drops them on the counter as if contaminated and takes another traumatized peek at my well-camouflaged stomach area.

I may have scarred her for life.

I might not be sorry for that.

With that, I departed to order a suit from Lands’ End, with their hidden panels and flared swim tops, because they get me.

This was LAST spring. Trying on my suit yesterday, I discovered that once again, I ate my stress over the winter and now this suit doesn’t fit as well as before.

Thank goodness I still have that old swimsuit.

— Jennifer Belden

Jenn is a Yankee adapting to life in Texas, where she is is called mom by two sarcastic kids and one ebullient (and flatulent)  spaniel and wife by one bossy guy. When she’s not writing on her blog, Momma on the Rocks, she can be found working on her first childrens’ book, drinking too much coffee and making creative excuses for avoiding the laundry.

My child-rearing views
prior to having children

Adrian WoodMy children would never watch television.

Perhaps an educational show here and there when at a friend’s house or maybe Sesame Street or Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. In my defense, we don’t have cable. We do have YouTube and Netflix and so, television is a necessary evil in our household. How else would I clean up or be lazy myself?

My children would never have a video game system.

Not in my house. My cousins had an Atari, and that was good enough for me and would be fine for my children, too. Well, the Wii came first, a gift from grandparents though I suggested it. The Xbox arrived this year as a gift from Santa. Yes, I blamed Santa so my children would not know I was a total wimp and liar. Upon hearing Blair tell her church friend, “I got kilt by a cop,” I reconsidered my decision of exposure to Grand Theft Auto. Too late.

My children would never be allowed to have toy guns in my house.

How was I to know I would have a son like Russell who came out of the womb with his thumb and index finger in shooting stance? Long before I conceded the the impressive arsenal we have today, he could make any household or yard item into a useful weapon, odd-shaped stick, paintbrush, paper towel roll. You name it. It particularly undid our very kind proper babysitter we had at that time. Now we are swarming with teenagers glued to their phones and upgraded to civil war mock weapons and impressive rapid shooting Nerf guns.

My children would play with gender-neutral toys — my sons with dolls and my daughters would play with cars.

I took this job very serious as I was a graduate of a women’s college and one of my favorite professors had a hyphenated last name,. He and his wife had both combined their last names. My first two sons were provided baby dolls, kitchen sets, as well as cars and trains. The first son never gravitated to any toy item as a little person as he seemed mainly attached to me. The next son was car and train obsessed. Indeed, he would push his small pink jogging stroller loaded down with his matchbox cars, and around the neighborhood we would venture.

My children would try unusual foods and, of course, I would make my own baby food from my own garden.

Again, I was perfect in my mind — even when my first son was the only child. I remember our family of three all enjoying salads, pork tenderloin, roasted veggies. You get the gist. My garden was planted, and we had a ton of squash, lettuce, zucchini and watermelons. Two problems, one being I had no idea you should pick the squash while it was still liftable. Two, weeding was not on my priority list and so, the garden lasted one season.

My children would be read to every evening at bedtime.

How could I refuse to read at bedtime? An expert in early childhood education and I’m here to tell you the whole reading at bedtime is a big farce. Reading itself is important, but the time of day does not matter one bit. I have been known to read a big pile of books on a rainy afternoon. Maybe once. Who has the energy to read every single night? It feels like the same rule about exercising every day. It makes me want to totally abstain so I go by the rule of often, sometimes or occasionally.

My children would be disciplined positively with natural and logical consequences.

I remember the first time I told them to SHUT UP. It was not by accident, however one may want to take that. No, I deliberately chose my words carefully and spoke them calmly and clearly. We were in to the third hour of our car trip, and a howling toddler and fighting siblings had gobbled up my last nerve. I recently discovered hot sauce and was suitably impressed and even a bit frightened by the results it brought. Inappropriate perhaps.

My children would be dressed neatly in knee socks and saddle shoes, their faces shiny clean.

My children used to look nice. My oldest resembled Little Lord Fauntleroy in appearance, facial features and dress. He was downright pretty. Before I knew it, he was wrapped up in athletic shorts and neon hoodies. Oh well, at least his younger sister has the exact same taste so she can shuffle around in too-big hand-me-downs. Now in relation to the filth, I didn’t know the bottoms of feet could turn so black from just a few hours outside especially after few sips in the pool. Giving baths past 7 p.m. is right up there with reading and so, I glance and ignore the black feet climbing in the not-so-clean sheets.

My children would only taste breast milk their first six months of life.

That was my plan until I dumped an entire bottle of breast milk on the floor in our basement den at our first house. I had pumped and was going to pour the milk into my new Playtex bottle, the one that you are supposed to put the liner in first. Well, a tired first-time mother remembered the liner as she poured the liquid gold all over the arm chair and tile floor where my husband held our week-old son. I cried and cried and then in a necessary showing of defeat, found the tin of free formula powder and fixed a bottle. He lived and I learned.

My children would always be properly supervised.

Who plans to leave their son at a restaurant on a bathroom break? Not me, but I did. Two miles down the road in an unfamiliar town on a major highway and I remembered. There goes my plan of my conscious plan for hands-off parenting though under close supervision. Too late.

— Adrian H. Wood

Adrian H. Wood, Ph.D., is a rural Eastern North Carolina mother of four, one with extra special needs. She’s a past preschool teacher, nanny, children’s ski instructor, early interventionist, college professor, early childhood researcher, wife and full-time mama. She began writing in 2016 after a 20-year hiatus and blogs at Tales of an Educated Debutante, where satire meets truth, faith meets irony, despair meets joy and this educated debutante escapes the laundry and finds true meaning in graceful transparency.

My happy place

Life gets in the way of my writing way too often, so I am late to this Erma experience party.

Yvonne RanselAfter leaving three hours late from Dayton because of high winds and snow in April and missing my flight in Atlanta, I spent a sleepless night at a Residence Inn with a police car parked outside, when I should have been revelling in Erma memories. So, after the two-day drive back home from Florida and then a trip to Ohio for an important event — here I finally am at my kitchen table with forsythia and tulip blooms outside my window. And remembering my happy place at Erma.

It was my second “official” Erma, so I wasn’t a virgin. Terry Sykes-Bradshaw and her daughter, both alumni of many Ermas, were on the same flight from Atlanta and we shared my first Uber ride in a tiny red sedan with an Erma newbie, Kathy Shiels Tully.  When we entered the Marriott lobby and saw the smiling faces and heard the chatter, I grinned at her and said, “See, I told you!” It wasn’t until the last night in the hotel bar did she reveal that she wrote for the Boston Globe, with way more experience than most of us, proving that Erma’s content reaches wide.

So many faces in the lobby smiled at me and Gianetta Palmer, the unofficial official greeter, gave me a big hug. Bless her. Oddly, my room was on the lobby floor in a distant wing, so I never rode the elevator with fellow writers or other famous people. A silly disappointment, but one that I noted. The first cocktail party was a joy, reaching out to familiar Facebook faces and hunting down my publisher, Elaine Ambrose, to thank her in person.

After that, it was all a blur, albeit a happy one. I propped myself up in bed that night, with my final glass of pinot noir, to finally narrow down my session choices. It wasn’t easy, but I knew from 2014 that I wanted to hear Tracy Beckerman, with her quit wit and succinct advice about blogging, and she did not disappoint. And there was no way I was going to miss Elaine Ambrose’s session on turning my blog into a book — one, because I have every intention of doing just that with my dozens of essays and two, because she is responsible for my being published in her Feisty After 45, a wonderful anthology by women writers (if I may say so myself.)

After taking myriad notes, I took a break and was entertained by a panel of funny people, including Alan Zweibel and am grateful that I purchased the audio cd. I listened to and laughed at his session this morning in the car and want to replay it for my husband. Friday night’s dinner was so enhanced by the poignant solo performance of Barbara Chisholm as Erma. Tears and laughter and joy were felt throughout the ballroom

I saved Gina Barreca for Saturday morning because I wanted to be fresh and funny when she signed my book. She was delightfully hilarious, as usual, and pranced across the stage in her Italian New Jersey way, waving her arms and expounding on feminism and our incessant need to apologize for everything. I took that to heart when I got back to Florida and did not apologize to my son for the rainy day, as if it were in my control anyway.

Elaine and Gina have emerged as tribal leaders among many in this group of attendees and my confidence has grown because of them, even spilling over to other parts of my creative life. Earlier this month a friend and I were staring in awe at a stunning pink and orange sunset over the water. She said, “You could paint that,” and I started to say, “Oh, no,” but then replied, “Yes, I could,” and smiled.

There was no better way to send me off on Saturday afternoon, than to take in Judy Carter’s “Message of You” workshop. I unknowingly sat down at the same table with Lisa Marlin who shares a crooked smile with me — mine from surgery years ago, hers from Bells Palsy. Neither of us bemoaned our fate much, though she sadly had to give up a television news career. We both cheered and teared up at the emotions Judy evoked in her insightful demonstrations and knew we would be better for it.

Fate or serendipity or whatever you would like to call it also sat me at two different lunch tables with attendees who could very well help me along this year with my family memoir/cookbook — Debbie Moose, who has written cookbooks and Barb Cooley, who will help me “preserve my family memories” as her business card reads. I am confident I can publish this before Erma 2018, because  Erma has my back.

— Yvonne Ransel

Yvonne Ransel is a writer of essays — some humorous, some poignant — who is inspired by life’s crazy, everyday events. She was a librarian, then a bar owner, now a librarian again. She survived the ’60s and the millenium and the years in between as mother, wife and now grandmother of six. Her goals for writing and publishing between now and 2018 are quite lofty, but “Erma’s got my back.”

Muted joy: Learning to live, love and laugh again

Christy Heitger-Ewing(Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in The Huffington Post on April 20, 2016. To watch Christy’s stand-up comedy routine, click here. Reposted by permission of essayist Christy Heitger-Ewing.)

My mom had a hearty laugh and a gentle voice, both of which soothed and uplifted those around her. So when clinical depression snuffed out her sweet spirit, the world became muted. It was like going to an amusement park wearing earmuffs. Minus the cheers, giggles and screams of delight, the air was vacant, odd and lifeless. On April 2, 2013, the park grew dark, then went pitch black when Mom succumbed to the fight and took her own life.

I was at once stunned, sickened and unsettled. How was I supposed to move forward from this tragedy? How could I live when I couldn’t breathe? How could I feel whole with my insides hollowed out? How could I laugh in the absence of joy? I was completely lost in the world.

Before Mom’s death, I always saw the proverbial silver lining in every situation. Sure, I had my down days like everyone else, but I was ripe with positivity. When Mom died by suicide, however, suddenly everything I ever knew, everything I ever was, anything I ever believed in, clung to or hoped for was obliterated. As a result, happiness took a hiatus from my life.

I don’t remember the first 18 months after she died. I couldn’t tell you what I thought, did or said, where I went or what I wanted; I simply existed. As the months passed, my emotions weren’t quite so erratic, fragile and volatile. I no longer cried at the drop of a hat or whimpered at the mention of Mom’s name. Nevertheless, I remained trapped in a sea of sorrow.

I longed to feel something beyond the dull ache of emptiness that had settled into my soul like a clogging mound of dust bunnies. I was like a little girl, terrified of what may lurk beneath the unknown waters, yet intrigued by the mesmerizing ripples in the lake. If I stuck my pinky toe in and let it linger, would I get bitten? Or worse yet, pulled under and eaten alive? Even if I survived the experiment of returning to the land of the living, could I draw enough oxygen to continue? If I managed to carve out a small space within my heart for joy to grow, would I be able to nurture and preserve it? Despite being applauded for my resolute strength, inside I felt weak, scared and lonely.

Though my soul thirsted for levity, it eluded me. Something was prohibiting me from accessing joy, and I suspected it was Mom’s blessing. I desperately wanted to know not just that she was okay but also that she was okay with me being okay. I realize how ridiculously convoluted that sounds but grief is nothing if not complex.

I went to bed each night praying that I might subconsciously feel her presence. I woke up each morning hoping I’d find a sign from her that let me know she was still in my corner. Instead, months passed without my getting a heavenly head nod from Mom.

Then I got an e-mail from the director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop I was going to be attending in a few weeks. I’d been selected to perform a stand-up comedy routine at the workshop and to do it on April 2 — exactly three years since Mom’s passing. Goose bumps covered my arms; this was my chance to test those strange but captivating waters.

“Are you nervous?” one of the fellow attendees asked prior to the performance.

“A little,” I said. “Mostly I’m excited.”

Still, as my slot drew near, my heart raced and I wiped the glisten of sweat from my chin. When my name was called, I inhaled deeply and stepped up to the mic, straining to catch a glimpse of the audience as I squinted in the bright spotlight.

I began my set and noticed that my formerly muted world now entertained sound. I heard bursts of laughter. I felt the reverberation of clapping. I caught wind of my husband’s distinctive chuckle, and that was soothing.

Then, at the end of my performance, I uttered the following words: “My mom, who was one of my favorite people in the world, died exactly three years ago today. And I think the fact that I’m doing stand-up comedy for the first time ever today, of all days, is her way of saying to me, ‘I know that you miss me and the joy we shared, but I want you to keep on laughing.’”

Professional comedienne Wendy Liebman, who emceed the show, came on stage, extended her arms for a hug, and whispered, “Was that really your first time? You’re a natural!”

As I exited the stage, members of the audience stood and applauded, a few of them wiping away tears.

After the show, my friends embraced and congratulated me. They encouraged and supported me. They mothered and nurtured me. The experience left me beaming. Because for the first time in a long while, I had allowed pure joy to seep inside my soul.

Mom’s hearty laugh and gentle voice didn’t just lead me to the stage; it lead me back to love, life and heart-healing laughter.

— Christy Heitger-Ewing

Christy Heitger-Ewing is a freelance writer living in Avon, Ind., with her husband and two sons. She’s a columnist for Cabin Living magazine and author of the award-winning book Cabin Glory.  She also regularly contributes to a variety of Christian magazines and anthologies.

The spirit of Erma

Leighann LordThe vast majority of writers who attended the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop are raving about it.

Attendees particularly loved the way writer and comic Leighann Lord “rocked the house” in her closing-night keynote talk. Her humorous, inspirational speech garnered the highest rating for any keynote speaker since the workshop organizers began surveying attendees in 2008. Several offered to rate her “11” or “12” on the 10-point survey scale.

“Leighann Lord was flawless in conveying wit, universal resonance, laughter, profound insight, in short, the spirit of Erma. I didn’t want her talk to end. She is the epitome of grace and a wicked sense of humor,” wrote one attendee.

“Hilarious yet inspirational. A beautifully crafted speech that, amid all the laughs, brought it home at the end to the theme of passion for writing,” another observed. She “knocked it out of the park. So connected to the audience, so in the moment, so authentic,” another attendee wrote.

A record 231 attendees — 66 percent — completed an online survey that rated the workshop. The overall workshop, its cost vs. value, and the networking opportunities all received scores of 9 (out of 10).

A new record: 80 percent said the knowledge and connections they gained at the workshop will cover the full cost of attending or far more than cover the cost of attending.

Half said they would definitely attend again. In all, 86 percent indicated they would definitely come back or highly consider it — another record. The opportunity to network (with other attendees and speakers) also received the highest marks in workshop history.

Approximately 350 writers from all parts of the country converged at the University of Dayton, Bombeck’s alma mater, for the March 31-April 2 biennial workshop that’s become so popular that it sold out in less than six hours. It’s here that Erma first heard the words, “You can write!” from an English professor.Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff

The workshop’s emcee, Barbara Chisholm’s performance of Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, the inspirational tone of Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff’s talk, the quality of the faculty, stand-up comedy night, speed dating for writers and Pitchapalooza all received high marks. Attendees also enjoyed keynoter Amy Ephron’s pitch-perfect reading of one of her essays — and the presence of three former keynoters, Alan Zweibel, Judy Carter and Gina Barreca, on the workshop’s talent-laden faculty.

040216UD-0475 copy“Patricia Wynn Brown is the perfect, gracious, funny and friendly emcee,” one attendee wrote. “She infused every emcee gig with joy and enthusiasm,” observed another.

PitchapaloozaPitchapalooza, billed as the American Idol for books, only kinder and gentler, “was so entertaining and informative that it could honestly be a reality TV show,” another attendee wrote. “The critiques were clearly given from a loving, respectful, supportive place. I think everyone in the room won.”

Barbara Chisholm and Bombeck familyA number of attendees said the one-woman show based on Erma’s life and writings surpassed their expectations. “It was top notch, memorable, and there was barely a dry eye in the house,” one commented.

The chemistry between writing partners/lifelong friends Kinney and Ratzlaff touched attendees during their uplifting keynote talk. “These women blew the doors off as far as I’m concerned. Motivating, inspiring, funny, and honest with a REAL message,” one wrote.

The attendee stand-up comedy night ended the workshop with howls of laughter. “Wendy Liebman is a total gem and the attendee comics were great. Supportive crowd, great leader, perfect way to end the conference,” said one attendee.stand-up comedy performers

Other highlights among hundreds of write-in responses include:

• I’m not sure how the staff can top #2016EBWW. It was stellar in every way. Workshops were on trend and helpful for all levels of creative people from novices to professionals. The faculty was incredible.

• I KNOW that Erma is so proud and so honored. This is the best gift that I have ever given myself, life changing!

• An unbelievable experience. The EBWW is unique among all conferences in its ability to foster a culture of support and collaboration, rather than competition, among the writers who attend it and become part of its community. …The EBWW feels less like attending a conference, and more like visiting family.Vikki Claffin

• Thanks for being the kindle for my spark. xoxoxo

• I love this workshop. Love, love, love. The content was great this year. Please keep offering sessions that focus on craft!

• I’m so glad I came and will stand in line to be sure to get into the next one! The mixture of topics and approaches in the sessions offered seems just right. The spirit of Erma Bombeck is wonderful and the family atmosphere is charming.

• The truth is you can’t put a value on the conference — the cost is one thing, but the connections, information and education I received are invaluable.

• My favorite writers’ workshop, bar none.

• The welcoming warmth of this workshop far exceeds any I have ever attended.

• I thought this was a remarkably well-organized and content-packed conference. The depth of expertise in the workshops was outstanding; people you might expect to be keynoters were workshop presenters. That’s really unusual.

• The spirit of the workshop seems to really carry the spirit of Erma throughout. It’s genuine. It is not contrived.

Writers offered us constructive criticism, too. Attendees continue to want a greater focus on the craft of writing. Several suggested better organized breakfast roundtables, larger rooms for the sessions and healthier snacks (but “keep the lemon cake” at dinner).

The best recommendation: “A marching band to play “Our Love is Here to Stay” in 2018 and the Stones in 2020, although I’d trade them both for Billy Joel :).”

In addition to survey responses, nearly 60 writers tapped out literally thousands of words to capture their experience at the 2016 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 April 5-7, 2018. 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.

Bathroom stall to center stage:
a writer finds her groove

Kate MayerFour kids, three houses, eight cars and three colleges ago, I was a waitress at Denny’s. Many a Grand Slam breakfasts and chicken fried steak paid for community college. Whenever a posse of older women came, the wait staff would immediately hide in the kitchen, no one wanting that table.

Chimes of “not me, not me, not me” rang out like seagulls finding fries at the beach, and with good reason.

What pains in the as**! Dressing on the side, skim milk for coffee, lo-cal syrup, hold the mayo, extra mayo, no salt, eggs hard, fork is dirty, no ice please, decaf tea, substitutions galore, then separate checks and crappy tips.

I’m still traumatized some 35 years later.

So why then do I flock to a writing conference in Dayton, Ohio, a mecca of sorts of middle-aged (being generous here) women (and nine men) to pay homage and learn by sheer osmosis the writing and wit of Erma Bombeck.Erma typewriter

Here gather 350 women (and nine men), the VAST majority between the ages of 45-105 (except for the room crashed at 2 a.m, where four politically savvy, very smart, very drunk young women discussed writing, friendship, politics, parenting and marriage — an anomaly of demographics to be sure, but one I welcomed and not just because of the late-night pizza and free booze).

The Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop is every two years, and frankly, it’s not enough. Last time, I spent the vast majority of the conference between workshops, alone in a bathroom stall, pity party of one. I was in a dark place and looking for some light. And laughter. (You can read about that here.)

Kate_Mayer_standupThis year, I was on stage doing stand-up. Four minutes of hell that I will remember forever. From the bathroom stall to center stage, and it’s all thanks to the writers who flock to Dayton.

They, these 350 women (and nine men) who are all in some version of the same boat, want you to succeed. There is room for us all. I flee self-help, inspirational live-your-own-life spiritual bliss bullsh**. I despise it, and yet, that is exactly what I find here.

Like a spoon full of sugar, or a shot of tequila, I go for the workshops, the how-to craft, the social media tips, the networking and face-to-face opportunity that doesn’t happen on Facebook, or at larger conferences with bigger egos.

And yet, through the workshops, I find inspiration. Peace. Excitement. Energy. Encouragement. Talent. It all happens here.

Here are some of my brain dump notes, and you can find others by searching #2016EBWW on FB and Twitter:

Susan Pohlman:

• Is what you write a window or a mirror? If a mirror, it only applies to you and has limited audience. If a window, it offers a wider, universal story others can participate with.
• There’s a fine line where your story ends and someone else’s begins.
• Get it on the page. Even if it is crap.

Shannon Olson:

• Anytime you sit down to write your story, you have something unique to bring to the page.
• Be real. Share moments of emotional generosity.

Alan Zweibel:

• About Gilda Radner, Bunny, Bunny: “I wanted our words to touch each other again.”
• The jokes will come, but writing the truth must come first.
• There’s no secret to writing comedy. The secret is writing. The jokes will come.
• Do the work.
• The best writing touches the soul.

Wendy Liebman:

• You won’t suck. I won’t let that happen. Breathe.
• Control what you can: the jokes, the writing. Delivery. Your health and stamina. Ignore what you can’t control.
• Act as if it’s a great audience. Every single time.

Kathy Kinney:

• Surround yourself with positive people.
• You never know who you’re gonna meet who will give you a leg up.
• You don’t have to be 21 to have your whole life ahead of you. But it helps.
• Find a friend who doesn’t have an agenda.

Judy Carter:

• Suck up to others. Really. Do it.
• Get your foot in the door by finding your niche.
• Stand up is for alternative thinkers.
• If you have something to say, get out and say it.

Leighann Lord:

• If you don’t ask, you don’t get. No one is sitting around thinking about you.
• If the word ‘no’ frightened you, you wouldn’t be sitting here.
• Opportunity comes through friendships.
• Pursuing your passion is the gift you give other people.

Nancy Berk:

•Surround yourself with people who believe in you.
• You’re funny. Really funny. (To me. To my face, in the lobby)

Cyndy Ratzlaff:

• Your personal brand is a story you write about you.
• Leave digital breadcrumbs everywhere.
• Fan base believes they know us. Interact and build the relationship. Don’t let a share or comment go unnoticed.
• Readers read. Writers read. Colleagues are part of your tribe. Be a steward of that tribe. Share.
• Engage wherever fans want to play. Go there.

Adair Lara:

• Narrator is a hero if things don’t happen to them.
• Epiphany is the pay-off: when it stops being about you and starts being about the reader.
• You can’t go back and un-have an epiphany.
• Don’t be safe. If you’re being safe, you’re probably talking about other people.

It was like this for two days and two nights. I stole a little extra time from Leighann Lord because I mooched a ride to the airport with her, completely blurring the lines between “talent” and  “attendee.” Because that’s how this workshop rolls.

Eat dinner with a bunch of strangers, and learn about publications, editors, tips and leads. And second chances, career fails, good bras, in sickness and in health, menopause, tequila, online dating, great moisturizer, trolls, dark clouds and bright skies.

This workshop has something for everyone, regardless where you fall on the bell curve of writing. From polished, published professionals marketing a script, screenplay, or manuscript to a hospice nurse who always wanted to write, to an investment banker who thinks she might be funny — we all attend the same classes, taking what we need for this time in our life, and walk out lighter, braver and bolder.

The workshop also included a performance of the one-woman show, At Wit’s End starring Broadway and movie star Barbara Chisholm, and I sat near the back so I could sneak out if it sucked.

IT DID NOT. I was spellbound. Erma resonated because the tiny moments of the mundane had a far-reaching audience. Still. Her observations of parenting and housework had huge implications for the Equal Rights Amendment then. And now. Because there’s still work to do.

As Nancy Berk said during the all-woman in comedy panel: “Ageism is real, but here’s the thing: we are the lump in the demographic bubble. We are the majority. We sell out venues because they don’t see us on television.”

Thanks to the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and the 350 women (and nine men), I for one will not forget the power of the pen, and our responsibility to use it wisely. With poise and humor, I can do both. Be funny and serious. Humor and activism. Doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and I hope the writers who experienced what I experience are tasked with continuing important conversations that may, in fact, inspire others to do the same to make the world a better place. One essay at a time.

— Kate Mayer

Kate Mayer is a potty-mouthed, somewhat irreverent storyteller, humorist and activist sharing life as she lives it in Newtown, Connecticut. She writes with humor, wit and a great amount of levity about parenting, teenage angst, aging parents, midlife, social issues and, sigh, gun- violence prevention. Her essays have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, BluntMoms, Scary Mommy, BlogHer, The Mid, The Good Men Project, Midlife Boulevard, much in thanks to EBWW. She is a very proud Listen To Your Mother NYC 2012 alum. She blogs at http://www.kathrynmayer.com and is occasionally funny on Instagram and Twitter as @klmcopy. If you play well with others, find her on Facebook.

The tribe of Erma

stand-up comedy performersVirginia author Kimberly “Kimba” Dalferes says you can quote her on this: “Finding your tribe is life-affirming and feeds your soul.”

Dalferes describes the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in this way: “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.”

Humorist Wanda Argersinger blogs, “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. ‘These are my people,’ could be heard over and over again. ‘This is where I was meant to be.’”

From storyteller Kathryn Mayer, who “found her funny” at the 2014 EBWW and returned a renewed writer: “I find inspiration. Peace. Excitement. Energy. Encouragement. Talent. It all happens here.”

In all, nearly 60 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. These include essays from Lori Mansell, a long-retired school teacher who discovered it’s never too late to write, a couple of University of Dayton students, journalists, authors, magazine writers and bloggers.

A special highlight: Keynoters Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff are producing five video features of stories from their sprint writing workshop that encouraged writers to find their voices.Cindy Ratzlaff and Kathy Kinney

Here are links to newspaper and online stories, blogs and podcasts:

Amy Abbott: Afterglow

Amy Abbott: Erma Bombeck’s Forever Legacy

Wanda M. Argersinger: A Legacy Like No Other

Anne Bardsley: Erma Summer Camp

Jennifer Belden: How Erma Helped Me Reclaim My Focus and Boot Dolores

Nancy Berk:  Showbiz Analysis: Legendary Author Roy Blount Jr. Talks Creativity, Satire and Pie on Parade.com. Listen to podcast here.

Nancy Berk: Showbiz Analysis: The Drew Carey Show‘s Mimi Elevates Kathy Kinney to Queen of Her Own Life on Parade.com. Listen to podcast here.

Betsy Bitner: Together in a Spirit of Humor, Times Union in Albany, N.Y.

Valentine Brkich: Let the Sessions Begin!

Valentine Brkich: Welcome to No Man’s Land

Patricia Wynn Brown: Ride ‘em, cowgirl

Lisa Carpenter: 2016 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop: 13 Things I Loved Plus a Few Me-Loved-Nots

Helen Chibnik: Secret Passion (illustrated and recorded by Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff)

Michelle Poston Combs: Like a Greased Watermelon

Michelle Poston Combs: Standing Up at Erma Bombeck 2016

Kimberly “Kimba” Dalferes: Can I Quote You on That?

Julie Danis: The Olga Stores: The Best Seamstress of Section A of the Block Association of EastWest Warsaw (illustrated and recorded by Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff)

Lexie Digby: Erma’s Essence

Lori B. Duff: Men, Women, and the Equality of Functional Pockets

Lori B. Duff: How to Fly Without a Driver’s License in 27 Invasive Steps

Amy Eddings: She Who Laughs, Lives More Fully

Estelle Erasmus: Pearls of Advice from the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Conference (#2016EBWW)

Christy Heitger-Ewing: Muted Joy: Learning to Live, Love and Laugh AgainHuffington Post

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp: MomWriter, Cincinnati Family Magazine

Sharon Tjaden-Glass: Walking Through the Fear

Rachel Grise: Erma Bombeck and the Marriott of Despair

Stacey Gustafson: Got My Funny Back at Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop 2016

Stacey Gustafson: Quotable Quotes, featuring Alan Zweibel, Cathryn Michon, Joel Madison, Wendy Liebman, Leighann Lord, Kathy Kinney, Judy Carter and Jenny Lawson

Katie Hamlin: Ermafied

Lori Herlihy: Emulating Erma

Mary Hirsch: Life Without a Name Tag

Ann Hudock: 2016 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and a Belated Thank You

Hillary Ibarra: Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

Natalie Kirland: Erma Bombeck Spirit Still Alive Through Writers’ Workshop

Becky Koop: Whim to Revelation, My Erma Bombeck Workshop Legacy

Myron Kukla: Strange But True Tale

Kate Mahar: A Little Something About My Day Job

Lori Mansell: Queen for a Day

Lisa Marlin: Yes, Mr. Dickens, It Was the Best

Kathryn Mayer: Bathroom Stall to Center Stage: A Writer Finds Her Groove

Mary McCarty: Lesson from Bombeck Workshop: It’s Never Too Late, Dayton Daily News

Kelly McKenzie: If Only I Had the Chance to Meet Erma

Julie Osborne: From Virgin to Queen

Gianetta Palmer: An Ode to the EBWW…2016 Version

Lisa R. Petty: Hermit at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

Susan Pohlman: When Erma Calls

Yvonne Ransel: My Happy Place

Teri Rizvi: Brigadoon for Writers

Julia Roberts: Great Advice From the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

Julia Roberts: The Erma Gap

Julia Roberts: The Power of Erma Listen to podcast here.

Anne Saker: Erma Bombeck Lives on in Admiring Writers, Cincinnati Enquirer

Sheri Saretsky: Mother…Wife…Boss…But Writer?

Sharon Short: Authors to Offer Free Events Tied to Writers’ Workshop, interview with Roy Blount Jr. and Gina Barreca, Dayton Daily News

Pam Sievers: When the Only Thing Left to Do is Write

Suzette Standring: Women: Stop Apologizing As a Preface to Comments, Huffington Post

Molly Stevens: Who Was Erma Bombeck and Why Does She Still Matter?, (Maine) Bangor Daily News

Becky Sydeski: 13 Things to Remember for the Erma Bombeck 2018 Conference

Janine Talbot: EBWW — A Cast of Characters

Janine Talbot: Can Great Minds Who Think Alike Survive Collaboration?

Annette Januzzi Wick: Erma Made Me Miss My Mom

Leah Vidal: Finding Human Interest in the Funny

Jan Wilberg: Three Days with a Name Tag

— Teri Rizvi

Teri Rizvi is the founder of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Worshop at the University of Dayton, where she serves as executive director of strategic communications.

Reflections of Erma