14 Things I learned at the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop

Here are 14 things I learned at the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop

I attended the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop, and I learned a lot of important things there, for example how to get my mommy blog up and running. I’m kidding. I don’t have a mommy blog. Men can’t have babies. If they could, the workshop’s attendees wouldn’t have been mostly women. They would have all been men, because if men had had to undergo childbirth you better believe we’d blog the hell out of it. Facebook would have been invented 70 years ago. The Internet wasn’t around then, you say? It would have been. We’d have put some guys on it.

The two-day workshop at the University of Dayton had a lot to offer. The speakers were excellent. The sessions were enlightening. The attendees were inspirational and funny. There was a well-endowed mascot bird. I came home with a notebook full of thoughts and ideas and some pornographic bird photos.

Because I’m the kind of guy who forgets things unless I write them down, I wrote down all of the most important things I learned at the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop.

The University of Dayton is beautiful
I’ve been on a few Ohio college campuses, and I’ve always thought my Ohio University was the prettiest, and it still is, but Dayton looks like what you’d expect to see a campus look like in a movie. The buildings matched. The students seemed happy. There was plenty of grass, flowers and trees. Squirrels frolicked about. OK, this isn’t really a writing tip or anything. I just want to point out that when my children check out colleges someday, the quantity and intensity of squirrel frolicking will factor into how willing I am to enroll my child there.

I was naked
OK, I never actually got naked at the conference. It wasn’t that kind of conference. (Although I hear the annual National Society of Newspaper Columnists Conference can get a little freaky.) I felt naked because when I entered the Dayton Marriott I felt like, “Well, this is who I am. I’m a humor writer. It’s not a side of myself that I have shared with everyone. But it’s out there now.”

There are two types of people who attend writing conferences
There are people who are looking for a path they can follow, and there are people who are idea sponges. The path people asked variations of the same question, “How can I do what you did?” The sponge people asked, “How can I better do what I do?” The sponge people are my people.

Hope is not a marketing strategy
This was the central theme of Debba Haupert’s presentation. You want readers? Find them, give them something of value and listen to them. It’s basic stuff, but writers fail to do this when they identify too much with their community and don’t act as the central organizing force in that community.

Miller Lane in Dayton is the greatest street in America
Unlike most of the attendees, I didn’t stay at the Marriott. I used up some points and stayed at the TownePlace Suites. Great hotel, even better location. The one-mile stretch of road from the freeway to my hotel contained a Ruby Tuesday, Panera, Chick-Fil-A, Big Boy, Steak ‘n Shake, Red Lobster, Golden Corral, Olive Garden, Smokey Bones Fire & Grill, Tim Horton’s, Outback, Coldstone, Fricker’s, Lone Star, Hooters, Skyline Chili, Max & Erma’s, Good Asian Buffet, O’Charley’s, Arby’s and McDonald’s. Tragically, all of the meals were included with the $375 price of the workshop, so I didn’t eat at any of those places. On the plus side, I know where I am going on my next vacation.

Meditation works
I’m not into the modern New-Age-Whole-Foods-Portlandia lifestyle. But I’ve heard too many people I respect praise meditation to discount it completely. I attended Suzette Martinez Standring’s “Hypnotic Recall Fills the Creative Well” and I managed to meditate even though I was convinced that I would fall into deep hypnosis and start blurting out horrible truths about myself such as, “I like the movie Love Actually” and “I’m afraid people will make fun of my moobs.” But none of that happened. I relaxed for 20 minutes, had a few fresh thoughts pop into my head and opened my eyes to discover no one was staring at me or my moobs.

Write about your dog
Pulitzer Prize winner Connie Schultz was hilarious, but the best piece of advice she gave was “write about your dog.” This works on two levels. Yes, write about your actual dog. Everyone loves dogs, even readers who disagree with you. But also, share some things about yourself that let people connect with you beyond just your opinions.

Run your way out of a slump
Alan Zweibel ran a marathon to snap himself out of a writing slump. That’s a bit extreme, but doing something radical in your life is a good way to shake things up.

Treat your words like a product
This was good advice from Michelle “Wojo” Wojciechowski, who ran the session “Be Funny, Make Money.” I’ve made money from my humor writing before, but I’m guilty sometimes of loving my work so much I just want to see it in print somewhere that I don’t care how much I’m paid. Your words should be precious, but if you want to write for a living, you have to mix in a healthy dose of practical.

There is a magazine out there called Cabin Life
At one of the panels a woman who said she worked for Cabin Life asked a question. I remember I just felt happy to live in a world where Cabin Life magazine exists. Someday I hope to be in an argument with someone about lake cottages and I’ll say, “Good point, but I read a fascinating article in Cabin Life that might change your mind…”

The more specific your voice, the broader your appeal
This solid piece of blogging advice came from Anna Lefler. This is something I had said before, but never so eloquently. Your voice—how you write, what you write about, what you don’t write about—signals to readers what you’re all about. Then they can decide if they want more.

Video is your friend
Jim Higley’s “Lights! Camera! Video!” inspired me to do something I’d never done before: Turn on the video camera on my iPhone. Higley’s presentation was informative and inspiring. I haven’t recorded anything yet, but I will.

School buses have not changed in 20 years
We took school buses from the hotel to the university. You’d think with all of the advancements in modern transportation technology we’d have found a more comfortable way to move our children from home to school and back again. Nope. Same puke-green seats. Same impossible-to-open windows. Same spine-rattling shock absorbers. Tip of the hat to the bus drivers who did a nice job getting us around without loss of major organ function.

Comedy should be left to the amateurs
Sarah Maizes organized the standup comedy event on the final night of the conference and did a terrific job. I did a five-minute set. I’ll spare you my “jokes,” but I will post the video if they make it available. Around 30 or so attendees performed. Each one was funny, and some were hilarious. None were professionals. While they were onstage killing, it occurred to me why they were so funny. Unlike the 25-year-old standups in Los Angeles, where I live, these men and women had real-life experience. It’s the real stuff that’s funny.

Later I checked out a few of my fellow attendees’ blogs and many of them were quite good—better than what passes for comedy on McSweeney’s and other humor sites. Why? Real-life experience resonates. Parody and pop culture references rarely do.

It’s one of the reasons why Erma Bombeck is still remembered fondly.

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Author: Joe Donatelli

Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles. He publishes The Humor Columnist.

  • You nailed it, Joe.  I am intrigued by your analysis of the attendees falling into two basic categories, and I’m not sure which one I fell into. I do know, however, that my biggest take away was: Write better and keep at it. 

    Oh, and I almost choked on my tongue when I read the line about your moobs.

  • I think that’s the ultimate takeaway, Lisa. Glad you liked it.

  • Fiona Young-Brown

    I really wish I had been able to attend this but it clashed with another conference commitment. I did enter the humor writing contest and, although I didn’t win, I was delighted to see a contest where the judges actually took time to contact me with comments and feedback. Hopefully, next time….(for the contest and the conference).

  • This was hysterical!  I’m sorry we didn’t meet at the conference.  Maybe in 2014.  Now.  How do I do what you do?

  • Go next time. It was worth it.

  • Astra – the better question is how can you better do what you do? I know a lot of people who have had writing success (and I would not count myself among them yet) and they each forged a unique path. You just need to do what you do really well and make sure that work gets in front of people who can help you. That’s really all there is to it.

  • Kim Prince

    Day-um!  Sounds like an awesome event!  Sarah and Anna are personal friends of mine.  I believe I can take credit for introducing them to each other in person for the very first time, even though we all bumped into each other by accident.  Either way, it’s good name-dropping.

  • They’re good people. I don’t find it hard to believe that you all know each other.

  • Joe you did a great job on stage at EBWW!  My name is Jen, and I am a baby eater…  

  • Thanks, Jen. The most important step is to admit you have a problem…

  • Judy

    Some astute observations there about sponges and the power of real-life experiences. Here’s something you can sponge up from my experience: when you upload your phone video, make sure your wi-fi is on! (Whopper of a phone bill this month.)

  • Barbara

    Nice job during stand-up, Joe, and beautiful job on this piece.  Thank you, too, for discrediting that part about nakedness.  I assured my husband that there was minimal nudity at the event and you had me worried for a minute.  Keep on writing!

  • The E.B. Heron bird could have used some clothes, but other than that I didn’t see any other nudity. Thanks!

  • The E.B. Heron bird was the only nudity I saw all weekend. Thanks!

  • Actually, that is really good advice. Thanks, Judy.

  • Lou Finley

    Until today, I had no idea there is a Erma Bombeck workshop.  I am about to self-publish a book of essays that
    were inspired by Erma (as my mom and I always called her).  Reading all of her columns was something that
    my mom and I shared as we laughed and laughed.  I’m glad I didn’t know about this workshop sooner because
    if I saw all the writing, which I assume is wonderful, I wouldn’t have the nerve to put my book out there.
     Lou Finley

  • Lou – post the link to the book here when it comes out. Good luck!