To prove that I still have some funny bones that can move without aching, I registered for the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, Ohio. Then I applied and was selected to perform a stand-up comedy routine. As a vindication for unappreciated class clowns everywhere, I was excited to perform in front of a room full of laughing people drinking wine. That’s my target audience.
So, I packed my bag and flew to Dayton, mumbling my routine on the plane. No one bothers a 62-year-old woman talking to herself, so it was a pleasant trip. I arrived at the registration table to retrieve the official Erma Bombeck tote bag and materials. Then I found a glass of wine and a good chair and examined the program. The most difficult decisions were choosing which of the 37 amazing workshops I would attend. I felt like it was Happy Hour at the wine bar and every selection was top shelf.
Here’s a synopsis of the eight workshops I attended. “Chick Wit: Writing the Humorous Memoir” became a comedy sketch by bestselling author Lisa Scottoline and her delightful daughter Francesca Serritella. The audience was howling by 9:30 am – and that was without needing adult beverages. Their advice was to find humor in the details of ordinary life, make the mundane hilarious, and remember that tragedy plus time equals comedy. That’s why my long life is one timeless joke.
“Exploit a joke about yourself,” said Scottoline. “When I have too many gray chin hairs, I’m an Amish man!”
Then I attended a Stand-Up Comedy Book Camp by Leighann Lord, a sassy comic who performs around the world and writes a weekly humor blog titled The Urban Erma. She coached those of us participating in the Stand-up Comedy Program. She advised us to go for the first laugh and open strong, and to remember that the audience immediately spots a fraud. She said to sense the tolerance but don’t be afraid to be edgy because people want to laugh or they wouldn’t be there.
“Expletives are like cooking with spices,” she said. “Don’t overuse or you’ll ruin the recipe.”
After a festive and fun-filled lunch, we broke for one of five workshops. I chose “Column Writing: How Personal is Too Personal?” Sometimes I worry if my blogs provide too much information as I write about irritable bowel syndrome, midlife mating, and my adventures with eldercare. This workshop was taught by Gina Barreca, the wild and wonderful author of eight books, including the bestselling They Used to Call Me Snow White But I Drifted. She noted that women are often the objects and victims of humor but we can change that perception. Women should embrace their calling to write and be funny.
“Just stop apologizing for everything!” she said. “Shut the hell up about being sorry if it’s going to rain!”
“Women Writing Their Lives – Truth-Telling, Wisdom and Laughter” was a dynamic session led by Suzanne Braun Levine, the first editor of Ms. Magazine, Gina Barreca, bestselling humor author and professor, and Ilene Beckerman, who began her successful writing career at age 60 . These women inspired the rest of us to never give up, to keep writing, and to honor our distinct voice. Donna Cavanagh, founder of HumorOutcasts.com, challenged her group to “Write Out Loud” and learn the applications for social media. These workshops taught us that humor writing can be a serious business.
Tracy Beckerman, writer of the syndicated column “Lost in Suburbia,” gave a crash course in branding and instructed us how to define content, stake out a niche, and own a corner of the writing world. She provided valuable information about how to trademark and copyright our work, how to bundle with various social media sites, and what techniques to use to improve our web sites. It was a college course condensed into 60 minutes. By then, it was time for my nap but I was too energized to stop.
“Surround your brand but don’t suffocate it,” she said. “Don’t always do self-promotion but include other writers and other links.”
Judy Carter, the bestselling author of The Humor Bible, kept us in stitches as she told hilarious anecdotes and gave advice about how to use humor in public speaking. She said the first rule to being humorous was to start with a tragic or painful experience and then transform the story to make people laugh.
“Turn your problems into punchlines,” she said. “Humor is my anti-depressant of choice.”
The conference ended with the Stand-Up Comedy program, and as I walked on stage, I glanced at the larger-than-life picture of Erma Bombeck. I imagined that she smiled at me as I took the microphone. I told stories about cutting off a Spanx garment, dropping toenails in my soup, and farting during a massage. The presentation was different from the commence addresses I usually give to schools and universities. We all laughed together, and though I was one of the oldest ones at the event, at that moment I felt like a young and vibrant woman. Thanks, Erma.