Ok, y’all know I love me a good writers conference. After I left a career in corporate sales to be a writer, I made attending writers conferences part of my ongoing education goal. I’ve attended at least one a year since 2012.
Well, this year something magical happened. I GOT INTO THE ERMA BOMBECK WRITERS WORKSHOP!
ERMA BOMBECK, FOLKS! ONE OF THE FOREMOTHERS OF FUNNY!
The Erma conference happens every two years, and the last two times I tried to get in, it sold out. No joke, this conference sells out faster every year, like in four hours or less.
So this year, I marked my calendar, I had my morning off, I was holding my credit card in hand with my laptop and my phone ready to GO!
And then, I flew to Dayton, Ohio and proudly wore my newbie sticker that said “Erma Virgin”. Yes, that is what they gave us. Be still my humor-loving, former Catholic heart.
I’ve been to some stellar conferences and always left inspired, but there was energy like you can’t imagine at this conference. (In fact, the organizers said this was the highest rated conference to date!) I got my schedule, planned out where I was going to go, and then immediately threw that out the window, tried something new, made great friends, and gave it all my best!
ERMAgawd, here’s why you should go!
Taking risks leads to opportunities and learning lessons.
You all know I like to say yes to new experiences, but being the newbie here, I was admittedly nervous.
A fair amount of the workshop focused on stand up comedy with the hilarious Wendy Liebman. Wendy’s been a stand up comedian for over 30 years. She’s performed on Carson, Letterman, Leno, Fallon, Kimmel, and been a finalist on America’s Got Talent.
It seemed like everyone was talking about the stand up classes. Everyone I met was trying stand up or working on their bits. But I had no intention of going. I’m not a stand up, so that’s not for me.
You guys all know I went, right? LOL
I had planned what workshops I was going to attend the night before they started, and that was the last time I looked at that list. If the stand up classes were getting all the buzz, then I decided to go and see what I could learn from them. After all, I like working in different formats because it teaches you new things about your writing.
After the first class listening to people tell jokes, my gears just started rolling and I spent that night coming up with some material. So the next day, I got up with a bunch of other brave, risk-taking people and did a minute of stand up. And I got laughs! Good ones! That is a very good feeling. One that I’m interested and willing to try again! All because of a risk.
A risk, and the ever delightful and supportive Wendy Liebman, who just happened to be on the same flight to Chicago as me, and who gave me wonderful feedback and encouragement while sitting at our departure gate despite the fact that it wasn’t even 6am yet. Bless you, you’re so kind and charming, and I’m eternally grateful.
Find the Funny
The other classes I attended were about finding the funny, whether it’s using it to add heart or get through hard times. Or even just on Twitter.
One of my favorite workshops was with Lauretta Hannon, author of The Cracker Queen. She had a lot of great tips on being comfortable with writing your story, even the dark parts, while being ok with yourself in the process. I can’t wait to read her book after she shared some examples of how to use humor to write about the tough stuff, and also where to let the dark moments speak for themselves, because we know not everything we go through will be funny.
Both Lauretta and T. Faye Griffin, another presenter, reiterated that making people laugh is a gift. Some of the best writers out there have the ability to make you feel something or learn something, but do so through humor, and that is a very special skill.
It’s kind of mesmerizing to me how many different ways there are to be funny. You can do stand up, you can tell a story, you can caption a photo, you can come up with a punchy headline, you can tweet just to name a few. If there was one takeaway from this conference, it is that “funny” is all around us, and we have the skill to shape it.
I’m so grateful for this opportunity. The crowd at Erma is one of the most supportive I’ve ever seen, which is appreciated because I took one other risk while I was at the conference and signed up for Pitchapalooza, “the American Idol of books”.
In a room of roughly 100 people, I put my name in a hat that probably had at least 60 of those people’s names in it. Only 12 were chosen and I was one of them. I got to pitch my book for one minute to a panel of judges and get feedback on my pitch.
I swear I thought the audience would hear my heart beating through the microphone, but I had practiced my pitch beforehand and gave it my all. I didn’t win the contest. (Way to go, Liz Dubelman, who did win! She was the first person to say hi to me at the conference, so I have a soft spot for her as a human being. Thanks!) I got really positive feedback and simple tweaks to improve my pitch, and was even complimented on my performance! And that’s a win in my book!
So there you have it, taking risks and finding the funny is what Erma is all about. I’m so glad I could attend and so grateful to the conference organizers, presenters, the keynotes (btw, I hope I wasn’t the only one who noticed all the female keynotes got standing ovations), and my fellow attendees. I’m still riding the highs and energized by all of you!
What are you currently learning about your writing right now?
What’s inspiring you?
Since today is April Fool’s Day, here’s a little tale from the vault of dad stories. You remember my dad, right? He’s the one who gave me free butt soap as a gift one time!
This is my dad.
Note* He is not a real pirate.
Well, several years ago, NOT on April Fool’s Day, my dad went to the bank and needed a check made for something. I don’t remember the exact details, but the bank was going to charge him money to get this check from his own account. Being the hardworking, farm-raised, former Navy man he was, my dad was not about to pay extra for this check from his bank account.
After going back and forth with the bank teller, my dad grew so angry he decided to CLOSE his account and take his banking business elsewhere.
Dad: “Close my accounts!”
Bank Teller: “All of them?”
Dad: “ALL OF THEM!”
Meanwhile, a week or so later, I went to the same bank at a branch in my town and asked to do a fund transfer from my savings to my checking account.
The bank teller stared at the screen. She tells me she needs a manager to look something over.
You know where this is going, don’t you?
So, the manager comes over and looks at the computer screen.
Manager: “It appears your account has been closed.”
This is the part of the story where the manager escorts me to a tiny desk in a corner, AWAY FROM THE PUBLIC so when they tell me my account has been hacked or something, I DON’T SCARE AWAY ALL THE PEOPLE.
I worked in retail for six years; I know EXACTLY what that tiny desk in the corner is for.
So now, I’ve been passed onto Man With a Mustache to sleuth out what happened to my entire savings account.
Mustache Man: “It appears your account has been closed.”
Me: “CLOSED? Who closed it? I didn’t close it. All my money was in there! Where is MY MONEY?”
Mustache Man: *scrolling through my account information* “Do you know a…Jerry Witkins?”
Me: *speaking between clenched teeth* “I need to call my father.”
I ring up dear old dad who greets me like he’s Mrs. Doubtfire.
Me: “Did you recently come into a large sum of money, Pops?”
Dad, in all sincerity: “Say, now that you mention it, I did actually find some extra cash.”
Me: “BECAUSE YOU STOLE IT FROM MY ACCOUNT!!!”
Dad explains to me about his trip to the same bank in his town and how he demanded to close his accounts. What he didn’t realize, and the bank teller didn’t explain to him, is that as co-signer for my savings account which my parents started for me as a child, he closed out MY account along with his.
And here’s the kicker, while he had no recollection of the sum of money in this “extra mystery account,” he figured it was one he’d started a long time ago and told the teller, “Yep, close it!”
Me: “You put that money back!”
Dad: “I’ll think about it.”
Me: “You march back into that back, tell the teller what you did, and put my money back!”
Dad did return my savings, and we had a good little laugh about it…much later. But because the bank had closed my account, I had to get a new account and new number. I wasn’t too upset though. This time, there would be NO co-signer.
Happy April Fool’s Day, everybody!
Tell me your best prank story, planned or otherwise!
What makes you feel most beautiful? I have a hunch it has nothing to do with what we’re constantly being advertised. Never in my thirty-two years have I, or any of my female friends, said “You know, mascara makes me feel the most beautiful ever,” or “This smooth glide tampon makes me feel so freaking beautiful I can’t handle myself!” Damn, I wish I heard that sentence more often. Most of the time, we’re taught periods are a pain (and they definitely can be), but we’re not taught they make us beautiful.
I’m not knocking makeup or modern conveniences. I enjoy both of them too. There’s a place for them, sure. But what really makes you feel the most beautiful? When I think about that question, the answer has little to do with my body.
Author, blogger, and podcaster, August McLaughlin, is hosting her annual Beauty of a Woman Blogfest. She’s asking women all over the world to talk about what beauty means to them. And since she’s also the fab creator of GirlBoner, (“Where Good Girls Go For Sexual Empowerment”), some bloggers are writing about sexuality too.
I’ve been a participant in both categories over the years. If you want to check out one of my past posts, I recommend Heavy Petting is a No No: Sex Education for the Saint of Heart. 😉
This year, I wanted to talk about beauty as a woman in her thirties. At a time when your body starts changing (like, not bouncing back in ways it once did), it can be a mind shift to still feel beautiful in a world that emphasizes outer beauty and youthfulness so highly. My body changed, and so did my style.
There are some things that remain constant, though. That will always make me feel truly beautiful and empowered in my own skin.
10 (Unusual) Things That Make Me Feel Beautiful
1. Learning something new.
Is there anything quite like the joy of learning something new? There’s that moment when you’ve really put time and energy and sometimes expense into understanding something that didn’t come naturally, and then…it finally clicks!
Damn, that’s a gorgeous moment.
2. Reading books out loud.
What can I say? Words are my love language.
3. Making art for the fun of it.
I believe adults don’t PLAY enough. When’s the last time you picked up your ol’ Crayola 64 pack (dating myself there) and just colored? Or used a paintbrush? Or even doodled? I’m not “an artiste,” but playing around is therapeutic and relaxing for me when I remember to leave judgment at the door.
4. A damn fine blazer.
I’m a sucker for a power suit. Alas, I rarely get to wear them anymore. But why not give yourself a Try Day Challenge and write about it? I did.
A friend of mine coined the term “wonderfully uncomfortable” and it has forever stuck with me. Traveling somewhere outside your comfort zone is a great opportunity to meet new people, hear new stories, and gain a bigger picture of the world. I always leave feeling grateful and humble afterwards. Aren’t those beautiful, genuine emotions?
6. Going for a walk.
Cool breezes on your skin, your feet pounding the pavement or hiking the trail. I never get clarity like I do when I’m on a solo hike.
7. Genuine, consensual touch.
You know people who are huggers? Like good huggers, not creepy uncle huggers? There’s something beautiful and comforting about being with someone who just knows when to give you a hug or reach for your hand. Science even supports that hugging longer has positive effects on the endorphins in the brain! I value a good hug from a friend or loved one.
Who doesn’t appreciate when someone finally notices how damn hard you work?! You go, grrrl! I see you!
9. Eating dessert for breakfast.
Because I’m an adult. Because I can. Because I’m worth it.
10. Not buying into all the ageist, objectified patriarchal bullshit.
Cause ain’t no one got time for that!
What makes YOU feel truly beautiful?
*This post is part of The Beauty of a Woman BlogFest VII! To read more entries, and potentially win a fun prize, visit the fest page on August’s McLaughlin’s site between today and 11pm PST March 9th.
“We need to give each other the space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity. We need to give each other space so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing, and inclusion.”
— Max de Pree
I’ve been selecting a book to read each month from A Year of Reading, a nifty little guide that provides five options every month based on a theme. The books included are diverse in author and in genre, so I’m challenging myself to read more out of the box. Now, I’m a fairly eclectic reader anyway, but this challenge helps me to read more books by authors of color, and in different formats than I would normally pick up. January’s The Principles of Uncertainty for example, is mostly artwork, such as paintings and photography, with written musings along the way.
February featured comedian, Aziz Ansari, and his take on Modern Romance.
March was a particular favorite read of mine on the topic of justice with Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.
Playing catch up, this month’s review features the theme from April: Creative Spirit.
Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo
I am at my core, a lover of memoir. I am in awe of fiction writers as I personally find it difficult to write fiction. I often think the truth is stranger than fiction and many of the craziest scenes or details in fiction books come from truth. For example, in Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, there’s a bit about a dead hippo the ringmaster keeps parading about during the circus, pretending the hippo is swimming in its tank. The hippo was in formaldehyde, and Gruen learned about the trick from a past employee of a real, traveling circus.
What Harjo has done with her memoir, Crazy Brave, is phenomenal, and as A Year of Reading suggests, it should be read aloud.
A well recognized poet, Harjo’s memoir encompasses story, lyric, and poem.
Overview from Goodreads:
In this transcendent memoir, grounded in tribal myth and ancestry, music and poetry, Joy Harjo, one of our leading Native American voices, details her journey to becoming a poet. Born in Oklahoma, the end place of the Trail of Tears, Harjo grew up learning to dodge an abusive stepfather by finding shelter in her imagination, a deep spiritual life, and connection with the natural world. She attended an Indian arts boarding school, where she nourished an appreciation for painting, music, and poetry; gave birth while still a teenager; and struggled on her own as a single mother, eventually finding her poetic voice. Narrating the complexities of betrayal and love, Crazy Brave is a memoir about family and the breaking apart necessary in finding a voice. Harjo’s tale of a hardscrabble youth, young adulthood, and transformation into an award-winning poet and musician is haunting, unique, and visionary.
I’m discovering more and more lyric novels lately. Books that tell a story, but do so partially, or completely, in poetry format. Rising authors like Jason Reynolds are doing so, using spoken word to communicate his tale. And in my own neck of the woods, artist and author Mai Chao shared the story of her Hmoob parents fleeing the Secret War, living in a refugee camp, and immigrating to America, in her beautiful lyric novel, Gathering Fireflies.
Harjo’s work is partially written in verse, and part traditional storytelling. It is beautifully oriented around directions (north, south, east, west), and place (her home of Oklahoma).
This book was a decadent treat for the wordsmith in me. Harjo’s writing comes from a place of loss, misdirection, and unknowing followed by the grace of time, perspective, and truth. In her own words:
“A story matrix connects all of us.
There are rules, processes, and circles of responsibility in this world. And the story begins exactly where it is supposed to begin. We cannot skip any part.”
― Joy Harjo,
I recommend Crazy Brave for any artists out there. Harjo’s story, and her work, is utmost about resilience, and it inspired me. And for bookworms, if you haven’t yet checked out a lyric novel or memoir, consider this a jewel of an introduction to the craft.
It really should be read aloud.
Have you ever checked out a lyric piece of work?
What did you think of the genre?
What other books for artists, or on creativity, do you recommend?
I just got back from a fabulous week at the Write by the Lake writers retreat in Madison, Wisconsin. If you’re searching for conferences to attend next year, I highly recommend this program. I’ve gone the last three years. They offer a dozen different course options that provide intense study into a specific genre or practice for the week. Courses are for all levels from introductory to those with a full manuscript looking for a masterclass.
This year, I swayed from my usual path of nonfiction and opted for the course on picture book writing.
Here’s what I learned:
My instructor, Georgia Beaverson, had us do a writing prompt on the first day. We had to write down our first memory. The second day we rewrote that memory from another person’s point of view. She then made us edit our wordcount down by HALF (oh, the agony).
She said we could also try reworking the piece into different tenses, illustrating that a story can be told in many different ways, by different people, and sometimes reworking it can lead to great discoveries.
I’ve been working on my memoir for the last several years, and I’ve reworked some of my essays to be performed for adult storytelling. (I highly recommend taking a storytelling class if you have one in your area. I took one two years ago and it was wonderful!) What I learned by doing so was that moving around and utilizing the space I could tell in, I imagined new ways of describing the action or character emotions in my writing. Performing the scene helped me write a stronger scene.
In the picture book writing class, I adapted one of my essays to be told as a children’s picture book. The audience was entirely different, since I’d previously written and performed for adults. In this instance, I played up sounds, using onomatopoeia, stronger verbs, and I limited description where illustrations could play a role.
Using the same plotline, I now had three different ways of telling/performing the story.
Ohmygawd! Justin Timberlake was right all along!
The more you write, the better writer you become, and practicing different kinds of writing tools, genres, and craft elements are key. I was amazed at how each exercise in storytelling, whether on paper or a stage, shaped me as a writer. It was fun, challenging for sure, but rewarding across the board.
Sometimes when we’re stuck, we aren’t sure how to gain that forward momentum again. Whether or not you choose to pursue a different genre or space for your story, trying out different exercises can offer up different questions to make you think, explore, and get that creative blood pumping again.
Things You Can Try:
- Work with a critique group that has multiple genres – How will their feedback strengthen your writing? (Ex. Will listening to poetry help you improve your word choice and descriptions? Will the romance author help you write funnier characters or scenes?)
- Adapt your story into different formats (written, spoken, illustrated) – You may discover something new, or gain confidence in an area you previously felt uncomfortable in.
- Just play – Are you stuck on a scene? Is the writing starting to bore even you? Move around, make yourself do the actions! Try drawing it, what’s the action you want to portray? You don’t have to show this to anyone else, but practicing in new ways can help get you past writer’s block.
- Change the POV.
- Change the tense of the story.
- Change the audience you’re writing for.
- Read different genres. Listen to people tell stories. Note what draws you in.
How can you rewrite and/or adapt your stories
to learn something new about them?
Got an example?
Share your favorite way to practice writing.
I’m behind on blogging about my reading challenge.
Ok, let’s be honest, I’m behind on blogging in general. Transitions, yo. I’m taking it easy.
Something I’ve enjoyed so far this year has been picking a title each month from the book A Year of Reading, a nifty little guide that provides five options every month based on a theme. The books included are diverse in author and in genre, so I’m challenging myself to read more out of the box. Now, I’m a fairly eclectic reader anyway, but this challenge helps me to read more books by authors of color, and in different formats than I would normally pick up. January’s The Principles of Uncertainty for example, is mostly artwork, such as paintings and photography, with written musings along the way.
Playing catch up, this month’s review features the theme from March: Justice.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.
I’m a big nonfiction reading fan. I love memoirs and biographies, so I was gripped right away by Stevenson’s writing. Threaded throughout the book is Stevenson’s involvement with the Walter McMillian case, meetings they had, court appearances and processes, interviews with family and witnesses, and police involvement. Intertwined amongst this case are stories of many cases Stevenson worked on that portray how he got his start into the battle of death row cases, and how his work would shape his path from then on. The writing kept my attention because you learn more about Stevenson and his work in chunks of casework, but there’s also this ongoing saga of what’s happening with Walter.
Stevenson began his own nonprofit practice that focuses on helping minorities and underage victims of the criminal justice system, specifically those placed on death row. His book is an intimate look at capital punishment law and how many people, guilty or not, end up on death row. He uncovers all kinds of issues within the system, such as tampering with evidence, tampering with jury selection, and larger social issues of racism and economic status.
I was first made aware of racism in the justice system after attending a local talk led by my city’s League of Women Voters chapter. In the talk, we looked at racial disparities in our court system in my own city of La Crosse, Wisconsin, as well as nationally and internationally. Once you see those numbers, it’s kind of hard to ‘unsee’ them. You’ve got to know there’s a problem.
I witnessed it myself during my months working as a public health educator and teaching at the juvenile detention center. For the percentage of minority populations in my city, there’s a disproportionate amount of teens of color (mainly black and biracial teens) being sent to juvie.
As a country, we are largely punishing people of color in more violent manners than we are their white counterparts. Since that eye opening talk several years ago, I’ve been active in starting up a local chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), where white folks put in the time and work and energy of educating themselves on the issues, partnering and learning from people of color led organizations, and working to create change.
It’s upsetting to me that so many people are still (color) blind to the issue, or simply unwilling to discuss it. Today, for example, a (white) friend of mine is in court contesting a fine she and her daughter each received for writing messages of inclusivity and peace in SIDEWALK CHALK outside a public space. The city fined her almost $1000 between the original fine and restitution saying they spent seven hours washing off SIDEWALK CHALK that took her less than an hour to write. ???
You can read about her case here, but it’s clear from the way the city alderman addressed the issue, that the problem wasn’t really with the chalk (though that is what they fined her for, however there are chalk messages all around the city now that have not been washed away). The problem was with her messages.
Messages that were written were, “Black Lives Matter,” “You Are Standing On Ho-Chunk Land,” “I Stand For Love,” “Peace Be Unto You: As-Salaam-Alaikum,” “You Are Welcome Here,” “The Time For Racial Justice is Now” and “There is Enough For Everyone.”
I stand with my friend and her messages of inclusivity and diversity as strength. I highly encourage everyone to read more about systemic racism, as we all play a role in it when we don’t actively unlearn and fight against it.
Just Mercy is a phenomenal book that tackles racism in the judicial system. And the most powerful part of the whole read are Stevenson’s thoughts on mercy. Given the many examples of hate we can see every day on the news, or right in our own hometowns, it’s more important than ever to question our own biases. I hope you’ll grab a copy of Stevenson’s work as I found it incredibly thought provoking, emotional, and timely.
A few of my favorite quotes:
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
“I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”
Have you read Just Mercy yet? Or perhaps another title about racial justice?
What are your thoughts?
My friend Heather is a smart, lovable lady who doesn’t watch a lot of movies. Ask her if she’s seen something and the answer is probably no.
A month ago, however, she messages me and tells me I need to watch the show Twin Peaks, a cult drama I had never seen. She described it as a small town murder mystery. Ok, sure, I wanna know what happened to Laura Palmer, the dead girl. I’ll watch.
So I reserve what ends up being a season one and two box set from the library, and I message Heather when it comes in so we can have a social media shared viewing party.
Only I never hear back from her.
I message her via text, I try Facebook messenger, and I tweet at her. But if Heather is bad at having seen movies everyone else on the planet has seen, she is terrible at checking social media. Like working for the CDC is so hard, Heather? Check your messages! I have questions about this melodramatic tv show you made me watch!
So I watched all of season one and over half of season two without her. In a state of growing irritation.
I hate this show. Now all I have are questions.
I finally heard back from Heather. Her phone died and it took days to get a new one. This loss would unhinge a social media person like myself, but Heather just went on living her life, working by day, eating pizza rolls like a boss at night, probably sketching something amazing because she is a talented artist too.
So by the time I heard back from her, I had my own melodramatic show to air. I wanted to know why she made me watch this ridiculous show.
Here are the screenshots of our text conversation in which I tell Heather she is a terrible human being for making me watch Twin Peaks.
*Warning: if you haven’t seen the show, there are spoilers ahead.
This song is three minutes of teenage torture. Get your shit together, Donna! This is not a healthy relationship!
And now I find out the show is being revived and airing on Showtime! People are eating pie and dream dancing all about it on Twitter.
Also Heather has stopped replying to my texts once again. I think the owls got her.
Your turn. What do YOU think of Twin Peaks?