Thoughts From My Third Erma Bombeck Writers’ Conference

When I was a kid, time was measured in countdowns – how many days until summer vacation, until my birthday, until Santa came.

As an adult, time is still measured the same – how many days until I turn 50 (75, should anyone want to send me chocolate), until my next hair appointment where I can get the grays colored (13) and how many days (roughly) until I can attend the next Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop (approximately 715, give or take a week).

The conference is three of the most inspiring, uplifting, positive learning- and laugh-filled days of my life. It’s definitely a roller-coaster of emotions, too, as feelings swing wildly from Erma’s “YOU CAN WRITE” affirmations – yes, I can, I AM A WRITER – to horrified, awkward moments when you’ve heard an attendee’s brilliantly pulled together seven-minute free write (which sounds like what you produce after hours of editing) and you’re now trying to avoid direct eye contact with the session speaker so that you don’t get called on to read what basically is a textbook example of Anne Lamott’s shitty first draft.

Even the temporary panic is worth it for the hugs and the catching up with friends and the belly laughs – oh, the belly laughs. I mean, it IS a humor writers’ conference, after all, and you never know who you will meet at dinner or cocktails or in a session. Sitting in Tradewinds on Thursday night, Rita Davenport joined our table as she tried to convince us she crashed the dessert buffet, and somehow she led us to a conversation on Brazilian waxes that I’m still recovering from. Oh, my poor weak bladder.

This year’s EBWW was particularly meaningful to me as I’ve been struggling with my writing – if I could even call it that. I’ve been unfocused, undisciplined, and if anyone asked me what I write, I could only honestly answer with “texts, shopping lists, and the occasional blog post.” I’ve been suffering from impostor syndrome, and there was a part of my brain telling me that this conference was either going to jump-start my writing or make me realize I should throw in the towel and take up another hobby like competitive pie eating or stand-up paddle boarding, or perhaps eating pie on a stand-up paddle board. It couldn’t be harder than this writing thing.

It did the former, mostly, although you wouldn’t know it by looking around the blog. I’ve been busy(ish) with other things.

This year I went to Dayton with a laser-like focus: writing. I wasn’t messing with sessions on agents or publishing or even my website, because I have nothing ready to pitch. (I gave myself the deadline of the next workshop for those sessions, because they are worth their weight in gold.) No, I was going to focus on writing because as mentioned above, I’ve been struggling with my writing like a one-armed man nailing Jell-o to a tree.

For me, this meant choosing sessions like those by Katrina Kittle and Sharon Short, who always seem to deliver just what I need. I walked away with some new tools that honestly had the wheels turning until late in the night. Sharon’s session made me realize that I was looking at some of my characters all wrong, and I couldn’t sleep until I put on paper all the ideas running through my head. Julia Roberts’ workshop let me know I was not alone in my writer’s block, and Cindy Ratzlaff and Kathy Kinney gave me a tool – figuratively and literally – to get my ass in the chair and words on the page. I honestly came away from nearly every session with something for my writer’s toolbox and with newfound encouragement to write. Pitchapalooza with Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry was, as always, inspiring and fun AND educational…and even eked out a thought of “maybe one day I’ll be up there, too”. (Fact: even writing that made me a little nauseous.) And while I didn’t make it into Speed Dating for Writers, friends kindly shared what they learned.

With my brain in overdrive, however, I wasn’t peopling very well, and by 9 or 10 had escaped to my room to (hide and) recharge. Ass on bed, pen in one hand, a bag of chips in the other (my keto diet went out the window between the conference food and cake – this rate I’ll need to look into keto 6 to get a helping hand), I got a lot of scribbling done, which was a small consolation for the fact that introverting kept me from catching up with friends as much as I wanted.

Now, I wish I could say I’ve written another 10 chapters for my book(s) since I’ve been back, or that I’ve broken through my writer’s block. Instead, I’ve once again hit what Julia Roberts’ called “The Erma Gap” in a post from a previous workshop, and holy cats, did this ring true for me. For instead of forging forward, I’m feeling a whole lot of imposter syndrome.

So I’m taking a note from Julia, and facing my fears and writing – and promising myself that I don’t need to share everything I write, I just need to write. And I’m taking a note from Kathy and Cindy, and setting my bedazzled kitchen timer and just writing. My daughter and I discovered a journal at Target titled 300 Writing Prompts, and it at hand for inspiration (to spare me from writing “I don’t know what to write” repeatedly for 8 minutes.)

And mostly, I’m trying to recapture that FEELING that is Erma – the support and positivity and encouragement that wraps around you like a warm hug or cool breeze or whatever it is that makes you happy. (There were a lot of menopausal women there, after all.)

I am a WRITER of more than just nagging texts to my kids and grocery lists devoid of carbohydrates. (And ranty Twitter posts and cranky Facebook posts and reviews of books that other people have written.)

It’s time to boot the devil on my shoulder with the Netflix remote in hand, stomp on the negative thoughts and just write. Yes, it will probably be crap.
Yes, I will probably still post some of it here. With missed typos. And likely only a quick pass through with editing (if any) because it will probably be late o’clock when I hit publish. As usual. (Apologies.)

After all, it’s only 700+ days to the next Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. I have work to do.


  • Patricia park

    I really enjoyed this piece. I know Cindy from when she was at Rodale press years ago and worked on publicity for a book called the
    carnitine defense written by Stephen Defelice
    Who I have worked with for 49 years. I too live to write but have been distracted by life, sadly the deaths of my father, sister and mother in the last few years. Hard to find humor which I love. If u have time visit http://www.thedecrapitationsociety.com and read Patricia park’s corner. I would live to know if u like it. I need a boost. I will continue to enjoy your writing!! Best regards

    • Jenn

      Thank you so much!

      I’m so sorry for your losses, but I will say that I’m still giggling over your bragina posts and love that you worked in a Seinfeld clip. I think you’ve retained your humor nicely if you can meld science and humor so well.

      The mug I brought home from this year’s workshop reads “If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it.”
      I have been struggling with humor writing in light of all that is going on in the world but I have been reminded that all the awfulness and hate and pain is exactly why humor is needed all the more. Keep writing, please.

      • Patricia park

        Thank you so much for your encouraging words. I will keep writing and also following you. I will also reach out to Cindy. My favorite writer if Nora ephron and I was lucky to meet her once at a special luncheon at my sons school. Let’s keep in touch

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