Three Days with a Name Tag
There are a lot of funny people here but I’m not sure I’m one of them.
I’m at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, a conference held every two years that is so popular that, this year, the 450 slots sold out in six hours. The caliber of presenters here is amazing. Big name people with big name books, agents and editors, social media experts, filmmakers, people with poise and purpose, people who wouldn’t get lost going to get a sandwich at Arby’s like I just did because I couldn’t face night #3 of the mind-paralyzing, deafening sound of sitting in a room with 450 people eating dinner.
Don’t get me wrong, nights #1 and 2 of dinner with 450 people were great. One night I talked taxidermy with a guy from Florida and got advice from a life coach about how to handle retirement and the next I learned what Garrison Keillor is ‘really like’ from someone who wrote for Prairie Home Companion. So I’ve done good for someone with a hearing aid in one ear and a cochlear implant receiver on the other. But I know I have to ration the heavy mental lifting required to hear in a huge crowd so if I want to go hear the stand-up contestants later tonight, it’s a sandwich from Arby’s for dinner. I have yearned all day for a chit-chat free zone.
So what are the takeaways from my Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop experience?
- There are a lot of people here who are very intense about writing and nearly all of them are white women. This is the whitest place I’ve been since freshman orientation at Central Michigan University in 1966. It’s weird in many ways for me.
- These folks are not bloggers. They are newspaper columnists (like Erma) and people who write magazine articles and books. One woman is writing a book based on 600 family letters she inherited. I’d make that a blog post and go on to the next topic so I’m pretty impressed by the attention span differential.
- Feminist humor is fabulous. Ninety minutes of stand-up, mixing feminist history, women’s literature and bathing suit shopping from Dr. Gina Barreca made life as a woman hilarious and very worth living. Big laughing and involuntary clapping, the freedom of laughing loud with women, what a fine gift on this Saturday in Dayton.
- Women’s humor is about stories. I learned that today. A man will tell a joke that takes a minute. A woman will tell a story that requires finding a chair and more coffee. And very often, her story will have grown out of some trouble or sadness in her past. I think what Erma Bombeck said is true, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”
- There is a big difference between occasionally landing a really great line and being truly funny; the conference has helped me figure out where my little writing self is situated. Erma’s reputation is safe from assault from me, that’s for sure.
- It feels good to know my place as a writer but not feel inferior or apologetic. For better or worse, I’m proud of what I’ve written, the blog, the pieces that have been published in other places, the essays, the poems, the Minnie and BowWow conversations. It’s my art. I mean that. I like thinking I could bring my body of work and put it on the table next to the comedians here and the woman with the 600 letters. They rock. But I can keep a little bit of a beat, too.
So that’s my report from Dayton, Ohio. I know where the Arby’s is and it’s windy as can be. Tomorrow, I’ll be back in my giant truck for the drive home. A good deal.