Monday, April 25, 2016

Guest Blogger Julia Roberts on Great Advice from The Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop Conference

More than 18 months ago, Julia Roberts, president of Decoding Creativity, was kind enough to interview me about the writing life for her Storytellers Summit. Julia lived nearby in New Jersey, and while we'd previously crossed paths, before we had a chance to see one another again, she'd switched coasts, and now lives in California. Lucky her! Julia's most recent book is Sex, Lies & Creativity, Gender Differences in Creative Thinking (Difference Press, 2014). When she volunteered to blog about her experience at the Bombeck gathering, I said yes immediately. (More about Julia at the end of her post.)

Please welcome Julia Roberts.

The Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop Conference is a utopia for humor writers that only appears every other year, out of the mist, on the edge of the Great Miami River in Dayton, Ohio (like Brigadoon…) People in the know watch and wait for the announcement, because the conference sells out within hours each time, and only the lucky are admitted. It was reported that one would-be participant hung up on her mother abruptly as soon as admission opened. Another applied with her feet up in stirrups – not waiting for the end of her Pap smear. I got in on the wait list, and wasn’t sure what all the frenzy was about. I almost turned my wait listed position down when an opening became available. But they asked me to speak on the science of creativity – and well, I went. I love Erma Bombeck after all.

Erma died 20 years ago, so younger writers may not know of her wit and power. She was a humor columnist from the mid-1960’s to the early 90’s, carried in 900 newspapers, two times a week, who wrote about family life, housework, and husbands. In a time when every lucky housewife was supposed to be content with a split ranch and an automatic dishwasher, Erma complained… with humor, insight and a huge following… about 30 million readers a week.

What’s not to love? She was fully actualized – knew what was important to her, and set about doing it. From syndicated columnist and 15 bestselling books, to Good Morning America contributor, to ERA activist, and ultimately a position in the Carter administration alongside Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and others – she left it all out on the field. Erma is famous for saying:
“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me.'” – Erma Bombeck
And she was funny. Damn funny. Some of my favorites quips of hers include:
·         The grass is always greener over the septic tank
·         When you look like your passport photo, it’s time to go home.
·         All of us have moments in our lives that test our courage. Taking children into a house with a white carpet is one of them.

Funny was the coin of the realm among the 450 participants I met at the writing workshop held in Erma’s honor a few weeks ago.  Therein lies the utopia, the joy and pleasure of talking about writing with people who like to laugh, love to land a joke, and who are all there to learn and help.

I learned a bunch of cool things – from very cool people – so I’ll share them and see if they’re helpful to you, too. Here are ten little nuggets, paraphrased from the many sessions I attended:
1.      You have to be funny by the fourth line, or you’ve lost them. – Alan Zweibel (early writer for SNL, co-creator of The Garry Shandling Show and more)
Zweibel is a living legend, who shared the story of writing the iconic theme song for the Gary Shandling show on an elevator ride, on the way to lunch. We were all moved that he could share this lovely memory only a couple of weeks after he’d lost his longtime friend.
2.      Use social media like an editor’s desk; let double-digit likes or retweets decide what merits a blogpost. – Elaine Ambrose (author, Menopause Sucks
So many of us write alone these days – no editors to please. Yes, that’s the upside. But we also never get an editor’s input on our stuff – what’s good and what’s crap. So let your social media response give you that editorial perspective. Follow the direction from your many “editors” who respond to your work.
3.      Never tell an agent you’ve just finished your NaNoWriMo novel. – Sorche Elizabeth Fairbank (Fairbank Literary Representation)
All the agents’ heads nodded on this one. I’ve compiled a No-No list from the advice from the many agents at the seminar. To get a copy, go
4.      The audience is in charge now. Getting audience attention is more valuable than the gatekeepers’ money. – Cathryn Michon (writer, director, producer of Muffintop, A Love Story)
Cathryn has brought her little love project Muffintop from a small personal project (starring David Arquette and Marissa Janet Winokur) all the way to Nextflix and Hulu. How? She had strong audience support and advocacy. Social media, baby!
5.      Make a list of people - including celebrities – who might write a “Buy This Book” email on your behalf. – Rachel Ekstrom Courage (Agent, Irene Goodman Agency)          
Even if you don’t know any celebrities, you probably know 100 people who would consider writing this kind of email. Have you asked?
6.      Writing a book is like traveling alone. Sure, you’ll meet great people, but when it’s you and your book, you’re alone on a journey. – Amy Ephron (bestselling author of A Cup of Tea, and One Sunday Morning)
I loved Amy’s tales of life with her sisters Nora and Delia Ephron.
7.      To write a book, you have to train your brain like you’d train a dog, to drop into flow, on command, and write in the small pieces of time you get. – Anna Lefler (Novelist, Preschooled.)
Anna’s presentation was full, FULL of the little things she did to drag her mommy-ass through the first draft of her novel. She even wrote as her two toddlers napped in the car. (A twist on the “don’t make me pull this car over” thing.) But first you have to have some preset ways to ready your brain to follow commands. Like Sit. And Write.
8.      When you’re going to host a dance in your living room, you spread out the furniture. When you write, do a mind dump first – make some space for your creativity. – Kathy Kinney (Actor, Mimi in The Drew Carey Show, co-author of Be the Queen of Your Own Life)
Kathy and Cindy Ratzlaff have been best friends for 40 years and their mutual respect and synchronicity came through on the stage. They’ve helped each other through many creative blocks over the years.
9.      Showbiz is not a business of ideas. It’s a business of relationships. - Joel Madison (writer for Roseanne, The Larry Sanders Show and currently on Judd Apatow HBO series Crashing.)
Doesn’t that just explain everything?
10.   I just read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, where you’re supposed to throw away everything in your house that doesn’t ‘spark joy.’ I’ll save you some time and money. I looked around my house and got started. I threw that book out. – Wendy Liebman (standup comic, semifinalist in NBC’s America’s Got Talent and director/star of Wendy Liebman, Taller on TV DVD.)
Wendy’s talent, connection to the room and humor blew us all away. She’d honed her wit and timing on late night and HBO, but that night she was there, just for us.

The starpower at this conference was tremendous but their collective wattage was actually outshone by the 450 delightful, experienced and openly welcoming participants. I had fascinating and fun conversations, met people I’ll consider new friends and colleagues. I was enlightened, inspired and energized by this conference. 

I’ll be ready to re-up as soon as the conference opens registration for the 2018 Erma Bombeck Writing Workshop – even if I have to pull my arm out of the back of a turkey, or land the plane I’m on so can register before we arrive in our destination city, or leave a meeting with my agent, and the director and producer of the movie being made from my book. With all my new famous friends and their inside advice – hey it could happen.

Note from Lisa: For those who write humor (a lot or occasionally), the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop website is a nice home for funny personal essays. Here's one of mine. Submission guidelines here.

More about our guest blogger: Julia excels in helping writers understand their own creative strengths and struggles and how to hew their creativity to their greatest advantage. She has been coaching since 2004 and is certified by Dr. Martha Beck, among other certifications and degrees. Additional books include Motherhood to Otherhood (Running Press, 2008); and RV There Yet? (Book Surge, 2007). See more about Julia Roberts at

Images: Erma Bombeck-Wikipedia; all others courtesy Julia Roberts