I went to Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop desperately seeking my funny.
When you’re surrounded by 300+ women writers and a handful of men all of whom are genetically talented, it has the distinct possibility to leave you crying in the bathroom. Forever alone. A girl and her cellphone. And a quite possibly a cocktail.
The Erma groupies were more than a little intimidating: books and columns and syndication and by-lines. Comics and screenplays and blogs and podcasts. Thousands of followers. YouTube and fan clubs.They had proof.
I got nuthin’.
And not only that, I had lost my funny and was dying, quite literally it seemed, to get it back. I was counting on Erma to come through: help me find my funny.
After Sandy Hook, I could no longer poke fun at the town I love to call home. It’s not easy to make fun of everyday life when that life stops abruptly with a simple, non-assuming text alert: LOCKDOWN.
So when Ermies asked what I wrote, I told them I was a copywriter: ‘I’m the kind of writer who gets paid.’ It was all the funny I could muster.
A couple pressed. What do you WANT to do? What do you LIKE to write?
I so wanted to answer honestly: I write congressman and senators. I write board of ed members from neighboring towns who make ammunition jokes to grieving parents. I write letters to the editors and speeches about gun violence, and blog about it sometimes, to warn people: WE WERE JUST LIKE YOU!!! Newtown is you! Don’t you get it? This could happen to you because it damn well happened to us!! This is not some made-for-tv movie, this is my life and it will be yours if we don’t do something now!
But everyone here is a humor writer! People laughing, hugging and drinking, and everyone seemed to already know each other. Birds of a feather, you know? This was the place to be: surrounded by talented people not afraid to share what they know.
I’m telling you, my tongue swelled up to the size of my ass and 26 funerals of tears were right beneath the surface every time someone asked what I wrote. So I asked them instead, and they all answered the same: “I’m a humor writer, we all are all,“ one writer waved her hand to include the crowded room. “Like them, like Erma!” Family, work, marriage, school, kids, sports, divorce. I wanted to say that. I used to do that. But not anymore.
I did not belong here. I did not belong anywhere.
Phil Donahue to the rescue. Didn’t see that coming. Selected as the keynote because he and Erma were Dayton neighbors and lifelong friends, he talked about love, friendship and her groundbreaking work – her bravery to say what hadn’t been said. ‘This power is in your hands,’ he said. ‘You have the distinct opportunity to write about everyday life and share your stories. And because you have the talent, you have the obligation, the responsibility, to do so.’
Or something like that. I don’t know really, because all of a sudden, in a room of 400 talented writers, he was talking to me. Just to me.
And then he said something about putting children on a schoolbus expecting them to be safe, to come home, and when they don’t . . .
Can. Not. Breathe.
One of the first but far from the last of powerful, life-changing and life-affirming moments of the conference. I was sad, yet so very determined to tell our story, because it is only through our stories, funny or not, that the world can become a better place.
Three days at in Dayton were extraordinary: my first conference ever. And when the laughter died down I learned this above all: the line between tragedy and comedy does exist, and while laughing in the face of any horror is nearly impossible, the only way through the tears and darkness is with laughter and light.