4.18.2014

Phil Donahue Saved My Writing Soul

I went to Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop desperately seeking my funny. Not sure what to expect, but there was plenty of funny to go around.

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 had the goods, and it was 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 try and 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 an advertising 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 fucking asshole board of ed members from neighboring towns that think it’s funny to make ammunition jokes to grieving parents. I write letters to the editors and speeches about gun violence and blog about it sometimes, to Paul Revere 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 me!! 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 it's the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop and these people are funnnnnnyyy! Everyone is a comic 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 single 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. Seriously, who wudda thunk it? Selected as the keynote speaker because he and Erma were Dayton neighbors and lifelong friends. He talked about love, friendship and his never-ending admiration for Erma, her groundbreaking work, her bravery to say what hadn't been said, and the power of the written word. 'This power is in your hands,' he said. 'You have the distinct opportunity to write about everyday life and share your stories.' And because we had the talent, we 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 your children on a schoolbus expecting them to be safe, to come home, and when they don’t ...


Can. Not. Breathe.

A writer gently puts her hand on my shoulder. 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.

My three days in Dayton were extraordinary, 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.

*Please commit to doing any action possible to make a positive change where you live, so our story doesn't become your story. Join a group in your community. Send an email. Be a friend. Find a cause. Share on Facebook. Hold a sign. Make a difference.

25 comments:

  1. I liked you from the minute I met you; loved you after hearing your story; and committed to remaining connected to you forever after spending three days with you.

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    1. you opened that can of worms, and now look what you've done. i'll never be able to thank you enough. ever.

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  2. Thank you Thank you. Yes, and everyone please understand, it's not mental illness or guns, it's guns and mental illness.We are proding insane society.sane. One in which those who really care about children are stifled and the prevailing mantra has become Cover Your Ass. The love of guns even after Newtown reflects a sick society.

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    1. Change the conversation. Change the culture. Change the laws. It's a slow process, election year by election year, but we have no choice to to prevail. Thanks for your support, and w your help, Newtown will become the place where real change began.

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  3. How brave of you to attend. How wonderful that Phil spoke directly to you. This conference is so powerful it astounds me. Welcome back to telling your stories. And for the record, I can hear the humor in you even as you write this moving piece. You. Can. Write. Looking forward to more.

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    1. Thanks Amy. I have the mug, working on the motto. Day by day, post by post. But it will happen; thanks to erma and her fans like you, there's nothing in the way now.

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  4. Wow. First thing I read this morning... this will stick with me all day. I wish I had known your story, I myself got a bit overwhelmed trying to learn about all the people I would be meeting. I know I already told you, but your smile is radiant...and so is your writing. And. I will hold you to that glass of wine next time. :-)

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    1. Next time for sure, or earlier. Thanks for understanding my reluctance and avoidance: it won't happen again!

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  5. Beautiful post! So glad you attended and so glad to meet you there!

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  6. Kate Mayer is a anti-American Fraud, with connections to crony-criminals, she's stated she wants to remove 1st Amendment after they get a Nazi-inspired Gun-Registry to weaken 2nd Amendment. A dangerous, vapid traitor.

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  7. Kate, I'm in awe of your strength and resilience, and your ability to gather together the strands of your experience into this powerful post, which I'll be sharing. And yes, when Phil Donahue spoke about putting children on a school bus and expecting them to come home again, my own thoughts went straight to Newtown. I had not met you yet, but I'm so glad that I did. Honored that I did. I'm looking forward to reading more of your work.

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    1. Marci, thank you so much for your presence (scooter and all). Seeing your face in a room was often all I needed to enter it. we will be friends forever for that i am sure.

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  8. Kate,
    Bravo, it's so difficult, but you did it! You articulated your emotions and you captured the spirit of the conference. I think you also open the door for a lot of people who despite being funny, are experiencing real pain. Thank you for being you and giving a real voice and a real face to resiliency over tragedy. We are in your corner! XOXO

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    1. That's the key Jill, for sure. We all have a story, we all have tragedies to overcome, and we all need the support to do so. Thanks so much for yours!

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  9. Kate,
    You are courageous!!!!
    You are powerful!!!
    You are inspiring!!!
    You ARE a writer!!!
    I was there when you stood at the mike, I was there when Dan Zevin gave us the task of declaring funny words (I'm still stumped but I will struggle on!!!) You awed me with your vunerability, courage and grace. I am motivated these days by Brene Brown and her work. She refers to a quote by T.R. Roosevelt about being in the arena and daring greatly. You girl are IN the arena, you will prevail and you are "daring greatly". I was blessed to have met you. Thank you for your example.

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    1. you are kind! you are generous! you are very nice to sit next to me while I stumbled thru the workshops in a complete daze! Am googling brene brown now and will breathe her in. thank you!

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  10. Kathy- I am sure you were incredible as always. So happy for you to share your voice!

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    1. thank you andrea, thx for hanging in for the long haul!

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  11. I love this. Great stuff! Still so very glad we connected!

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    1. i think of you often my Tennessee friend. I think of how you sat next to me, just being, and I let loose a couple Newtown stories. Thank for listening and thank you for being.

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  12. So glad you found a place to heal your funny bone...the whole of you. Being patient.

    This is awesome. Big XO, you just inspire and rock in so many ways.

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  13. When I see the hate-spew, posted anonymously (i.e. cowardly) it only makes me more determined to support this author's cause. You want your guns? We want our children alive. I know which of those is more important. Sad that you don't.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. i hesitated whether to leave or delete the hate comment, and so glad I left it because YOUR comment was worth the venom posted. We're working hard here to make sure this never happens again, and glad to know you're on the team to make the world safer. grateful hugs from Newtown!

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