At Wit’s End: Tips for Writing Funny — From Erma Bombeck

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When Writer's Digest reached out to let us know they'd uncovered an interview with the legendary humorist Erma Bombeck from the 1970s, we jumped at the chance to take a listen.

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As her voice filled the walls of my office at the University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop I couldn't help but think what a gift it was that Erma had agreed on that long-ago day to be a part of Writer’s Digest's audio cassette series.

During an hour-long interview with veteran Cincinnati journalist Alice Hornbaker for “The Writer’s Voice,” Bombeck’s self-deprecating wit, humility and warmth reminded me why she is one of the greatest humorists of our times.

The reel-to-reel taped interview, now digitized, is part of a large volume of archival interviews, both audio and in print, that the magazine will release soon. It’s available now in an online museum, ErmaBombeckCollection.com, housed at the University of Dayton Archives.

During the laugh-punctuated conversation, Bombeck reveals that her children never read her columns or books, counts Robert Benchley and Jean Kerr among her favorite humorists, and waxes philosophically about the art of writing. Some highlights:

This guest post is by Teri Rizvi, founder and director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop (humorwriters.org) at the University of Dayton, where she also works as executive director of strategic communications. The highly popular biennial workshop, co-sponsored by Writer’s Digest, is the only one devoted to humor and human interest writing in the country and sells out within hours. The next one is April 5-7, 2018.

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On writing humor:

In humor, more than anything else, in order to be believed, I think you have to draw very heavily from your own experiences. …I went to a style show recently and I looked at these women with the concave stomachs walking around on the runway and it occurred to me at that moment, “Good grief, no wonder my clothes look lousy on me. I don't know how to walk.”

On learning to write funny:

It’s going to sound so immodest, but I really think you have to have a leaning toward it. …You either see things funny or you don’t. I think a lot of people have such inhibitions. When you write humor, you can’t have any inhibitions. You have to set yourself up and just be as ridiculous and zany (as possible). …When you write humor, you have to bare your soul to people.

On first-person writing:

I found a very long time ago that the only people that you could write about and would not get rotten mail on would be maybe Adolf Hitler. Then I think he would probably rise up from wherever he is and write you a letter saying, “I wasn't all that bad.” But when you make fun of yourself and you’re the scapegoat — you’re the mother in the white socks at the supermarket — people will accept that. But they’re a little bit uneasy about having you make fun of them or someone else.

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On her style of humor

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I like exaggeration. I love it. …Some people use shock treatments. I like the exaggerated form of humor because I think it’s really insane. It’s so silly and so obvious to people. I like the identity approach, too, where (it’s) so close to home. Like you have the children who look at one another and say, “Make him stop looking at me.” This is a big trauma in their lives. You can use these little tools (to make) people laugh at themselves. … I like zingers at the end. I always like surprises. It's the O. Henry Syndrome.

On her writing process:

I sit down around 8:30 after the kids have all cleared out. I don't touch a dish. I just let the egg get hard on the plate, and I don't make any beds. I don't do any dusting, any flushing, anything.

On discipline:

if you’re going to be really brutally honest with yourself, it takes more discipline than you can ever imagine it takes. I’ve taken my typewriter to the hospital with me for kidney infections. I have taken it on camping trips, and the sand has gotten in the keys. It is just like the most fierce habit you can imagine. You can’t get it off your back. It is there, and it stares at you like a conscience. I really don’t want to discourage anyone because, Lord knows, we need a lot of humor, but it really is discipline. It just is. It’s discipline when you've got a headache. It’s discipline when someone dies. It’s discipline when you don’t want to write. It’s discipline when you think the world is really falling apart at the seams, but that's how it is.

On the art of writing:

Journalism teachers were always saying, “Write about what you know,” and I don't know of any situation where I have followed this more closely than in my own experience, because this is it. This is my turf, this is where I live. …Even after eight years, I'm going into my ninth, I still labor over (my columns), and I anguish over them, and I mother them, and I give birth to them.

On developing the writer’s voice:

in order to write well, you have to read. I don’t see how you can get around that. People are always afraid that if they read humor, or they read great works of literature, that they’re going to steal. That’s not possible. …I don’t think you can steal style. I think style is something that is so personal. …I think every single person in this world has a way of saying something and it’s very unique and it belongs only to you like a fingerprint.

Now digitized, the full interview and transcript are available in the audio clips section of the at the University of Dayton, which sponsors the biennial, popular Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Writer's Digest is one of the co-sponsors of the workshop, the only one devoted to humor and human interest writing in the country.

The Erma Bombeck Collection, which is cared for by the Bombeck family, the University of Dayton Archives and Special Collections or Wright State University Special Collections and Archives, includes all things Erma — from family photographs and biographical excerpts from the only authorized biography on the humorist to “Good Morning America” clips and “Maggie” sitcom episodes.

Thanks for visiting The Writer's Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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