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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Long Live Erma


Image from BrainPickings.org, one of my favorite sites.

A renowned feminist theorist, a septuagenarian New York Times bestseller, and the first editor of Ms. Magazine walk into a bar. No. Scratch that.

Three accomplished, poised women sit at an unassuming folding table in an auditorium at a university in Dayton, Ohio. A wide-eyed audience filled with mostly middle and up-and-coming middle aged women stare back expectantly. A few aren't aware of the collective body of knowledge, depth and experience emanating from that table, and they are about to be blown away.

As the moderator steps up to the podium, I reluctantly wrap up my small talk with the fascinating woman to my right, who is both a landlord and an extremely sharp marketing executive with a warm wit, and turn my attention to the panel. I try to engage the part of my brain that is capable of following what I'm sure is going to be a serious, academic discussion. This means switching from my ongoing worry about whether Kurt is lost somewhere in Cincinnati with our assumedly naked, hungry children. He's probably out of gas and stranded in the Bad Part of town. Probably the one that appears on "The First 48" most frequently. Oh, god. 

And then best-selling author, tenured English/Feminist Theory professor, and recent Friar's Club inductee Gina Barreca bares her upper thigh so we can all get a good look at her tights, which are printed with pinstripe stockings, and I'm whisked away for the next hour and a half. The van has GPS and enough Goldfish Cracker crumbs to sustain the kids for a few weeks, and Kurt has been making me look bad by taking them for ice cream and the park all the time while I've been gone, anyway. I am allowed to be here and soak it in fully. And I do.

As the pace picks up, it's a wild ride. Gina frames longstanding feminist debate with a confidence that precludes a need for her to throw anybody under the bus. It's more about empowerment than it is about wasting time on those people who haven't yet decided that women are simply human. And that giggle we do when we're listening to a man tell us a long story about getting his car detailed? She's on to us. We're not listening, and we're not having a good time. We have to stop speaking in the interrogatory. This is not a question? I actually do have a name? It makes no sense to introduce yourself with a question mark at the end? My brain is singing. Oh, to be free for a few days of the endless quest for preparing the next meal, for matching up socks, for ferrying small children. 

And it just gets better. Ilene Beckerman is telling us about how she accidentally published a book, which was turned into a Broadway show, directed by none other than Nora Ephron. And she did it in her sixties. She's wearing a turquoise, sequined head scarf over her long, straight, delightfully lavender hair. Her nose ring glints in the stage lights and I can see her heavy eye makeup eight rows back. She's a beautiful gypsy, and she's hilarious. She assures us that she doesn't deserve to share the stage with these other women, but it's all lies. Her story is incredible and real, and I know I could sit with her for hours and soak it all in and still leave wanting more. 

I'm not sure what to expect from Suzanne Braun Levine. She looks so polished up there, exactly what I'd expect from someone with a list of accomplishments like hers. I'm intimidated, really. She has sat, elbow-to-elbow with Gloria-freaking-Steinem and casually changed the way women are perceived by society. Everyone in this room is in her debt. I'm actually a little nervous. And then she's telling us about how it all went down, about how Ms. started as a one-shot gag, an offshoot of New York Magazine. The editor thought it might be amusing to have a woman at the helm for this one-time publication. But women were hungry for that platform, and they raided every newsstand in town, and as is the case so often, money talks. Just like that, a new era was hatched and our voices grew more powerful overnight. 

Suzanne keeps talking and I can hear stereotypes I didn't know I had shattering in my head. She's real. She's strong and she's hilarious, warm, and self-deprecating. She explains that her kids don't even quite realize that she's an accomplished woman. She leaves newspaper clippings and awards lying around conspicuously sometimes, just in case they happen upon them and are shocked to realize this woman is their mother. I love it; I get it. I'm not going to be editing a groundbreaking magazine any time soon, but I get that dichotomy. No matter what I do, to my boys, I'm always going to be their mother first. It's a powerful realization. 

It's one of my many, many powerful realizations that I hit on during this all-too-short session at the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop. Many of them come from women in the audience. A woman asks about how to help shepherd the younger generation through the current "geek culture." Why aren't there stronger comic book heroines? Where's the Black Widow movie? Another woman asks how to protect our loved ones when we want to write about them. The unanimous response: just do it, and as Gina points out, your relatives are never going to read what you write, anyway. ;)

Oh, and about that moderator. Because this workshop seems hellbent on giving me value for every second of the full 2 and a half day experience, the moderator could run her own workshop if she wanted. Pat Wynn Brown is incredible. She deftly manages a complicated, rapid-fire discussion, adds her own stories (I'd pay good money for a book about her experiences as one of the first female mail carriers in Columbus), and juggles questions from the audience as well as any TV host I've seen. It must have taken hours to pull together the questions here (and she did this twice, two completely different discussions with the same women). But that's not enough for Pat. She's also our beloved emcee for the whole event. We get to enjoy her introductions and anecdotes at every meal, as if dessert with every meal wasn't enough of a gift. I might be a fangirl for Pat at this point.

And then something happens that I will never forget. Something that will keep me lining up for this conference as soon as the registration opens until they stop having it or until I am no longer here to enjoy it. A young woman approaches the mic. She's shaking, and as the room grows quiet, she says she is so glad she'd taken the leap to come here, because the experience has helped her to find her sense of humor again. She'd been hilarious once before, she explains, and then she adds: "I'm from Newtown, Connecticut." 

Now. Like everyone in the world with access to media, I've thought long and hard about Newtown since that awful day in December, 2012. But I didn't quite understand the weight of what it must mean to be from a place that is now so marked that a mere mention of the town's name can bring a room to tears, instantly. Her bravery and courage fill up that room with compassion and love, and I realize that this workshop is about so much more than networking and developing a so-called platform. 

It's about the why: Why we're compelled to write down the stories of our lives. Why humor is vital to every human, everywhere. Why we're all in this together. 

I could regale you with fantastic stories involving insomnia, wine, and assing it up in front of Phil Donahue. I could recount the incidents leading up to my 3-day investigation into where the hell the hotel housekeeping staff was holding hostage my Erma Bombeck wine glass. I could easily write this much about any of the workshops I attended. I could tell you about the instant bonding that so often occurs among Bombeckians, and how I'm already counting down the days until 2016, but I'm still savoring so much of it, just for me.

I will say this. Wherever writers gather in community, something special will happen. There's an energy we share, and it's capable of changing this world. I am beyond lucky to know so many people who aren't afraid to drag the bodies out into the light and examine them fully. I'm even luckier that so many of them will point out the stray upper-lip hair and the mismatched socks.

Long live the spirit of Erma Bombeck.

11 comments:

imeanit said...

Wow. Just wow. You nailed it.

Ronnie Walter said...

I was in that room, and all that power and history and belly laughs and tears was the driving force for the rest of the weekend for me. Beautifully said. Afterwards I had a blubbery (on my part) conversation with Suzanne about the impact that magazine had on me, my sisters, mother and father too. I visited grace in that room. Thanks for expressing it so well.

Elaine said...

Excellent.

Kathy (p/t writer, f/t mom) said...

I was in that room. I spoke into that microphone. And I could never have done so without the love, support, and generous spirit of the incredible panelists telling us to write our stories, whatever they may be, however hard it can be to get started. Thanks to writers like you, getting started becomes a tangible goal instead of an impossible dream. I can't thank you enough for this perfect picture of a great day.

Gina Barreca said...

This is a magnificent summary of the workshop's energy and the passion we all try to bring to it; I am honored to be mentioned and in your debt. Thanks a million.

Shannon from Deepest Worth said...

I was at the other session (the second) of this panel and I really wished I had attended it both times. I was overwhelmed by the conversation shared in that room. I will carry it with me always.
You described the experience of this conference so beautifully. My cells are still humming. I can't wait to go back!

Teri Foltz said...

YES! I was at the second session but the aura was the same. I love it!

Kari at A Grace Full Life said...

Everything you said, Yes, YES YESSS.
I cannot wait to go back in 2016.

Astra Groskaufmanis said...

"Wherever writers gather in community, something special will happen" BAM!
Thanks Sara - I was awestruck during this panel discussion. You brought it all home ...

Meryl Baer said...

What everyone else said. I was in that room too and it was energizing, inspiring, entertaining and more to be in the presence of such wonderful women.

Amy said...

Sarah, you are the reason I did not miss the second session of this empowering panel. You have brought it all together so well. I will refer back to this when my memory fades. Thank you!

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