The other day, I dug out some of my old report cards. I had to laugh at the comments added by my teachers. As you may have expected, during the entire time I attended public school, I never once received an “A” in conduct. From the first grade through the twelfth, the same comments were pretty much the same.
“Cappy is a good student but she talks too much.”
My sixth grade teacher was psychic. Her first six-week report was:
“Cappy has an unusual way of expressing herself both written and orally. This is excellent.”
However, her comments during the rest of the year were: “I wish Cappy would not talk so much in class,” which translates to: “Cappy needs to put a lid on it.”
I write this today because if you are a teacher reading this post, I hope you will never underestimate your students. I don’t say this to place a bigger burden on you, but it can make all the difference in the world in how a student turns out.
My ninth grade English teacher asked me to stay after class one day. I figured I was once again about to get the now familiar lecture that I talked too much. On the contrary, she told me to give serious thought to majoring in either journalism or English when I went to college. Alas, instead of heeding her advice, I went along with the same major all my friends chose — Elementary Education.
I was 35 years old before I went back to college and studied nothing but English and Journalism. Only then did I take writing (and myself) seriously.
I try not to think about all the years I wasted. You see, I love to write. It is the most fun I ever have and I feel incomplete when I am not sitting at my computer typing words.
Several years ago, I attended the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop in Dayton, Ohio. As a humor writer, I was in very good company. Humorists from all over the country were there as well, all of them hoping to become more skilled at making people laugh.
This is what I learned: Humor writing cannot be taught. Basic techniques can be learned and implemented but in order to write funny, one must first possess good comedic timing and a liberated sense of humor.
The first writer’s conference I ever attended was in La Jolla, California in 1975. Was I inspired? You cannot imagine. The following piece is what I wrote after returning home.
Dear Erma Bombeck,
Thank you for saving me a lot of money I’d have blown on Prozac, cheap wine and a shrink session. Lord knows, I can't afford to be institutionalized.
You may wonder how you came to be involved in my personal plight. It all began at a writer’s conference in La Jolla. (Actually, it started in ninth grade when Miss Dibble corrected my misspelling of the word subtle, then casually remarked, "Cappy, you have a flair for writing." But that's another story.)
Armed to the hilt with six sharp pencils, I enrolled at the workshop because I thought I was a rare flower ready to unfold. Miss Dibble done tole me so! I tore into class with the fever pitch of a politician running for re-election. I wasn’t brilliant, but by cracky I had passion.
I hung onto every word I heard. My enthusiasm, dangerously close to fanaticism, ballooned with each scratch of my sharpened pencil. By the end of the workshop, I could hardly wait to plant my fat fingers on a keyboard.
As though possessed, I raced to the corner office supply and bought one of everything. I admit to having a silly grin and a devil-may-care kind of madness about me that day. By nightfall, I was dizzy with hundreds of creative ideas for building better mousetraps or manuscripts, as the case may be. Between flashes of pure genius and subsequent fantasies of winning the Pulitzer, sleep eluded me. I ask you Erma, could you have slept?
Before the sun came up the next morning my tush was planted squarely in front of my computer and I was itching to get words on paper.
However, for four hours, nothing happened. By noon, my fingers hovered frozen in an arc over the keyboard. Before long, my hands and legs were numb so I slid to the floor and curled into a fetal position. I looked down and saw that my feet were the color of blueberries.
Eventually, I crawled to the kitchen where I dumped a bowl of sugar into a quart of Gatorade and bolted it down, determined to get my golden words on paper before arthritis set in.
Boosted by the sugar rush, I once again squared off in front of my keyboard to await the flow of genius I was certain would fly from my now tingling fingertips.
An hour later, it became painfully obvious that a warm-up was needed.
So I typed the alphabet four times and then banged out the names of everyone in my family including the two looney cousins nobody wanted to claim. I needed no brainiac to convince me that I was Stuck City’s newest resident. The contempt I felt for that big mouth Miss Dibble at that moment might well have resulted in a lifetime prison sentence.
I sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor searching the bookshelf above for self-help. Erma, your book, "At Wit's End," jumped right out at me. As soon as my fingers touched the cover, I felt a warm tide of relaxation flow through my frozen body.
After reading the chapter entitled, What's a Nice Girl Like Me Doing in a Dump Like This? I took the gun away from my temple.
The chapter, I Want to be More Than Just Another Pretty Face made me shred the shrink’s phone number and unload the b.b. gun. I felt like marching out of Stuck City to my home base of Manickville while laughing all the way.
For over a week, I have shuffled around the house with copy paper in one hand and a worn copy of your book in the other. I giggle from time to time recalling a funny line. (It takes such a little bit to make me happy.)
So I thank you, dear woman as does my family. Before the month is over, I could be released from mandatory therapy. I can hardly wait to remove that annoying little alarm bracelet that goes off every time I step outside. With any luck I’ll soon get back to writing because you, Erma Bombeck, have convinced me that laughter is indeed the best medicine!