“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” - Erma Bombeck
Depending on your age, last week I reminded you or introduced you to Erma Bombeck, the American humorist whose weekly column was read by more than 30 million people in 900 newspapers from 1965–1996. I intended to write just one column about her but as I came to the end of my first one, there was still much more I wanted to tell you.
I loved her writings then. I still do.
Just recently I picked up again William Zinsser’s great book Writing About Your Life (2004) in which he says several things that remind me of Erma Bombeck. “All writing is talking to someone else on paper. Talk like yourself.” She always did that. That was part of the charm. She didn’t try to sound sophisticated, though with her excellent training she was capable of profound insights. But whenever you read her words, you always felt like you were sitting down with your next door neighbor.
Zinsser also said, “Write about things that are important to you, not about what you think readers will want to read, or editors will want to publish or agents will want to sell. If it’s important to you, it will be important to other people.” Without a doubt, Erma wrote about what was important to her.
Here are some more of her classic insights.“My kids always perceived the bathroom as a place where you wait it out until all the groceries are unloaded from the car.” And, “Thanks to my mother, not a single cardboard box has found its way back into society. We receive gifts in boxes from stores that went out of business 20 years ago.”
Erma loved writing about her family. “I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.” Only a parent can understand her when she says, “Never have more children than you have car windows.” And only a grandparent knows this: “A grandmother pretends she doesn’t know who you are on Halloween.”
Erma had the capacity to connect us to the larger world in which she lived. It is what Zinsser described when he wrote, “Your biggest stories will often have less to do with their subject than with their significance: not what you did in a certain situation, but how that situation affected you. Walden isn’t really a book about how Henry David Thoreau spent his days at Walden Pond. It’s about what went through his head for two years at Walden’s Pond.”
Erma always let us into that personal mental place whenever she wrote. Listen to what she is thinking in these words: “For years my wedding ring has done its job. It has led me not into temptation. It has reminded my husband numerous times at parties that it’s time to go home. It has been a source of relief to a dinner companion. It has been a status symbol in the maternity ward.”
Or, “Dreamers have only one owner at a time. That’s why dreamers are lonely.” And, “Who in their infinite wisdom decreed that Little League uniforms be white? Certainly not a mother.” Just about everyone can agree with her when she observed, “Sometimes I can’t figure designers out. It’s as if they flunked human anatomy.”
At the end of his writing quest, Zinsser said, “I’ve stopped worrying about conditions that I can’t control or change. I just do what I came to do, as well as I can.”
Erma said it this way, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’”
It certainly seems to me as though she did.
Think about it.
Dr. Don Meyer is President of the University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville. Responses can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Official page: Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer. Follow on Twitter: @DrDonMeyer. Archives at: valleyforge.edu/thinkaboutit.