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Erma, in Her Own Words

By Teri Rizvi

Erma Bombeck, undoubtedly the University of Dayton’s most famous graduate and the country’s top female humorist, would disagree with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that “all educated Americans, first or last, go to Europe.”

“I always feel you can do Europe in a wheelchair,” Bombeck said before jetting off to Costa Rica for this year’s family vacation. Already on the nonfiction bestseller list, Bombeck’s 10th and newest book, When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home, tackles the ups and downs of traveling — from surviving continental breakfasts to “traveling with three kids and dragging a trailer behind us” on the tail of Ruby’s and Rusty’s RV called True Love.

For the past 26 years, Bombeck has chronicled life’s absurdities in her thrice-weekly syndicated column now carried by 700 newspapers. In a 1991 telephone interview with Teri Rizvi of the University of Dayton Quarterly, Bombeck chatted from her Arizona home about traveling, writing, her college days and taking risks.

UDQ: Why would anyone who lives in a place called Paradise Valley even want to take a vacation?

Erma (laughing): It’s a misnomer, that’s why. When the temperature is 122 degrees here, you’ll go anywhere.

UDQ: Have you been to Central America before?

Erma: We’ve never been to Central America. It’s just a matter of looking throughout the world and picking spots that aren’t hot spots. That’s pretty tricky. We subtract the places where we have been — we don’t want to go back and see the same place twice because we’re getting old — and then eliminate places where it’s probably not too safe to travel.

UDQ: You don’t keep a journal on these trips. Do you just record your impressions when you get back?

Erma: Exactly. Whatever surfaces when I get home I figure is important enough to remember (laughing).

UDQ: I understand you write the old-fashioned way — on a typewriter, instead of a word processor.

Erma: They don’t write funny.

UDQ: They write quicker, don’t they?

Erma: Quicker, but not funny. I have a Selectric IBM. When I bought it a couple of years ago, they said, ‘This is it. When it goes, it goes.’ When it goes, I’ll have it repaired. It’s comfortable for me. We have a word processor, but I don’t use it. I don’t even use the FAX machine. I’m lucky to plug in an iron (laughing). I have no patience. It’s really strange. I have patience with my writing — I can rewrite for weeks on end. But when it comes to assembling a box for Christmas, I can’t do that. I just want to rip it apart.

UDQ: Tell me about your writing process. How do you write? Do you set aside a certain time of the day, and if so, why aren’t you writing now?

Erma: I am. You just interrupted me at a page and a half. Discipline is what I do best. I can’t imagine any writer saying to you, ‘I just write when I feel like it.’ That’s a luxury, and that’s stupid. The same for writer’s block. If you’re a professional writer, you write. You don’t sit there and wait for sweet inspiration to tap you on the shoulder and say now’s the time. We meet deadlines. I write for newspapers, and newspapers don’t wait for anyone. You write whether you feel like it, you write whether you’ve got an idea, you write whether it’s Pulitzer Prize material. You just do it, that’s it. Discipline is what we’re all about. If you don’t have discipline, you’re not a writer. This is a job for me. I come in every morning at 8 a.m., and I don’t leave until 11:30 for lunch. I take a nap, and then I’m back at the typewriter by 1:30 and I write until 5. This happens five, six, seven days a week. I don’t see how I can do any less.

UDQ: A deadline is a great motivator, isn’t it?

Erma: It is! You can’t fool around. A lot of people who want to be writers sit around and say, ‘You know, when I get the kitchen cleaned up, and when I get the casserole made, when I pick up the kids from school, when I get the carpet cleaned, I’m going to sit down and write. They procrastinate all the time. Writing has to be a priority. I have a son who’s a writer in Los Angeles for made-for-television movies. He had a job in an advertising agency, and I told him, ‘If you’re serious, then you have to put it on the line. You have to take a risk. You have to say, I am a writer and quit the job.’ There comes a time when you have to stop talking and start doing. So he quit the job. If you’re going to make your living by it, that’s exactly what you have to do. Then go to the beach.

UDQ: Let’s talk about your memories of the University of Dayton. You first went to Ohio University before coming here, right?

Erma: It’s funny. I got a call the other day from someone in alumni records at OU. I was asked what recollections I had of Ohio University. The recollection I had was that a guidance counselor advised me quite strongly to get out of journalism and become a secretary. It was a kick in the head because I had been working on a newspaper (The Journal Herald, Dayton) for a year to earn money for tuition. Then I quit that job to get a college degree. He advised me to get out of journalism, that there was absolutely no hope whatsoever.

UDQ: Because of financial difficulties, you then came home and started to take classes at UD, where you majored in English. You often talk about the value of good teachers. Tell me about someone who had an impact on your life.

Erma: I always come back to one teacher. When you’re a writer, one of the things you need is some encouragement. UD was a streetcar college, and I lived at home. I had to have a part-time job in order to go there at all. I wasn’t involved in a lot of extracurricular campus things — pompoms and all that stuff — but I was invited to participate in The Exponent, the college magazine. Brother Tom Price ran the thing, and I also had him for a couple of English classes. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you contribute some humor to this?’ That was like a breath of fresh air. No one wanted anyone to write humor at that time. It was not exactly something that they lusted for. To make fun of someone or something takes a pretty thick skin. I started to write humor for The Exponent, and one day he said to me three magic words: ‘You can write.’ I needed it at that time. It’s all I needed as an impetus to keep going, and it sustained me for a very long time. Here’s a man who reads Jane Eyre, who knows all these things. This man knows what he’s talking about. I believed him. You need someone whom you respect to tell you something like that.

UDQ: Particularly when you’re young, and you don’t have the success that you have now.

Erma: You don’t have anything. Writers put it on the line all the time. They have to in order to see how good or how bad they are. It (your writing) goes out there, and they (editors) are going to tell you. They’ll let you know in a big hurry if you’re good or not. They move right on to the next one. What Brother Tom Price said was important to me. I’ve always thought that with UD that was the prime purpose with every student. You have to look at an individual and figure out where does this person fit and how can we help him get to where he wants to go. If you can keep that kind of individuality and that special attention, you’ve got something going for you. That’s what I got out of UD.

UDQ: Besides Brother Tom Price, I believe there was a priest here who influenced you to convert to Catholicism.

Erma: Father (Edwin) Leimkuhler, head of the religion department, who just died. I was seeing a lot of faith around me, naturally. You live with it at UD. I was a practicing Protestant, not someone just roaming around. I’m always very insulted when people say to me, ‘Did you convert for your husband?’ That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. You don’t take on something this important for anybody in the world. You don’t do that for somebody else, you do it for yourself. I was curious about the religion. I thought it had such power and strength. So I just wandered into his office one day and told him how I felt. I said, ‘I’m not committed to this. Don’t think for a minute that I’m going to convert. If I ask you a question and you can’t plain and simply answer this for me with some kind of rationale, I’m out of here. I’m history.’ He said, ‘Fair enough.’ So I took private instructions with Father Leimkuhler for a lot of months. To me, it was the best way to go. I brought maturity to it; I wasn’t just reciting catechism. It was a good time to come to it, and it works for me. It still works for me.

UDQ: When you look back over your life, would you have ever thought this kind of fame awaited you? Did you ever imagine it when you were writing your column for the Kettering-Oakwood Times or obituaries for The Journal Herald or that column called “The Owl” that you had in high school?

Erma: Even further back than that. Even growing up on Bainbridge Street in the Haymarket District. Running barefoot down to the Goodwill and giving 50 cents for a formal dress that I didn’t need. The idea that you would ever surface is just amazing. I took my husband recently to the American Booksellers Association convention. I said, ‘You’ve got to see the ABA before I hang it up.’ We were standing there amidst three floors of nothing but new books. I said, ‘Now you tell me how am I going to cut through all of this?’ The competition is so great. But the book, just two weeks ago, made the bestseller list.

UDQ: Have you had any thoughts of ‘hanging it up’?

Erma: If I don’t have anything more to say, I’ll be the first to know that. But I don’t see that yet. I’m still opening up the paper and seeing Demi Moore with nothing but a wedding ring. I say, ‘Thank you, God’ (laughing). I’m in business again.

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