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Virtual belly laugh

Virtual belly laugh

Lauren Durham ’22 November 18, 2020

Virtual conferences are usually no joke — and often no fun. This year, #VirtualErma broke that mold and left attendees with virtual belly laughs and actual LOL aftershocks.

Every two years, the University of Dayton gathers the brightest and wittiest writers for three days of learning and laughing. The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, named after the University of Dayton’s most humorous alumna, has welcomed novelists, comedians, screenwriters and students since 2000. This year, the workshop was given its new nickname — #VirtualErma.

Teri Rizvi, executive director of strategic communications at the University of Dayton and founder of the workshop, initially wondered if a virtual conference would capture the same camaraderie and spirit “Erma champions” have come to know and love in person.

“We’ve all been on Zoom calls that are sort of deadly, and how do you bring people together in that format over two and a half days and capture them?” Rizvi said. “And yet, I think we were able to do it.”

The attendance nearly doubled, with almost 700 people logging into #VirtualErma Oct. 29-31. Eight countries were represented.

Peggy and Mike Rowe — a famous mother-and-son duo who live nearly 3,000 miles apart — virtually reunited and served as keynote speakers on opening night. Mike Rowe, best known for his show Dirty Jobs, praised his mother who became a New York Times Best Seller at the age of 80. Peggy Rowe credits the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop for the confidence that led her to becoming a published author.

In a post written after the keynote session, Mike Rowe reflected on his journey.

“My mother and I wound up at the Erma workshop because we were both encouraged along the way by a man who loved us [Mike’s dad], by friends who liked us, and by strangers who found us mildly interesting,” Mike Rowe said.

Adding to the audience was a record number of student attendees. For the first time, the workshop was free to UD students. According to Rizvi, the attendance nearly doubled from previous years and included students majoring in everything from communication to engineering.

Katrina Kittle holding a mug with the quote," If you can't make it better, you can laugh at it."
Katrina Kittle

Katrina Kittle, a creative writing professor at UD and an Erma workshop veteran, said she always looks forward to attending the conference as both a presenter and attendee. Her session this year was Wooing Your Muse: Rediscovering Inspiration and Jumpstarting Your Writing. Kittle adds the workshop her personal list of inspiration.

“It was the perfect reminder that the humor saves us. If you can’t fix it or you know you can’t change it, you can laugh at it,” Kittle said. “There is always that connection through humor that [Erma] was so, so good at.”

“It was the perfect reminder that the humor saves us.”

In a year of uncertainty and anxiety, there seemed to be an overwhelming sense of joy as writers and long-time friends reunited.

Rizvi said, “Here we are in the midst of a surging pandemic and a very volatile election season, and I think people just needed the opportunity to step back and laugh.”

Read what attendees had to say about #VirtualErma:

  • “I conduct conferences virtually on my job. These are not easy to do. Holding the audience is tough if you’re not delivering, and I want you to know that you held me every minute of the 2 1/2 days.” [Rizvi has a blog post on the 8 tips to creating a wildly successful virtual conference.]
  • “I ended the conference feeling more encouraged and growing in confidence that I am a writer and can succeed.”
  • “I live in Seattle but am a UD grad — BA and MS in English. I'm excited to see my alma mater take such a national role in this arena. I definitely went away inspired!”
  • “I have to give you all a standing ovation for doing a virtual conference that knocked it out of the park. It far exceeded my expectations, and how everyone conveyed LOVE and encouragement was amazing.”
  • “That was by far the smoothest online gathering I have attended during the pandemic in terms of technology and flow. BTW, I’m still having LOL aftershocks.”

Another unexpected bonus of the virtual format is a gift that will keep on giving: The recordings of each session will remain on the website for a full year, allowing attendees to watch and re-watch their favorite presenters. Those interested can still register and access all the workshop sessions through 2021. The next workshop will be held in March 2022.

Laugh out loud