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Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Spotlight on Ernie Witham

Ernie Witham writes a humor column called "Ernie's World" for the Montecito Journal in Montecito, California. His column is syndicated through Senior Wire News Service.

His work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, the Santa Barbara News-Press, various magazines and anthologies including more than a dozen Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

He has won numerous awards including first place for humor writing and first place for screenwriting at the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference. He is a vice president of the Screenwriter's Association of Santa Barbara, a member of the Community Film Studios of Santa Barbara, and is on the permanent faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.

He had lead humor workshops at several other writers' conferences including: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cape Cod and Whidbey Island, WA. He has recently published his second book: A Year in the Life of a "Working" Writer. A Memoir to the Best of the Recollection of Ernie Witham a follow-up to Ernie's World the Book, a collection of his favorite columns.

Ernie Witham Part II

Scroll down for Part I

Do you find the world funny, and just record it? Or do everyday things become funny as you write about them? (Or maybe somewhere in between)
I almost always start off a speaking engagement by saying “Humor is everywhere!” I think I have always found funny, odd things in life. As a recent example… I love to shop for humor. If I can’t think of anything, I will often go to a store and poke around, watch people, see what’s on sale. So, I was at Costco, a big box store that sells just about anything you can imagine, and I noticed that they now sell caskets! Seriously. And they have them near the exit. I guess so people will see them and go “Whoops, forgot the coffins. Kids, go get some more of those large shopping carts.” But what made it even funnier was the brochure. As I was reading the features, like “quality mattress and adjustable pillow” I spotted the sentence that said: “Comes with a limited warrantee!” This begs all kinds of questions like how will you know if it fails? And if you do dig it up and decide to return it, what do you do with gramps?

So, I guess can’t help myself. Matter of fact, it’s getting harder and harder to take anything too seriously. Sometimes the more serious something is the more humor I see in it. My wife will ask me now if I want to do something like go to the orchid show and I will say: “No, I’ve already written about that. What else you got?”

But all writing, including humor writing, is a craft. Having a funny premise is one thing. Turning it into a 700-word piece with a beginning, middle and end is another. Oftentimes, as was the case with my last column on Memorial Day, the piece gets funnier as I write it. And I rewrite as long as I can. If I think a particular line could be funnier, I will rework it until I come up with something. Some of my pieces have been published half-a-dozen times in different publications and anthologies and if I think of a better line I will change it in the latest edition.

Your family members are often the people you write about, what have been the pros and cons of that?
I have a great big fun and funny family. Most of the time they don’t mind if I write about them. Once in a while at a family gathering someone will say: You’re not going to write about this are you? And I will stop typing on my laptop and say: “What? No. Of course not.” Sometimes the opposite will happen. They say: “I suppose you’re going to write about this.” And I can see that they want to be in this particular story. I almost always write self-deprecating humor, so they usually don’t look too foolish.

But my wife is the greatest. She is in almost all of my pieces. She is the voice of reason. I am the screw-up (lots of truth in that statement). In my book I had to use her name because I couldn’t keep referring to “my wife” for 256 pages. But in my column, she’s always just “the wife.” So sometimes we will attend a writer’s event and I will introduce her and someone will say: “You’re the wife?” Then they will want to know if it’s really like I what write about and – it is! We have great adventures together, like the time we rented a car in England and took turns – in sheer terror – driving on the wrong side of the road on these narrow country lanes. We were also laughing when weren’t holding our breath, so that was one of those pieces that practically wrote itself. Another thing that has happened though, is that I use my wife to relay information in my travel humor pieces. I will find a great fact or series of facts about a place and have my wife bring them into the piece via dialog. This gives me an opportunity to make a funny comment in response. But people don’t know that I’m doing this so they just assume my wife knows all this stuff! Pretty funny, actually.

One technique I like to use with my grandkids is role reversal. I make them the voice of reason. They always outsmart me (again, a lot of truth in that statement). At one time, I was podcasting my humor pieces and my wife would read her parts and my grandkids would read theirs. Kids are naturals and have very little fear.

What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m fighting off writing a memoir, a new novel and a screenplay. When I was younger I would just jump in and write. But now with several unpublished novels and unproduced screenplays, I’m hesitant about starting a new project. Probably because I know then next one I have to do right – research, outline, multiple rewrites, all that stuff. I do hope to retire from my “regular job” in a few years. Then I think I won’t be able to talk myself out of it any more and I’ll have to start a big project. Until, then I keep pumping out “Ernie’s World” twice a month.

Final Words of Wisdom
Writing is magic. I can’t believe that I have written hundreds of humor pieces and published two books. But the one thing I learned early on is that if one wants to be a writer, one must write! Seems basic, but it’s true. I have met a lot of people over the years with a great idea, or a unique premise, or who can tell a great story. But they are not writers until they sit down and put in the work. It’s a love/hate relationship, especially when that little curser is blinking at you saying: “You can’t think of anything. You can’t think of anything.” But finishing something – a poem, a humor piece, a short story, whatever, and holding it in your hand or reading it on the page or screen is one of the most rewarding things I can think of. The world needs stories, especially humor, and I encourage everyone to give it a shot. I also highly recommend attending a writer’s conference. These are your people, our people. The energy is really high, a camaraderie is formed and inspiration is everywhere.

The Interview -- Ernie Witham

Part I 
Check back June 15 for Part II

Describe your writing process:
Ha! My writing process is to procrastinate as long as humanly possible, then write like my life (or in this case, my column) depended on it. My most recent column was due on Friday, but I had nothing. I attempted a few things, but hated them all. Then company arrived for the weekend. On Sunday we were all going to wine country for lunch and a few tastings. No way would I be able to write after that so I got up early and went into my home office at 7:30 am. All I had was the fact that I was going to have a four-day weekend upcoming on Memorial Day. By 10:30 am. I had banged out 715 words on what to do with my big weekend. It’s actually quite funny.

This is what I find the most fascinating thing about writing. Under pressure of deadline – for a scheduled piece, a new draft due to a publisher, a contest entry, etc. – we all have the capability of not only coming up with something, but surprising ourselves with the results. The muse amazes me all the time!  

Did you always know you were going to be a humor writer? How did that start for you?
Actually, I wanted to be a novelist. Some 20 years ago, I wrote a murder mystery and decided I should take it to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I knew there would be more than 300 students, but I had a leg up – a completed novel. It didn’t take long to figure out that a lot of people there had a novel, some had several, some had already been published. I also found out what I actually had was the dreaded “work-in-progress.” But there were a lot of different workshops at the conference and I tried several before stumbling into the humor workshop. Within minutes I felt like I was home. 

These people thought like I did, wrote short, which I find much easier, and loved to point out and laugh at the many facets of life. It was like a light had come on. That’s when the workshop leader said: “Hey Bozo, you’re leaning on the light switch!” But, despite that early setback, I listened and learned and, later in the week, shakily, I read a short piece I had written about my wife getting the flu and it got a couple of laughs. So over the next year I wrote several more pieces and brought them to the next year’s conference, including one on home repair that did very well. The workshop leader even asked me for a copy of it and at the closing ceremonies, they awarded me humor piece of the year. I had to stand up and read it in front of 350 people! I was scared to death, but after I got a few laughs, I started to enjoy myself and read with more pacing and got a lot more laughs. After that I was hooked. I went back to the conference year-after-year and when the workshop leader retired, they asked me to take over and I have been leading the SBWC humor workshop ever since.

How did you come to write a column? Was that your writing dream job?
After I won the humor award and read my home repair piece, people came up to me to congratulate me and someone suggested I get it published. 

“Great,” I said. “How do I do that?” 

Someone gave me the name of an editor at the Santa Barbara News-Press and I called her up. This was BE (before email). I left a message and waited. When she didn’t call back, I called and left another message. I was too naive at that point to know you weren’t supposed to bug editors like that. 

Anyway, after about a week of doing this, she called me up and said: “I got your messages. All your messages. Send me the piece.” 

So, I mailed it to her, waited a couple of days and called up to see if she had read it yet. When she didn’t call back, again I began leaving messages. Finally, she called and said something about “being quite persistent.” 

But she was nice, said she liked the piece and that she had a Home and Garden advertising supplement coming up and she might be able to use my piece in that. Then she said that best she could do was twenty bucks. I didn’t know whether that meant she was going to give me twenty bucks or whether I had to give her twenty bucks, but I said okay. A month or so later the supplement came out and sure enough, there I was in print! I immediately called her up to thank her. This is something I tell all my students to do. 

Getting published is a privilege. I always thank the editor. I also used the opportunity to see if I could write another piece and she said she had a spring fashion supplement coming up. So I wrote a piece from the guy’s point of view. Then I did a number of other supplements including wedding and back-to-school pieces.

As often happens in publishing, the editor moved on. I had a piece I had written on Father’s Day at the golf store, but the new editor didn’t think she could use it so she sent it to the editorial department. The editorial page editor called me up and said he’d like to run it on Father’s Day in the Voices section. He also asked for a photo. So when my step-daughter came home from school that day I was sitting in a chair facing my camera on a tripod and said: “Quick, I need you to shoot me.” 

Probably not the best thing to say to an angst-filled teenager who just wants to grab a snack and be alone in her room. But she did it and they ran my piece with the photo in the Sunday edition. A lot of people saw it. So, I called the editor, thanked him and asked it I could submit another piece. Over the next year or so, I wrote a piece for each holiday. They all ran with my photo. In essence, I was freelancing a column. I also submitted some pieces to the LA Times (which paid $300 per piece!). Again, both these editors moved on and I lost my connection, but about this time I was introduced to the published of the Montecito Journal at the writers conference and he gave me a spot. That was about 12 years ago and I have been writing “Ernie’s World” ever since.

I guess this is a dream job. I wish the paper’s circulation were higher. I also wish my syndicated (Senior Wire News Service) had more publications. But I love been published. I love seeing my name in print, my photo, and reading my column as if I were a reader not the writer. Thankfully, most times they make me laugh! I especially love the challenge of finding humor in every day situations and I love it when people told me they read it and it made them laugh. I get a lot of emails from folks remembering a similar thing that happened to them. I love this.

Stay tuned for Part II!