Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

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

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!

No comments:

Post a Comment