Pass the Guilt Please

I had just returned from a wonderful time at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop held in Dayton, Ohio. After visiting with fellow writers for a couple of days, I surmised that most of them there were humor columnists, many of them weighing in Erma-style on the challenges of motherhood and providing slice-of-life humor. Among the many events, we had a chance to meet Erma’s husband Bill, and her three children. After the showing of a documentary about Erma’s life, they had graciously consented to field some questions from the attendees. After a few questions, a mini-theme emerged. “How much are we messing up our kids by writing about them?”

We were encouraged, however, by noting that the Bombeck offspring all seemed to be normal functioning adults with jobs and families. Erma’s son, Andy, reached for the mike. Taking a few moments to scan the crowd, he sized us up. “There’s a lot of guilt in this room, isn’t there?”

I have been telling “Scott stories” since the day he was born and peed on the doctor. (Perhaps that is why we lifted his name from the toilet paper dispenser in the hospital bathroom after the birth certificate lady was on her third time through.) As we writers began to relate these stories gleaned from the antics of our young children, it never occurred to us to consider that the day would come when these same children who have been, and will continue to be, fodder for our writings would be able to read. (Okay, it was the paper towel dispenser, but we have always told him it was the toilet paper. Poetic license.)

I solved the problem by doing what any good writer does when sharing an experience that belongs to someone else—asking permission and paying royalties.

“Can I use the ‘Kermit the Frog’ in my talk in church today?”

“Will you buy me a new Ninja Turtle?”

For a ten-year-old he was pretty smart. He always granted me one-time North American rights, knowing I would have to renegotiate the next time I wanted to use it.

“How much for ‘Get Your Arm Away from the Door?’”

“Star Wars Legos. The one with Yoda and Darth Vader.”

“Okay, the mini set though, not the big one.”

“I guess the mini set is okay. That one is not too embarrassing.”

As a teen-ager, he was an even shrewder negotiator.

“I’m working on a book with a chapter about personal responsibility, and I want to use ‘What have you done, Mom?’”

“That’s gonna cost you! Geez Mom, I’ve been toilet-trained for 15 years. Can’t you find some new material?”

“A classic is a classic. A Bloomin’ Onion from Outback?”

“A Bloomin’ Onion and a deck of Magic Cards.”


“I’m also using ‘Gas Money’ and the Easter Egg story, but I figure those are mine because I’m the one that looks stupid in them.”

“They’re not worth anything without my punchlines.”

“The Mustang or the Camaro?”

The kid’s cleaning up. Of course, what do you expect of someone who is named after a roll of paper towels?


  1. I do that! I started when they were young and offered a flat cash rate. I feel no guilt. That costs extra.

  2. This is good! You sure addressed something most humor writers deal with. I'll bet it was very interesting to meet Erma's family.


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