Last weekI was at the Erma Bombeck Writing Workshop in Dayton, OH surrounded by about 450 humor writers, all brought together by  Erma Bombeck’s wit and her audacity to live her life large.

The conference and speakers were a great inspiration to me, and I dared see myself as rubbing elbows with the likes of Amy Ephron (bestselling author of  A Cup of Tea, and One Sunday Morning) or Cathryn Michon (Hollywood producer, writer/director/producer of Muffintop on Netflix.) When I returned home, I faced the inevitable bitch in my brain who mocked me soundly for getting too big for my britches. This is the gap.

There’s a gap between who you imagine you could be and who you are now.

Erma Bombeck was raising three kids in a tract house in Centerville, OH and she dared believe her life could be bigger than that, that her talent could bring her into millions of readers’ lives, onto television and more. It was not that her current life was lacking, but that she could pursue her gifts wherever they took her. She lived a fully realized and authentic life. The workshop that bears her name is a living legacy for how to do just that.

Because of Erma’s connections in the humor world and the respect she still commands, great speakers are the hallmark of this event. The keynoters alone were generous and inspiring, and I have to admit, bragworthy.

Just walking around hobnobbing and hosting sessions on humor writing and performing were comedy greats. I took a session with the Emmy Award winner, Alan Zweibel – Gilda Radner’s writing partner on SNL and co creator of The Gary Shandling Show. Like every comedian, he could recall his first joke to make it on air – you remember this one – about the new stamp commemorating prostitution from the US Post Office, for 10-cents. If you wanted to lick it, however, it would cost a quarter.

Genius joke.

Everything you ever dreamed of doing with your writing and sense of humor was modeled there, brilliantly. Stand-up comedy? Who better to mentor your first time on a stand-up stage than Wendy Liebman? She brought her skyhigh talent from her usual haunts like Jimmy Fallon and HBO, to our little Dayton, Ohio stage in the main ballroom at the Marriott. Man were we lucky. She was hysterical.

Is novel writing in your sites? There were agents, authors and even a 3-hour pitchapalooza to help you hone your next steps – whether you were in the get-your-ass-in-the-seat phase or the get-your-ass-out-there phase. I greatly appreciated the keep-yourself-going insights of Anna Lefler (author of Preschooled). 

Want to speak? Write a syndicated column? Or work in a writers’ room? There were ample guides and sessions and experienced people to model all of that for you. I attended Joel Madison‘s workshop on the Writer’s Room. As we actively helped him punch up a script, he told us the writer’s room is 1/3 think tank, 1/3 competition and 1/3 pigsty and the mental maturity level is equal to that of a 7th grade boy. (Duh, we’ve all seen TV sitcoms, right?) Does that sufficiently explain why those rooms are still 98% men? I think his other insight might explain it even better. He explained that Hollywood is not an idea business, it is a relationship business.

I came home AMPED UP. I had listened and laughed with Leighann Lord who spoke about her stand-up career, her parents getting old, her relationship to Erma and how she got started in the business. She was so connected to the audience, so alive with humor and goodwill, that I could see how I would like to speak, who I could become. Powerful.  Funny. Inspiring.

I came home with a NEW VISION of who I could/should be. Yes, I was going to find time in each day to write my novel. Of course I’d be bringing my creative assessment tools into writer’s rooms.

Then suddenly, devastatingly, I …saw … the… gap.

First you see your shiny future of who you could be. Slowly you remember who you are now. Plus, brave, beautiful you needs a nap. Needs to unpack. Maybe do some laundry. Not only do those visions fade, but your sense that you deserve them, or could realize them begins to vanish.

Next thing you know, you’re pretty sure you’re stupid and can’t do anything.

And just in case you get any bright ideas about trying, you throw up resistance about even the smallest accomplishments – like making dinner. (OMG, At the Erma conference there were beautiful meals and fascinating – and funny – people, your mind says as your lifeless body throws some hot dogs in a pan.)

It took me several days to remember that there is always a retraction after a big conference. It is only natural. After great expansion, comes retraction like a rubber band.

At the conference you had an empowered feeling, praise, hope and constant companionship, and hey, you envisioned a bold and amazing self. It was there for you and you knew you couldn’t go back to pretending that nothing you do matters.

Not long after you get home, and talk about it, you hear the “arrogance” in your stories. You see you had “fooled yourself.” Maybe you eat a cookie or two to feel better about your loss. Now you’re back to lowered expectations and “safety.” Now you clearly see the gap between who you are and who you know want to become, and it hurts. (More cookies, if you’re me. Maybe some jelly beans?) You go about proving to yourself that you can’t have that new vision, because of painful thought, painful thought and painful thought. 

Who is telling you this new story of who you can and can’t be? You think it is just you, being realistic. You have to recognize that the icky, painful person in your head who is dissing you and keeping you down, is not you. It is only a part of you. It is just one voice.

It is the gatekeeper – who will tell you lies and keep you afraid, rather than let you live a bigger life. It is one voice –  like the mother in the Rapunzel story, Tangled,  or the Old Nick in the movie Room. And just as those heroines had to distrust the gatekeeper, you have to face your fears, take the risk and see yourself in the bigger world. Remember when you walk through the fear, it will be exciting, with freedom, and sunlight and love.

I retract after each conference or event I go to. If you’re still in retraction mode – this blog’s for you.

It would be easy to pretend that I got going gangbusters the minute I got home. It would be easy to ignore that hard and painful week as unimportant. I was hoping, if I shared, this might help some others who are still in retraction. It’s time to reclaim your whole self and plot to quiet or escape the tyranny of your gatekeeper.