The Help Desk: how to teach the lottery

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

I'm a published novelist who makes a fair amount of income teaching writing classes on the side. And I have a secret: the truth is that most of my students will never get anywhere because they don't work hard enough. I mean, I tell my students that working at writing is the most important part, but they don't seem to listen. Too many things — work, social life, video games — get in the way.

I always want to be flat with them and say that if they're not willing to put in the time at writing, they shouldn't bother taking my class. But this is how I get paid. So instead I offer encouraging words and watch while they flush their dreams down the toilet by playing Halo 46 until three in the morning or whatever. Many of these students are more talented than I am, but I just can't get the idea that writing a lot is the secret to writing well through their heads. Do you have any advice for me?

Seamus, Port Townsend

Dear Seamus,

I hate to break it to you but that doesn't qualify as a secret. Most writers know that their odds of "getting anywhere" are slim, just as they instinctively know the sun is an attention hog, gravity's a drag, and vegan bicycles are the most insufferable type of bicycle. That's not the point. As I see it, there are two main motivators for taking a writing class:

  1. Being around other writers, and getting the chance to read their work, pass judgement, and get feedback on your writing.
  2. Having artificial deadlines imposed on your work.

People also enroll in your classes for the same reason I line my underwear with lottery tickets: there's hope embedded in the ritual. Which means your job — as a successful writer, mentor to other writers, and gatekeeper of hopes and dreams — is to impose those artificial deadlines, give good feedback, and facilitate discussion. Keep in mind that being a successful writer isn't like being an astronaut or child bride — there are no age restrictions. Students who are dedicated Halo drones today can develop the discipline it takes to finish a manuscript five or ten years from now. So tell them the truth but don't belabor the point: great writing takes time, discipline, and talent. Then smile, take their money, and invest at least half in underwear lottery tickets. Odds are you'll regret it but just think: what if you don't?