The Help Desk: Writing residencies at the end of the world

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,

All my friends who’ve done writer residencies swear by them. But they also don’t really have any work to show from their time away. As an aspiring writer with very little free time on her hands, should I be wasting writing time on residency applications? Or is it better to put that time toward, you know, actually writing?

Bea, Interbay

Dear Bea,

A question: how are you gauging your friends' productivity – by word count? – and why is it up to you to judge? Residencies have a lot to offer – for instance, Hedgebrook gives women weeks of uninterrupted time to write and revise alone in the woods (with very limited access to internet), while other organizations like Tin House are more workshop- and group-centered, and can be a great way to network with congenial non-spiders.

Even the process of applying to residencies and workshops, which is a subtle but proactive way of affirming your identity as a writer, can be empowering. It can also be a great exercise in pitching your work, which you eventually will have to do with an agent or 50.

If you don't feel that any of that would be useful to you right now, keep your money in your wallet and spend your time honing your work. But it doesn't hurt to keep your mind and your ears open for opportunities that can strengthen your skills or inspire you.

For instance, this summer I am hosting the first writing residency for doomsday preppers. These brave and paranoid individuals spend much of their free time training for the end of the world, but I feel their storytelling skills use massaging, as they will be the keepers of human history until a new hive of superior beings colonizes our planet and enslaves them as benign pets.

The residency will take place July 20, 2018, unless America is reduced to ash before then. Space is limited but I am happy to send you its GPS coordinates for two cans of vegetables and a mule's weight in ammunition.




Dear Cienna,

My friend and I are big fans of your column. We look forward to reading it every Friday.

I have a problem, and I kind of know the solution. My friend sometimes ruins books I loan her, and it’s really a bummer because we trade books often. I know I should speak up, but it would make things weird and I like to avoid discomfort as a rule. So I’d like to be passive-aggressive and use your column as a semi-anonymous bulletin board, if that’s okay with you:


Thanks again for fighting the good fight, Cienna.

Joan, Wallingford

Dear Joan,

I am happy to help. If this polite note is not enough to curb her bad habits, use a dry sardine as a bookmark in the next few books your friend lends you until she is forced to broach the topic herself.