Fluffy Robes and Prose

Posted Nov 30, 2023

By day, Kara Kinney Cartwright is a legal editor from North Potomac, Maryland, but her superpower is “trying to save the world with punchy humor about unwritten social rules and expectations.”

A widowed mother, she’s writing a book “for grieving Gen-X and Millennial women who would sooner cut their own bangs than seek advice for a ‘spiritual journey.’”

Annmarie Kelly-Harbaugh, the Shaker Heights, Ohio, host of the literary podcast “Wild Precious Life,” wants to write and stage a humorous parenting show in Cleveland and replicate it around the country. That’s only after “a decent night’s sleep. Maybe a shower. For the trifecta, breakfast that isn’t cut-off crusts from my children’s peanut butter lunch.”

Meet the two grand prize winners of A Hotel Room of One’s Own: The Erma Bombeck | Anna Lefler Humorist-in-Residence Program. They will receive complimentary registrations to the April 4-6, 2024, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, where they will be “robed” in plush, custom-embroidered bathrobes as the winners of a two-week writer’s residency at the Marriott at the University of Dayton.

The perks for the winners? Free room service. A housekeeping staff. An omelette bar. And, most importantly, the gift of time to write. 

In all, the contest attracted 243 applications from 40 states coast to coast, Washington, D.C., and four countries — Australia, Canada, Spain and the UK. 

Dozens of authors, bloggers and humorists served as preliminary judges and narrowed the field for finalist judges improvisor Dion Flynn, best known as Barack Obama (and other characters) on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and comedy writer Monica Piper, head writer for the #1 children’s animated series Rugrats. They selected the two grand prize winners, a finalist and six honorable mentions. Here are the other writers receiving recognition:


Aprilll Brandon
Somerville , Massachusetts

Honorable Mentions:

Gracie Kairis
Springfield, Oregon

Talia Argondezzi
Phoenixville, Pennsylvania

Megan Bannon
Nashville, Tennessee

James Folta
Brooklyn, New York

Kristy Dewberry
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Ben Ren
Chaska, Minnesota

Grand prize winner Kinney Cartwright developed the concept for her book after her husband died of a rare form of cancer. “It’s for women who are enraged, devastated or bewildered by loss and don’t want a spiritual guru or checklist for how to feel better. Like me. What we need is someone to say, ‘I get it. This situation is utterly surreal. It’s beyond terrible. It’s totally unfair. Also, keep going and try not to destroy yourself or the people you love.’”

She plans to use her hotel time completing her manuscript, which will include both humorous and “sympathetic yet resentful” chapters along the lines of “I’m Sorry You Won the Grief Olympics” and tips like “Meditation for Screamers.”

The judges said Kinney Cartwright is a natural for the residency. “It’s not every day I laugh out loud about someone’s dead husband, but then again it’s not every day I read a simultaneously hilarious and heart-wrenching Erma submission,” Piper said. “From first word to last of this cleverly conceived and brilliantly written application and sample, I am deeply convinced that the world needs this book and the writer needs the time and space to write it.”

Grand prize winner Kelly-Harbaugh envisions developing a theatrical piece with 10 women sharing their funny, sometimes heartbreaking, stories about motherhood, such as “the time you blow-dried your child’s butt at the Art Museum,” she wrote in her application. “About what on earth to do with the tooth fairy teeth. About that day your 2-year-old son sang ‘Hang on Sloopy’ naked on top of the car.”

The mother of three and caretaker of “an assortment of dying houseplants, she’s also “sitting on drafts of two young adult rom-coms and another book proposal in various stages of disrepair.”

The judges loved her clever pitch. “This candidate is funny. Economical with her words. She stays in the funny zone and then ever so slightly leans into the emotionally touching zone,” Flynn said.

Anna Lefler, a Los Angeles-based comic novelist and writer who underwrote and helped create and launch the program, said the two writers are a perfect fit for the residency. “These are two of the strongest and funniest submissions I’ve ever read,” she said. “Naturally, I’m threatened and wish I had written them myself, but whatever. Huge congrats to our winners!”

More than anything, the two grand prize winners appreciate the gift of time that the residency affords.

Kelly-Harbaugh scribbles words in “stolen moments” and looks forward to writing without distractions. “My kids are potty-trained and finally old enough to microwave ramen noodles. It’s time,” she said. “I’ve carried these stories in my pockets long enough. I scribble in the morning or after the kids are in bed. Yesterday, we ate a cereal dinner because I was caught up in a story.”

Kinney Cartwright attended the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop 10 years ago. “I know exactly how inspiring it is to spend time with like-minded faculty and peers in a welcoming and creative laboratory. I also know how hard it is to capitalize on that energy after returning to Real Life. Two weeks in Dayton is precisely what I need to leverage the momentum of the conference and bring my book to life,” she said.

The April 4-6, 2024, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop is sold out, but interested writers are encouraged to put their name on a waitlist. There’s still an opportunity to win a free registration (and $1,000 cash) through the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition, sponsored by the Washington-Centerville Public Library. Previously unpublished 450-word essays in humor and human interest categories will be accepted Dec. 4-Jan. 8.