Liz Kozak, a work-from-home mom and budding screenwriter from Oak Park, Illinois, longs to hole up in a hotel room and write a satirical screenplay about female friendships.
“I work from home, mostly in my bathrobe. I have two small children. This experience was made for me. And if I am ultimately not selected, please bestow it upon another mom who writes from home. She deserves to have someone else make up her bed while she makes up her future,” wrote Kozak in her winning application in A Hotel Room of One’s Own: The Erma Bombeck | Anna Lefler Humorist-in-Residence Program.
Kozak, director of editorial and content development at The Second City in Chicago, and fellow winner Tracy Brady, a communications and public relations professional from Carlisle, Massachusetts, will be robed in plush, custom-embroidered bathrobes as the 2020 winners of a writer’s residency that Forbes.com describes as perhaps “the best in the country.”
The biennial contest drew application from 396 hopeful writers from 44 states coast to coast as well as seven countries — Belgium, Canada, China, Germany, Spain, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Kingdom.
“Humor writing is my release, and my joy. I write because being funny makes me feel alive, and making people laugh is the best feeling in the world,” said Brady, who craves solitude from her family and work commitments to develop a “darkly comic novel about six bored stay-at-home parents recruited by the CIA to become government assassins.”
As part of the package for the winners, Kozak and Brady will be flown as guests to the April 2-4 University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. At the close of the workshop, they will remain at the Marriott at the University of Dayton for another two weeks to work on their proposed humor projects. It’s the first trip to Dayton, Ohio, for both of them.
The perks for the winners? Free room service. A housekeeping staff. An omelette bar. And, most importantly, the gift of time to write.
Nearly 50 preliminary judges, all established writers, narrowed the field for Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry and best-selling novelist Adriana Trigiani, who selected the two winners, four finalists and four honorable mentions.
The finalists will each receive a $250 cash prize:
Jen Parsons, Telluride, Colorado
Frances Peacock, Indianapolis, Indiana
Rodney Uhler, Brooklyn, New York
Jillian Van Hefty, Waconia, Minnesota
The honorable mentions will receive a $100 cash prize:
Ilene Haddad, Austin, Texas
Tara Rosenblum, New York, New York
Kate Thompson, Des Moines, Iowa
Sarah Zimmerman, Royal Oak, Michigan
“Congratulations to our winners at all levels, and — honestly — to all of this year’s entrants. The field of submissions was outstanding, which is impressive because, as anyone who’s tried it knows, humor writing is no joke,” said Anna Lefler, a Los Angeles-based comic novelist and writer who underwrote and helped create and launch the program.
Kozak, a former writer and producer of on-air promotions at Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios who has been “living and writing with” multiple sclerosis for 18 years, is working on “The Christmas Widow.” It’s a screenplay for “hate-watchers and love-bingers, a mash-up of two of the greatest film genres of our time: made-for-TV stalker thrillers and made-for-TV holiday rom-coms.”
Barry loved the idea: “This person writes like a pro. A really snarky pro. Which is good.” Trigiani said Kozak nailed the idea: “Style, point of view, humor and originality — this writer took glossy Christmas movies and found the narrative arcs in them to help women find the man of their dreams. I’m in.”
Brady’s proposed comic novel, Playgroup, draws inspiration “from play dates when my children were little,” she wrote in her winning application. “I was surrounded by (mostly) women with MBAs, Ph.D.s, professional success — we were all taking time off to ‘just be a mom.’ We laughed about spending our days in germ-infested ball pits, sweltering playgrounds and expensive music “classes” for children who couldn’t sit up yet. We bonded over our choices… and we realized that many of us were struggling with those choices. I wanted to write honestly — and funnily — about the complex feelings women have about modern marriage and motherhood.”
Trigiani called Brady a “great original voice” with “superb style,” and Barry found her writing “reminiscent of Erma herself.”
Maybe that’s because Brady grew up reading Erma’s columns. “When I started writing seriously about humor, I sincerely wanted to be ‘my generation’s Erma Bombeck,’ illuminating the crazy normal details that compose a life, and offering both laughter and human insight to people needing both.
“I also,” she quipped, “wanted to be the next Tina Fey, but that didn’t happen.”
Registration opens at noon (EST) on Thursday, Dec. 12, for the April 2-4 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, which The Writer magazine calls “THE conference for humor writing.”
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. 2-Jan. 6.
— Teri Rizvi
Teri Rizvi is the founder and director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, where she also serves as executive director of strategic communications.