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Special Series

Special Series

How the Essay Incubator Transformed My Writing and Reshaped My Life

Jennifer Dines writes about her experience in the Essay Incubator and how the program transformed her writing and reshaped her life. Learn more about the program and how to apply here.

Since my acceptance into the GrubStreet Essay Incubator ten months ago, I’ve published seven essays and I have four more pieces coming out in the next few weeks. Although I have taken writing classes for the past few years, the Essay Incubator helped me grow as a writer exponentially with a focus and attention previously unparalleled at any other time in my life.

My experience also coincided with two personal milestones in my life: my first year sober from alcohol in two decades and my fortieth birthday. Each phase of the Essay Incubator, each acceptance for publication, and each time I felt the power of our writing community all helped to rebuild the confidence and self-esteem that addiction had eroded within me and supported me in reshaping my desires for the second act of my life.

I find it useful to frame my experience around the three individual conferences that marked the beginning, middle, and end of the program. At the outset of the Incubator, instructor Ethan Gilsdorf supported each participant in setting goals for our writing practices and craft. My responses at that time tended towards the very general: wanting to develop stamina for writing and to hone my craft to better reflect myself upon the page.

The first two phases of the class focused on the craft and tradition of essay writing as well as on workshopping several essays. Discussing readings and individual goals supported our group in building a trusting and supportive community, and our collective identity became solidified as we moved into reading and critiquing one another’s writing. These first two phases were similar to my prior experience in GrubStreet’s Advanced Essay course, which I took just prior to the start of the Essay Incubator and found to be a helpful prerequisite in informing my decision to apply to the program.

Because of the supportive way that Ethan facilitated our Incubator workshops and the guidelines he provided, participants felt comfortable sharing and receiving feedback on drafts that revealed some of the most intimate details of our thoughts, relationships, and experiences. Ethan’s precise and generous feedback demonstrated the care he took in responding to each of my essays, and my revisions benefited tremendously from consulting with the personalized written and verbal critiques I received from Ethan and my classmates in our workshops.

I found I had learned more about myself as a writer: discovering the topics and content best suited to my wheelhouse of ideas

By the mid-program self-evaluation, I found I had learned more about myself as a writer: discovering the topics and content best suited to my wheelhouse of ideas (weaving personal experiences with cultural critiques), my personal writing and revision processes (handwritten notes becoming typed and then re-typed drafts), and the craft areas that I needed more work with (finding the central idea for each of my essays and developing my reflective voice). After my individualized consultation with Ethan, he provided me with a personalized list of mentor texts, craft essays, and exercises to read and complete during Phases III and IV of the Incubator.

In Phase III, each member of the class selected one essay for revision. Moving through the resources that Ethan had provided, an essay I had rewritten several times over the course of a year really started to take shape and felt much closer to completion. The changes I made to the structure of the piece resulted in a narrative that flowed better and kept the reader moving through the piece. I no longer wrote just about what happened, but I came to an understanding about why it mattered and could more readily convey my insights onto the page.

I no longer wrote just about what happened, but I came to an understanding about why it mattered and could more readily convey my insights onto the page.

During Phase IV, I applied my new learnings to the development of a portfolio with revisions of each of the essays previously workshopped in the class. We reviewed one classmate's portfolio each week, and it became really evident how each Incubator participant’s writing had shifted and transformed over the course of our time together. Another critical piece of this final phase were the weekly visits from guest speakers, which included published authors and editors of literary magazines and websites. I found it extremely valuable to hear each of our guests speak about their personal writing journeys and to be able to ask them the burning questions I had on my mind. I particularly connected with two of our guests: Neema Avashia and Lilly Dancyger.

Neema Avashia, a Boston Public Schools middle school teacher (like me), had recently published her first essay collection. After connecting during her visit to the Incubator, I interviewed her for our Boston Teachers Union newspaper (see page 11), which helped me to learn even more about her writing practice. I also felt a strong connection with Lilly Dancyger and her writing about navigating her relationship with her loving father, who, like mine, also struggled with addiction and died prematurely from related health issues. After Lilly’s talk, I devoured her book Negative Space and combed her website to find potential places where I might submit my writing. Keeping Neema and Lilly’s advice in my heart and head, particularly their words around perseverance, helps me keep my eyes on the prize in moments of self-doubt.

When our program ended in May, my final conference with Ethan and our final class meeting felt less like a conclusion and more like a commencement of the next steps in my journey. In addition to the achievement of completing all the work of this intensive program, I now have over a year of sobriety under my belt, which I attribute in part to having the focus of my writing to motivate me to stay sharp. I also found a new teaching position for next year that will allow me more time between the end of the work day and the time I need to pick up my daughters, affording me more ‘alone time’ for thinking and writing.

Now, over a month after the program has ended, I still keep up with my writing practice, and it feels stronger than ever.

Now, over a month after the program has ended, I still keep up with my writing practice, and it feels stronger than ever. I closely read Sonia Weiser’s Opportunities of the Week newsletter on Tuesdays and Thursdays to find publications for pitching and submission. I have completed a Sunday Short Reads submission challenge with a few of my Incubator classmates. In August, I will accompany two of my classmates to the Hippocamp conference in Pennsylvania for a long weekend of writing and connection.

Prior to my Incubator journey, despite some successes with writing and just beginning to recover from my addiction, I had a sense that, like Dante’s narrator at the outset of the Divine Comedy, I had wandered from the straight path. But now, I have begun to believe that the hardest parts might be over, both in writing and in some of the challenges life has presented me. I have “emerged to see the stars once again.

Author Bio:
Jennifer Dines is a Boston-based writer, bilingual education teacher, and mother of three. Her work has been published in Motherwell, Retrofied, Insider, and WBUR Cognoscenti. She is a 2022 alumni of the Grub Street Essay Incubator program. Her writing portfolio can be found here: Find her on twitter at @DinesJennifer.

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