Meet a Grubbie: Ethan Gilsdorf

GrubStreet runs on coffee, printer ink, and community. This series features just some of the Grubbies who make our community strong. In this edition, meet Grub Instructor Ethan GilsdorfYou can catch Ethan in person this September, in his twelve-week class, Writing and Publishing the Risky Narrative Personal Essay, or online, in 6 Weeks, 6 Op-Eds, both of which begin on Tuesday, September 12th. If you're ready for the next level, check out Ethan's Master Narrative Personal Essay course, beginning Thursday, September 14th.


What favorite book of yours was made into a movie, which did you like better, and why?

Well, I'm a nerd. So I love The Lord of the Rings and I particularly enjoy the first book of the series, The Fellowship of the Ring. Of the three Peter Jackson film adaptations, I love his version of “Fellowship” the most. I used to get hung up on which was better, or all the changes that he made to the book, but my recent take is that both the film and the book have their strengths and weaknesses. Is Tolkien’s prose a little wooden at times? Yes. Is Jackson’s obsession with violence and gross-out moments also too much? Yes. But I love them both, and they complement each other nicely.


What's your favorite writing prompt?

One of my favorites I call "Joan Didion and Bob Seger meet in a bar." The idea is to combine a takeoff from Didion’s essay "Goodbye to All That"--the first line of which is, "It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends"--with Seger's song "Against The Wind" that includes the line, "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then." I ask my memoir and essay writers to speculate on a future they didn't know about at the time, or muse on how their lives could have been different if they still were as clueless now as they used to be.


How do you beat a bout of writer's block?

I go for a walk. My best ideas for scenes, images, lines, almost always come to me while I’m afoot. The trick is to make sure I immediately write down what weird brainstorm has come to me. If I don’t, it’s gone. But I also know that the next idea will come. And I need to remind myself to co-exist with that voice that says, “Ethan, your writing sucks.” Yes, I hear you, Head-Demon. Now step aside so I can get some work done.


What is the toughest criticism to give or receive on writing?

I think it’s really hard to hear that your writing--what you thought was brilliant, or perfectly crafted, or emotionally-resonant--just isn’t working. You know, it’s all crystal clear to us, the writer, as we craft it on the page. So it can be momentarily devastating to realize the hard work isn’t producing the desired effect from your reader.


Worst job you’ve ever had?

I’ve had two memorably bad and stressful jobs. One summer in college, I worked for the department of public works for the small town where I grew up in New Hampshire. If you passed your commercial driver’s license test, then you got to drive around dump trucks all summer. Cool! Fail it, and you worked at the sewage treatment plant all summer. I got a taste of the latter and it wasn’t pretty. I also once worked as a projectionist at my local Cineplex--one guy, 10 cinemas, acres of screaming kids when something went wrong. It was an anxious summer.


What is the strangest place you've ever been?

Inside my head? Seriously, I’ve done a lot of travelling over the years, and I lived in France for five. Many places I’ve traveled to have been traditionally inspirational (India) and beautiful (New Zealand). But probably the weirdest place I’ve ever been would be Iceland. Once you get out into the countryside, you’ll find waterfalls, hot springs, geysers, black beaches, and no trees. It’s simply haunting. Desolate. Like an alien planet. Right up my alley.


Want to find out more about all the other amazing people who make the GrubStreet community what it is? Check them all out here! And while you're at it, see what other classes are on offer at Grub this fall.

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About the Author

A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.

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