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 2007, Ethan Gilsdorf is a memoirist, essayist, critic, journalist, poet, teacher, performer, and the author of the award-winning memoir 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. Hundreds of his personal essays, articles, reviews, cultural commentaries, profiles, opinion pieces, short stories, and poems have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Esquire, Boston Globe, Wired, Salon, O the Oprah Magazine, National Geographic, Brevity, Electric Literature, Poetry, The Southern Review, North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, among other publications. Twice his work has been named "Notable" by The Best American Essays. At GrubStreet, Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and leads GrubStreet's 10-month long intensive Essay Incubator program; he also leads writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations. 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 presented the TEDx talk "Why Dungeons & Dragons is Good for You (In Real Life).” He studied filmmaking and creative writing at Hampshire College, and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. A former editor for Frank magazine and New Delta Review, Gilsdorf is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. He has taught at LSU, Emerson College, and for LitArts RI. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he’s been featured on NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC; and in the documentary Revenge of the Geeks. More info:, Twitter @ethanfreak.

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