Take a Risk

Another entry in the monthly column, The Freelance Life, by Ethan Gilsdorf, about the trials, tribulations, triumphs—and tips to share—along the path to becoming a freelance writer.

Earlier this year, on the last day of one my writing workshops, I heard an interesting comment.

I was teaching a class on personal essays and op-eds, and on that final day, a student expressed this thought: “I think the essays we all wrote in this class were great, but they were kind of tame.”

It was a gutsy thing to say. But the student had a point.

Sure, all the writers in my class had done admirable work. They’d written solid essays about childhood experiences and coming-of-age stories, about relationships weathered as adults, and about other various conflicts confronted and overcome.

But I had not pushed my students to truly take on some difficult matter. This was not the indented focus of the class. Still, the student’s comment sat with me as a challenge.

Indeed, why not urge my students to dig a little deeper, to exhume what my friend, fellow writer and GrubStreet instructor Ted Weenser calls the “dark messy matter” of your life.

In nonfiction, the difficult, complicated, bewildering, upsetting and chaotic moments from your life can make for the most compelling reading. But how do we capture characters grappling with this dark matter of their lives? How do we transform raw, red-hot, radioactive, and troubling experience --- now seen from the cooled-down perspective of passed time --- into artful prose that isn’t self-aggrandizing or self-pitying, but truthful and moving to a third party reader?

That’s what I’m going to try to do in an all-new class I’m teaching, called “Writing and Publishing the Risky Personal Essay,” a 10-weeker this fall that starts Tuesday September 16th

The risks of the class? That as we take on heartbreak, death, trauma, abuse, and loss, the class might turn into a giant group therapy session. (FYI, I am not a trained therapist.)

But I don’t think that will be the case. GrubStreet students have continually surprised me with their maturity and savvy. They are wise, but also tactful. And I will be mindful to keep the comments on the work at hand, not the person in the room.

We’ll learn a lot about each other, but also how to move each other --- perhaps to tears, perhaps to outrage. All the while, in the service of making some powerful writing.

I’ve taught at GrubStreet for nine years. I haven’t taught “Writing and Publishing the Risky Personal Essay”  forward. I’m looking forward to its inherent risks and rewards. If you are up to the challenge, I hope you will join us.




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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 ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.

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by Ethan Gilsdorf


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