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Writing Life Advice

Writing Life Advice

There and Back Again: Ethan Gilsdorf's GrubStreet Journey

Ethan Gilsdorf's photo

By Ethan Gilsdorf

Instructor Consultant

Profile Classes

We asked our Essay Incubator instructor Ethan Gilsdorf to share his GrubStreet journey with us. If you are considering our writing community for your personal craft exploration please join us on May 1st for our Summer 2024 Open House and Showcase where Ethan will be a featured reader.


They say there are only seven stories in all of literature: Rags to Riches, The Quest, Rebirth, Overcoming the Monster, Comedy, Tragedy, and Voyage and Return. If I had to choose one, the plot of how my writing story intersects with GrubStreet best matches “Voyage and Return,” wherein the hero journeys to “a strange land, from which they will return armed with wisdom and life experience.” I’m a sucker for epic tales of adventure.

Until that time, I had rambled. I was raised in New Hampshire and Montreal, schooled in Massachusetts, made forays to Louisiana for a poetry degree and then on to Vermont (because, Vermont). Turning the auspicious age of 33 in the auspicious year of 1999, I escaped to Paris to nurture a midlife crisis. I rebooted as a foreign correspondent. Moving back home in 2004, I chose Boston. My oeuvre consisted of a hundred mediocre poems, some published and most not, and some clips as a travel writer. A dozen years out from my MFA degree, I wasn’t sure where creative writing fit in my life anymore.

Thankfully, the fates intervened and steered me towards GrubStreet.

One night — in my memory, it is always night — I saw an ad for Grub riding home on the Red Line. Or … I read about “Where Boston Gets Writing” in the now defunct Phoenix. Either version works: I met Grub. Eager to connect with local writers, I barged into the original 160 Boylston Street offices. (This was the shoebox Grub inhabited before “moving up” to our second, posh Boylston street location.) The crew, the space, the vibe felt “grubbie” in the best bootstrappy, bohemian way. I felt welcome. This could be my writing home, my people, my coterie.

Before long, I was asked to co-create the Young Adult Writers Program, and I began to instruct teens at our Saturday drop-in sessions. I taught adult classes on freelance journalism and poetry. A stunt journalist and arts and culture writer, I thought I had a book in me—a poorly conceived memoir— and luckily Grub Street had a class to fix that. I met my agent through Grub, and she helped me better conceive, then sell, that book. I began to teach different classes for Grub in creative nonfiction, essay, memoir, book promotion. Around this time, I was then asked to be on Grub’s Board of Directors and stayed for 10 years, gaining an intimate knowledge of how the sausage of non-profit creative writing centers is truly made. Hint: Sometimes messy, but tastes delicious when it's cooked.

This coming fall will be my sixth year running the 10-month Essay Incubator. I work one-on-one with students on their writing. I helped launch a Providence satellite program. I consult for GrubStreet on a variety of other projects. I continue to teach classes in a variety of nonfiction genres. It seems no matter what class I concoct, from So You Want to Be a Writer in These Uncertain Times? to "I've Always Wanted to Play Dungeons & Dragons”: Fantasy Role-Playing Games as Storytelling, Grub usually gives me the green light. At last count, I’ve taught 302 classes since 2006.

That's the beauty of GrubStreet: Unlike a more rigid institution like a university, Grub is flexible, nimble and responsive. Grub continues to let me volunteer, teach and be a community member in ways that match my interests, my talents and my absurd whims.

Remember how I was supposed to tell you a story about “Voyage and Return”? I suppose, like Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen and Ellen Ripley, I have traveled to several strange lands — in my case, New Hampshire, Louisiana, Paris, and the dark places of my tortured, self-flagellating writerly psyche. And I suppose I have returned armed with wisdom and experience. I hope so.

For all that opportunity, I'm thankful to Grub. Because while our center exists as a place to take classes and hone your own writing, I think Grub’s secret sauce is that it engages with writers at all levels. It also helps keep itinerant riffraff like me more-or-less gainfully employed.

Most importantly, I’ve found my tribe. I'm consistently inspired by my fellow instructors and the students whose work I'm privileged to witness in the classroom. I couldn't have become the writer I am without Grub having my back.

Good things can happen if you stick with Grub. I hope you will, too.

About Ethan Gilsdorf

Hi! I'm a longtime Grub instructor, memoirist, essayist, critic, journalist, poet, teacher, performer, and the author of the award-winning memoir Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

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