How Teaching Writing for Gotham Helped Me to Stop Apologizing

On Wednesday, January 16th 2019, I walked into my first ever Gotham class. Well, technically it was my second—I’d been a Gotham student ten years earlier. This time, however, I would be the teacher.

I had never taught writing before. So facing this room of writers, some new to the craft, some not-so-new, the intimidation I felt was real.

But, I figured, I’d had a lot of other teachers over the years. So really, how hard could this be? Plus, I’d written a lot of books. Nine to be exact. I had most recently published a memoir. And anyway, If Snape from Harry Potter and Miss Minchin from The Little Princess could get away with it, so could I. Right? Right?!?

When I was a Gotham student, my instructor was author and teacher Alex Mindt. He offered up both wisdom and kindness in equal measure. His goal was to motivate us to write. He understood that writing more made better writers. I wanted to do that too.

One of the students in that first class was already my friend, Josie Rubio. On the subway ride home after the first class, Josie insisted I had done a good job. “Although, you might have apologized too much,” she said.

I measured her face to gauge how honest she was being. Josie wanted the class to be worth her time: She was dying of cancer, and every moment she had left mattered.

The truth was, I was already a fan of Gotham’s instructional method—positive reinforcement; building tools for reading critically; gentle guidance toward better practice; and most importantly building a writing community. Truth be told, I had been trying to get them to hire me for years.

Right then, I vowed internally to offer Josie, not just an opportunity to get better at writing, but ten three-hour classes that would not waste a single minute of the hours she had left.  

The first few weeks of class felt like a whirlwind. Then it was Josie’s turn to submit work for the Booth. She turned in a piece about her long-term relationship ending the same week she was given a terminal diagnosis.

“What kind of monster takes all the dental floss with him when he moves?!” Josie wrote, with her unparalleled ability to voice vibrant humor in the face of excruciating pain.

As we began Josie’s Booth, we all struggled to keep our emotions in check. The material was heartbreaking. We had all come face to face with the understanding that this vigorous, beautiful human, was dying. That’s when something magical happened: One of the students broke out a bag full of dental floss and passed it around the room. When it landed in Josie’s hands, her smile was genuine. Everyone laughed and clapped. In that moment, I knew that this class was going to exceed every one of my hopes and expectations. 

The essay Josie submitted for her first Booth, later became her piece Dating While Dying, published in the New York Times. It went viral. Several more writers from that class later also published in the Times, then after that, in one of their anthologies. 

After Josie’s death in December 2019, her Gotham classmates came together to organize twenty scholarships for Gotham Writers Workshop courses in Josie Rubio’s name.

This year, in 2022, they are planning to do it again.

The members of my first class at Gotham have achieved so much more than I could have hoped for them. But who could have guessed that I would have been the one to learn the most?

Please submit one paragraph of up to 100 words in a format similar to The New York Times Tiny Love Stories–by April 1st. Winners will be announced by May 15th.

Send submissions to the Josie Rubio Scholarship Committee at

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