Go For It, Folks

I remember receiving an application to teach from Julie Powell. The cover letter was polite but made no mention of any special achievements. I had to look closely at the resume to discern this wasn’t just Julie Powell; it was the Julie Powell.

You know, the Julie Powell who felt her life was stuck in a rut so she decided to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a single year, and blogged about it in the early aughts, creating one of the first blogs that lots of people paid attention to. From there, it became an acclaimed memoir, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, and a movie, Julie & Julia, written and directed by Nora Ephron. She brought fine cooking down to earth for us, in much the same way Julia Child did when she brought French cuisine to this side of the Atlantic with her first cookbook.

If it were me, I’d put some of that in my cover letter. And I told her so when we interviewed her. She nodded politely, accepting my point. And she did get the job.

This is also the same Julie Powell who left this world recently at the age of 49. Last term, she begged off teaching a class because she wasn’t feeling well. I suspected she’d be back. Julie came and went at Gotham, but she always came back.

Despite her cover letter modesty, Julie wasn’t cutesy like the movie version of her, played by Amy Adams. (Weird seeing yourself played by someone in a movie, right?) She was much spikier. If you wanted to have a wickedly witty conversation, Julie was a perfect partner for it. At one point, she had a snake for a pet.

She cared about food, obviously. And not just the fancy stuff. I recall us arguing about which is better: Frito-Lay Cheetos (Julie’s corner) or the 365 Cheese Curls (my corner).

Here’s me reading a passage from her Julie & Julia.

Near the end of the book, Julie writes about Child:

I read her instructions for making béchamel sauce and what comes throbbing through is that here is a woman who has found her way.

Both Julie and Julia found their way by getting a bold (even crazy) idea, then going for broke with it. We should all do that a bit more, be it for a year-long project or a serendipitous Sunday. The pursuit of the idea is what counts. Success is secondary. Julie had no earthly idea that her big idea would bring her anything other than too-large grocery bills and some adventurous meals.

Try something interesting. See what happens.

Alex Steele

Gotham President

A Salute to Silliness

My best friend in first grade (hi, Robbie) and I were briefly forbidden from seeing each other after school because our mothers decided we were too silly together. They had a point. Soon as I showed up at Robbie’s house (or vice versa) we would collapse on the floor, giggling helplessly for no apparent reason.

I’m proud to say I’m still silly. You can see this on display in some of the Thursday videos I make for Gotham’s social media, and they got especially silly during the darkest days of the pandemic. Evidence here and here and here.

I’m in good company, I think. Monty Python specialized in silly, nowhere more apparent than their famous sketch about the Ministry of Silly Walks. Perhaps you have your own favorite masters of silliness. Anyone else here love Sally O’Malley?

So, what exactly is silly? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as: exhibiting or indicative of a lack of common sense or sound judgment. I’m sorry Merriam and Webster, but I dispute that definition. I’d say that silliness is about taking a break from reality, relishing the willy-nilly around us, and perhaps even laughing at the ever-ready sword of our inevitable death. The fools in Shakespeare’s plays are usually the wisest characters, are they not? 

And maybe a bit of silliness might help your writing. If you’re feeling uptight, overly judgmental, put on a goofy hat or do a dopey dance and you’re bound to enter with a lighter approach. Most stories could use a little levity too. Put a ridiculous obstacle in a character’s path or give someone a funny name.

(Funny names slay me, by the way. I can’t look at the picture above without snickering.)

Or just write something outrageously silly as a creative stretching exercise. I’m still laughing about something I read on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency about 15 years ago, by Tim Carvell. It was a “serious” essay pondering how various scenarios might have impacted the fame of Elvis Presley. Like so:

What if he—instead of Tennessee Williams—had written A Streetcar Named Desire, but he’d also been born with lobster-like claws for hands? Leave aside the question of how he would have written the play—for the sake of argument, let’s say he dictated it, or maybe had some sort of special typewriter. How he wrote the plays isn’t important. The question is, would he have been as widely adored? More so? Less so?

You’re free to bring your silliness to any Gotham class, but you might find it especially welcome in our Stand-Up Comedy Writing and Humor Writing courses. Maybe Robbie and I should sign up for these.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President

We Bring You NYC

Gotham Writers Workshop was born in New York City, is based in New York City, and the very name invokes New York City (Washington Irving, way back, gave it the nickname “Gotham”).

Truth is, we have more students living outside of NYC than inside, made possible by our Online and Zoom classes, not to mention commuting. But I like to think whenever you take a Gotham class—from anywhere in the world—we’re bringing you the grit and glamour of this fabulous town.

If you look at our logo up there on top, you’ll notice a hint of the bat signal and the Chrysler Building. Right?

Some notable bits of NYC news for us…

Our New York City classes have been on pause since March 2020, but they’ll resume in a few weeks. Welcome NYC students: we can’t wait to see you. (And it was great seeing so many of you at our Bryant Park appearances this summer.)

Also, if you’ve spent any time on the streets of New York, you’ve probably noticed the Gotham box—a free-standing box with a Gotham brochure inside. Like in the picture. After about 25 years as part of the NYC landscape, we’ve removed our boxes from the city streets. Paper and plastic aren’t so environmentally friendly, and the pandemic increased our fears of touching strange objects, so it felt like the right time. Adieu Gotham box: your spirit will haunt those streets forever.

And…the Gotham Writers Conference is happening on Zoom this year, October 14-16. If you’re dreaming of publishing a book, a good way to connect with the New York publishing world. At the very least, notice the snazzy subway design on our Conference pages.

Finally, I give you some nice quotes about NYC:

Tom Robbins’s novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues:

“In every direction, her tired eyes saw flashing lights, lights that caromed off the horizons and joined with the stars in the sky. The city seemed to be inhaling Benzedrine and exhaling light; a neon-lunged Buddha chanting and vibrating in a temple of filth.”

Colson Whitehead’s nonfiction book The Colossus of New York:

“Thousands of people pass that storefront every day, each one haunting the streets of his or her own New York, not one of them seeing the same thing.”

Fran Lebowitz, interview with People magazine:

“When you leave New York, you are astonished at how clean the rest of the world is. Clean is not enough.”

E.B. White’s essay “Here is New York”:

“But the city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin—the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled.”

Alex Steele,

Gotham Writers President