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  josierubioscholarship@gmail.com

Winners of the Josie Rubio Scholarship

When writer Josie Rubio died in 2019 at the age of 42, it was clear she’d touched a remarkable number of lives in her too-short life. After her blog, A Pain in the Neck: My Experience with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, won a dedicated readership, her New York Times essay “Dating While Dying,” went viral. A year later, the Times gave her a full editorial obituary and included her in its end-of-year round-up of notable deaths—the only non-celebrity.

Josie also loved writing and writers. During during her last year, she took a Gotham Writers Workshop memoir class, where she excelled at helping others tell their stories and made some very important friendships that lasted long after the course ended.

To honor their friend and fellow writer Josie, her Gotham classmates created a scholarship competition in which entrants submitted a 100-word story in the style of the New York Times Tiny Love Stories.

After reading through scores of love stories, the committee selected — with difficulty—20 winners who each received a tuition-free 10-week Gotham class of their choice. They are all listed below.

For Josie, her love of writing, and the 20, we’re sharing three of the winning stories here.

Summer in the City

Farah de la Puente

“You’re safe,” I say to the two-week-old body in my arms. It is true. We are in my bedroom, ten steps from our door, which is locked, twice, and nine floors above our lobby. There, a masked Albanian doorman stands across the street from a caravan of fifteen parked police cars, each with two masked policemen, enforcing the 8PM curfew. The caravan is three blocks from the Nike on 20th Street and 5th Avenue, where a graffitied wooden board covers its shattered window. “You’re safe,” I say again, this time not a reassurance for me, but a wish for her.

When Leprechauns Were Real

Michael Scott

I met Paul in rehab. Paul was extremely Irish, tiny and mischievous. A receding hairline, leather waistcoat and lumberjack shirt, he just needed a pipe and shamrock to be the perfect Leprechaun in our leper colony. Paul had swallowed the Blarney Stone whole and regaled me with tales of drug runs from Tangier to Amsterdam. He obsessed over his past by cutting and pasting collages of his demons. Grinning politicians leered atop porn star’s bodies. I loved Paul. We were rehab brothers forever. After leaving, we met once. Then Paul disappeared down the wrong kind of pipe and was gone.

Steady Bridges

Georgea Tann

While spinning the square cardboard coaster around on the copper bar top, I say, “If it weren’t for the kids I’d consider separation.”

He says, from behind watery eyes, “What? I can’t believe you think that way.”

My eyes dart back down to the safety of the coaster. “You don’t?”

“No, quitting you never crosses my mind. It’s not an option for me.”

And I remember why I married him. Because when my self-loathing projects itself onto him, and turns his flaws into marital fault lines — his steadiness pulls the cracked earth under my feet back together again.

Winners:

Stephanie Ariker

Maggie Bokelman

Susan Chase

Farah de la Puente

Seánan Forbes

Stefanie Giglio

Asena Grace

Josie Grieg

Kelly Hoben

Tracy Kennard

Angela Kidd

Ann McNicol

Emily Myers

Joli Nicol Pate

Michael Scott

Georgea Tann

Jacky Tong

Jill Viles

Shelly Walia

Jenny Wilson

The Josie Rubio Scholarship

Ten scholarships will be awarded to ten people in honor of writer Josie Rubio. Josie’s work is immortalized in her popular blog, A Pain in the Neck: My Experience with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Her article, “Dating While Dying” was published in The New York Times before her passing on December 3rd, 2019. When Josie passed, the Times gave her a full obituary and in their end of year notable passings article, she was the only non-celebrity, clearly touching many with her story.

During Josie’s last year, she took a Gotham Writers Workshop memoir class, where excelled at working with others to hone their skills and share stories and made some very important friendships.

Please submit one paragraph of up to 100 words in a format similar to The New York Times Tiny Love Stories–by April 30th. You will be notified by May 31st if you won.

Send submissions to: josierubioscholarship@gmail.com

-The Josie Rubio Scholarship Award Committee