Words around town

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  April 30, 2010

“You can’t be taught to be a great writer,” says Christopher Castellani, author, former Grub teacher, and now artistic director of the organization, “but everyone can be better.” What Grub Street does, he explains, “is to help people sharpen the tools in their writing arsenal.”

One the best things Grub’s got going for it is its stable of teachers, working writers all, many with hefty lists of publications. Ethan Gilsdorf, Bret Anthony Johnston, Steve Almond, Jessica Shattuck, and Lisa Borders are a few people who are teaching or have taught at Grub. (Full disclosure: I’ve taken a handful of Grub Street workshops over the years, serve as an ambassador, and am a general cheerleader for the organization based on the experiences I’ve had in the classes and at Grub events.)

Castellani calls the successful Muse & the Marketplace conference, which takes place May 1 and 2 this year, “the microcosm of the organization.” The Muse portion of the conference deals with the craft side, with sessions on sharpening those tools in the writing arsenal. The Marketplace sessions explore the business side: publishing, publicity, how to get an agent, how to write a query letter, how to promote your book. “Writers have to be more savvy about the business side of writing now.”

When asked if there’s a typical Grub Street student, Castellani suggests that the people who sign up for classes share “an urgency to take their writing more seriously.” But as for a Grub Street poster child, no dice. “There’s no typical student. We get kids just out of college, seniors in their 80s, people with full-time jobs, part-time jobs, no jobs. Blue collar. White collar. It’s sort of a Noah’s Arc  there’s two of every kind of person at Grub Street. The varied student body, the committed, passionate teachers, and the variety of offerings make Grub Street a superior place to hone your skills and make writing a regular part of your life.

Mark Polanzak, who teaches creative writing and flash fiction (a/k/a short-shorts or micro-fiction, typically stories under 1000 words) at the Boston Center for Adult Education, describes the three categories of people he usually finds in his classes: people who are in a rut in their job; people who used to write, but life got in the way; and younger people interested in writing who are experiencing “post-partum depression about leaving college” and want to pursue writing and engage in classroom discussion.

What Polanzak tries to instill beyond basics of craft is that “learning to write doesn’t happen on the page. It happens in your routine and your lifestyle.” For Polanzak, whose classes typically fill up quickly with sizable wait lists, success isn’t necessarily publication in Granta or scoring an agent (though those things don’t hurt). “The most successful people in these classes,” he explains, “are not necessarily the ones that become better writers, but the ones who are still writing after the class is through. That they’ve made it a regular part of their life  that’s a complete success.”

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