NYC Gotham Writers’ Workshop Free Memoir Class

March 25, 2010

As mentioned in my last post, I attended a free memoir writing workshop offered by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop on Wednesday.

Photo: BookCourt

I had no idea what to expect from the workshop; I didn’t even know where it was being held! When I found the correct address, 163 Court Street in Brooklyn, I almost turned around and went home. 163 was posted above a large door that lead to private apartments. I’ve seen too many episodes of Law and Order: SVU to enter a shady apartment alone. Fortunately, I took a step back and saw that 163 was also the address of the bookstore next door, a beautiful and charming place called BookCourt.

My slight freak-out about the address of the workshop made me realize just how nervous I was; I wasn’t concerned about talking to the people in the class, but that I would be forced to participate in writing exercises (which would turn out to be a justified fear).

For a non-chain bookstore, BookCourt is quite large. I found my way to the back of the store—conveniently or strategically the section with books on how to write—and found about 40 folding chairs neatly lined up. I chose a seat in the second row and glanced to my left at, “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott and “Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months” by John Dufresne, and waited for the teacher to arrive.

I have to be honest: I didn’t start the class with an open-mind. I know journalists are never supposed to make assumptions; however, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of people would show up at a tiny bookstore in Brooklyn on a Wednesday night for advice from a former dominatrix?

Wait, did I forget to mention the class was being hosted by a former dominatrix—a woman who spanked, sodomized and verbally abused men for $75 an hour?

Photo: Barnes & Noble

Melissa Febos, author of the recently-released “Whip Smart,” a memoir about the four years she spent as a dominatrix

in Manhattan, was our teacher for the evening. As I waited for a woman decked out in heels and leather to arrive, I was shocked to see a petite brunette with sunglasses perched on the top of her head step up to the podium. She took off her jacket to reveal a pretty green blouse complete with a delicate bow. I started to wonder if I was in the right spot, but then she pushed up her sleeves to reveal tattoo-covered forearms—let the class begin.

Febos skipped any introduction and gave us our first exercise: “write your life story in five sentences.” I’m not one for unnecessary wordage, but that seemed brief even by my standards. As I wondered how to condense 20 years into five short sentences, I noticed that everyone around me was already feverishly scribbling away.

The 25 other people in attendance, about four of whom were men, seemed to be ready for such an exercise. I scribbled something on my free Gotham Writers’ Workshop pad and prayed she didn’t call me. But when she called time, to my surprise, people’s hands shot up. I was shocked that people actually wanted to share personal details of their lives to a room full of strangers. In ten minutes I learned about a woman who grew up in the Chinatown ghetto of Boston, an Irish man from the Bronx who described his father’s nationality as “drunk” and a woman who grew up as an outsider because of two medical surgeries and was still struggling to fit in as a gay adult.

As I sat there listening, I felt guilty, as if I had somehow cheated my way into these people’s personal thoughts. I looked down at my paper and discovered that I wrote about my brother’s heart disease, my mother’s multiple sclerosis, my own health issues and nothing else. When I recounted the evening for my boyfriend, he asked if I included him in my short life story. We were both shocked when I said no. He is easily the best thing that has ever happened to me and he’s been a major part of my life for the past three years, but I left him out. Out of fear that I would be forced to share my story, I chose to write about the negative, sympathy-inducing moments in my life, ignoring the fact that they were far from an adequate representation of my entire life. I began to feel even guiltier.

The rest of the hour-long class was filled with similar exercises and people who eagerly shared their private moments. Febos responded with “nice,” “that’s excellent” and “so good” to everyone’s writing, even when it was obviously not true. She gave us all a handout with five different types of “voice” examples in memoir, including conversastional, informal, formal, lyrical and reflection. The sheet included examples from authors such as David Sedaris, Vladimir Nabokov, and two from Febos herself.

Febos also mentioned that even though BookCourt didn’t have her book in stock, they could order it for us and we could also “get it almost anywhere else.” As soon as the class was over, people jumped up and swarmed her. She quickly answered questions while putting on her coat. I had hoped to speak with her, but she didn’t have time. I’m still hoping to talk with her, but she told me she is about to embark on a book tour, so she may be too busy.

As I sat on the A train home, I tried to sort out my feelings about the night. I was initially mad at Febos. I felt she was providing people with false hope and trying to hock a few books at the same time. But it was a free class; should Febos really have crushed these people’s hopes of becoming successful writers? And as a writer, wasn’t it her job to promote her product—her book? As I got closer to my stop, my anger shifted to myself. Why did I write about the worst moments of my life? And if she had called on me, would I have shared them? I started to understand why it was so easy for the other people in the class to share their personal stories—attention is addicting. But was that why everyone had come to the class, for a little attention and the hope of learning how to achieve the ultimate form of attention: fame? I’m currently trying to contact a few people from the class, so hopefully I’ll have an answer for you shortly.

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2 Responses to “NYC Gotham Writers’ Workshop Free Memoir Class”


  1. […] I attended the free Gotham Writers’ Workshop almost two weeks ago, I sat next to a woman who caught my attention when she asked about writing a […]


  2. […] I attended the free Gotham Writers’ Workshop almost two weeks ago, I sat next to a woman who caught my attention when she asked about writing a […]


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