Beyond Vassar

Gotham Writers' Workshop and the Business of Writing

By Amy Arner Sgarro ’83

Take a walk through just about any neighborhood in Manhattan, and you’ll probably pass dozens of yellow newspaper boxes that dot the city’s street corners. Open one, and you’ll find the catalog of Gotham Writers’ Workshop, New York’s largest private creative writing school and the creation of Jeff Fligelman ’85.

Fligelman, a play- and screenwriter who studied creative writing at Vassar and in the graduate program at Columbia University, founded Gotham Writers’ Workshop (GWW) in 1993 with his business partner, David Grae. It was a response to what Fligelman says was a need for comprehensive classes in the craft of writing. He had previously taught creative writing and theater at the Brooklyn Music School, Marist College’s Upward Bound program, and Theater for a New Audience, among other schools and organizations. Fligelman and Grae set out with two goals in mind: The first was to approach writing as a craft that could be taught. "Inspiration is great," he says, "but you need to have the tools of a professional so that you can bring your ideas to fruition." To that end, GWW’s classes focus on specific craft elements of writing: plot, characterization, figurative language, dialogue. Their second goal was to create a safe, respectful atmosphere for the writer, one in which every person would be treated as a professional and criticism would be constructive. To achieve this they created a process for conducting very structured conversations about student work, which is taught to all instructors and used in classes. The point is to offer concrete suggestions that the writer can use, to encourage rather than discourage writing.

fligelman and associates
fligelman and associates
Fligelman and his associates seem to have hit on a method that works: More than 4,000 students take classes each year, either in classrooms in New York City or through, GWW’s online offering that serves students from around the world. The school employs a staff of more than 50 teachers who lead workshops in more than a dozen genres ranging from fiction writing to children’s book writing to stand-up comedy writing.

Despite the rigors of running the school, Fligelman still manages to find time for his own writing, even if it’s just a little bit every day. He’s written a dozen plays, which have been produced both here and abroad; authored nine screenplays; and co-authored two sitcoms. Now he’s working on a new screenplay, which he describes as "an action/adventure story in the tradition of the Indiana Jones movies."

And he expresses gratitude that his career has turned out as it has. "The fact that the school has emerged was never in the grand plan. All I knew was that I wanted to write. Writing continues to be my passion — and I’m lucky, because it’s also my livelihood."