2023 Josie Rubio Scholarship

I have a recording of Josie and me talking. It’s about a month before she died. There are parts where we talk about what we think happens after we die, but I’ll admit, in those parts, it’s mostly me talking. The parts I like best are where we are reading through a Seamless menu laughing about the garbage some people will put on a hotdog, especially in Brooklyn—like baked beans and Doritos—because a hot dog is what Josie felt like eating for lunch. “I already feel like crap,” she mused, “so I figure the hotdog isn’t going to hurt me.”

Josie was the kind of person who thought that dry January was dumb and that diets that deny you of pleasure were also dumb. Don’t hurt yourself, but also, don’t deny yourself was a conversation we had often.

At one point she started showing me all the weird things she wanted to order off Amazon for her birthday/Halloween party. Dry ice for the punch. Black lights. At one point we were laughing about these blood bags she planned to fill with vodka-cranberry. I suggested Bloody Mary. Then we just started going back and forth about whether it was too gross or morbid to put Bloody Mary into blood bags at the party of a woman planning to enter hospice right after the party.

At least, at the time, that’s what I thought we’d been talking about. But as I listened, I realized Josie hadn’t been worried about grossing anyone out or making anyone feel sad or weird. She’d been worried that the blood bag would get stopped up. They wouldn’t be able get the drink out of the blood bag. It was an issue of alcohol-conveyance.  

 She didn’t correct me. I never realized my mistake until four years later—four years and four months after Josie died at the age of 42.

Josie and I knew each other for a long time before we became good friends. I was closer with her former boyfriend, the guy who left her right when she got her terminal diagnosis, the one she wrote her brilliant, hilarious New York Times article about. But after he left her, Josie and I scheduled a daily “check in” phone call. We probably spoke more often than that. I invited her every time I went out, and she did the same.

Josie was a professional writer. At the end of her life, she was the editor for the Guggenheim’s website. She and I wrote a blog together for the company that produces Fiji Water. I got the job through her. In fact, Josie got me a lot of my first writing jobs. But it was Josie who enrolled as a student in my first ever writing class at Gotham. She wanted to write about dying from cancer, but mostly she wanted to shame her boyfriend publicly.

Josie’s class grew close in large part due to Josie’s energy and spirit. Now, I am not one of those people who deify the dead. Maybe it’s because I’m a memoir teacher. I spend a lot of time trying to convince writers that there are no villains in memoir and there are, likewise, no angels either.

But it’s hard not to think of Josie as practically perfect. She was generous as a writer and a person. She was funny and she was smart. But mostly, she was kind. She was the type of friend who didn’t correct you for misunderstanding that a conversation about the best way to drink booze at a Halloween party wasn’t a conversation about her impending death. Josie loved being alive. She wanted her life to matter.

I love that Josie’s class makes the Josie Rubio Scholarship available every year. It’s a wonderful tribute to Josie, but also a reminder that when you are alive, you should feel alive. Write because it’s important to tell stories, it reminds us that we are alive, it helps us delineate why and how our lives matter.

Even at the end of her life, Josie didn’t like to talk about dying. She liked to talk about living. She loved planning that Birthday/Halloween party. She had two costume changes that night because she couldn’t decide if she wanted to be Little Bo Peep or an insomniac. So she was both. She didn’t buy the blood bags to drink out of in the end. But she did put dry ice in the punch.

No one felt weird. No one felt sad. We all just felt more alive around her. 


To enter the Josie Rubio Scholarship Contest, please submit a one-paragraph story, in the style of the New York Times’ Tiny Love Stories, no more than 100 words long.

Deadline is midnight, EST, on Friday April 14th, 2023.

Winners will be announced in late May, and will receive a tuition-free class of their choice at Gotham Writers Workshop (subject to class availability).

Send submissions to the Josie Rubio Scholarship Committee at josierubioscholarship@gmail.com.

You can read examples of entries by previous winners here.

Don’t Despair

In his excellent book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee at one point compares writing to being sequestered in jail by your own story: “You in a small dark room with no answers to any of your questions, and no one seems to hear your pleas, not for days, months, years. Indifferent the entire time to all requests for visits or freedom. Hard labor too.”

Or, as my student Christola puts it: “I’m writing at writing.”

They’re both describing a distressing place many writers end up in at one time or another. You’re not so much stuck as you’re lost. You type and type but you don’t get anywhere. You cannot see your way forward.

If you find yourself in that cell, don’t despair. Here’s a few steps you can try:

First, let your story rest. Put it away, and give your befuddled brain a break. Leave it alone as long as you can—a day or two if you’re on deadline; weeks if you’re not. As Stephen King says in On Writing, it should be “safely shut away, aging and (one hopes) mellowing [until] it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk shop where you can barely remember stopping.”

Next, write out—by hand, I’m not kidding, use pen and paper—a short list of things you want for this story. Avoid superlatives here, both grandiose (“Greatest screenplay about a meerkat ever,”) and self-flagellating, (“Nice plot, loser”).

Make this like a Saturday morning errands list, or if it works better for you, write it out as if it were an email to your best friend. Remember Grandma’s story about meeting Buffalo Bill, or Eat more eggs. 

Now that you have a guide with your hopes and goals clearly spelled out, go ahead and read your story. When something resonates with you, highlight it or underline it. Most likely, those moments are taking you closer to your hopes and goals. When you dive back in, build on them.

Keep an eye out for what’s missing, too. Where does your aim completely miss your target? Where have you missed ripe opportunities to introduce scenes or sentences that work in those hopes and goals in sooner?

Where is the first resonant line? And where is the first missed opportunity? How can you build a bridge between them? Start there.

Think of it as a rescue and recovery operation—decide what’s most important, look for the solid ground and the critical flaws. And get to work.

Kelly Caldwell, Dean of Faculty

Cues from Music

A sound, barely perceptible. Musical notes, quite high, shimmering in strings. So begins the Prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, which I recently saw at the Metropolitan Opera.
Among Wagner’s many contributions to music was the development of the leitmotif, a recurring musical theme that represents an element in the story. For example, Lohengrin has leitmotifs for the Holy Grail and the Forbidden Question, among others.
You’ll hear leitmotifs in movie scores—assorted melodies crisscrossing throughout the show, giving psychological undercurrents to what you’re watching.
Writers, too, can make effective use of leitmotifs (or motifs) with words and images.
For example, in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, colors are used as a leitmotif, showing how characters fight against the deadly reality of slavery, even after freedom. Sethe, a mother, buys colorful ribbons and bows for her daughter. Beloved, that daughter, sleeps with a quilt that has two orange patches. And so on.
In Barry Jenkins’s movie Moonlight, there’s a leitmotif of water, representing change or perhaps rebirth. The movie opens and closes with the sound of water, and water appears at other points, most memorably when Juan teaches the boy Chiron how to swim—Chiron unaware that Juan is the drug dealer supplying his mother.
Moving on to another legendary composer: Burt Bacharach recently passed away. His music makes me smile inside, always has. It goes down easy, but is rather sophisticated, blending influences of jazz, classical, pop, and bossa nova into something unique.
A distinctive feature of a Bacharach song is the tricky rhythm. Lots of syncopation and shifting meters. In other words, it runs, then skips, then slides, then switches direction.
Here’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” sung by Dionne Warwick.
Playing with rhythm is an excellent way to wake up your words in writing.
In this passage from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, the narrator describes his soul-sucking office:
             Everything where I work is floor-to-ceiling glass. Everything is vertical blinds.
             Everything is industrial low-pile gray carpet spotted with little tombstone monuments
             where the PC’s plug into the network. Everything is a maze of cubicles boxed in with
             fences of upholstered plywood.

            A vacuum cleaner hums somewhere.                                                            
Notice the repetition of the four sentences starting with Everything, then a sharp break with that distant vacuum cleaner.
One of my favorite celebrity sightings happened about ten years ago. I’m riding the subway in NYC. And Burt Bacharach is sitting across from me. He was in his mid-80s, looking cool as ever. As I recall, he was chatting to a young woman who seemed to be a stranger.
Hey, let’s celebrate Burt and NYC with Burt’s “Arthur’s Theme,” from the movie Arthur.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President