In early 2023, Brian Gresko, Sara Lippmann, and Amy Shearn co-founded the Writing Co-Lab to offer writing classes directly to students. Owned and operated by the writers, the goal was to ensure tuition fees went to the instructors rather than to the administration or for-profit corporation.
Brian Gresko is the editor of the anthology “When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood,” and works as an editor and writer. Brian also co-curates Pete’s Reading series and has taught writing at Catapult, Sackett Street Writing Workshops, The Center for Fiction, Jericho Writers, and the New York Public Library.
We talked over email about the exciting launch of the program and what it means for the instructors and the students to be part of a cooperate.
BRIAN GRESKO: You’re trying my memory here, because I’ve known Sara Lippmann and Amy Shearn for many years. I think I first met Amy back at a Pen Parentis Literary Salon, over ten years ago? Then she went on to run a cool reading and conversation series through the Brooklyn Public Library that I attended a couple of times. Sara I met through Twitter, which is funny because it turned out we lived only a couple blocks away from one another at the time. Meeting her is one of the best things that ever happened to me on that anxiety-raising platform!
When I had the idea for a teaching cooperative I test drove it with a few folks. Sara and Amy, and then Hannah Bae and Chris Gonzalez, were the only ones who were like, “you’ve got something there,” and wanted to be involved. Without their enthusiasm and hard work, Writing Co-Lab wouldn’t exist.
GRESKO: I’ve been involved in cooperatives for almost twenty-five years, starting from the time I enrolled in Oberlin College. I was the first in my working-class family to attend college. Doing so required taking on debt I’m still straddled with, and working full-time some semesters in the library and on breaks at mall bookstores. Student-run living and dining cooperatives initially appealed to me as a way of saving money, but I became deeply involved with them because I loved the underlying ethos–that by chipping in with intentionality, good will, and an open heart, together people can build something meaningful, unique, maybe a little funky, and enjoy the labor while doing so.
I’ll admit, when I first moved to Brooklyn I mooched off my roommate and my partner, who were both Park Slope Food Coop members. I thought my cooperative days were behind me, and that cooperatives were an immature enterprise, built on foolish dewy-eyed optimism. That was just my white working class macho bullshit talking, the same angry little asshole who whispers that writing isn’t real work. (Fuck that guy!) After a while, I couldn’t stomach eating the amazing and very affordable cheese from the Park Slope Food Coop and not contributing myself, so I got involved. Didn’t take long before I got jazzed about cooperating again. I became a work squad leader, then for a few years I co-ran a reading series for Coop members, which was weird and kind of fun.
I get the bad rep: coops can be a pain sometimes. And utopian enterprises–which coops are–strike cynics as very cringe. But I think the act of writing is just as laden with hope, and a desire for community. Both coops and writing ask that we imagine a better world. The two are kissing cousins, I think. Or maybe bedfellows? Something sexual for sure.
GRESKO: In my nearly ten years of teaching for businesses that run continuing ed classes for writers, two things never sat well with me. The first was the lack of professional development and professional community. There was little to no attempt to bring teachers together to discuss pedagogy; share ideas, exercises, or approaches; or even just to get them talking to one another in a kind of water cooler, collegial kind of way.
I think that’s deliberate, and related to the second thing: these businesses are exploitative. Most of the ones I worked for never offered raises, on the contrary, they’ll nickel-and-dime you, killing your spirit with petty paper cuts. This issue goes beyond continuing ed, it’s become a part of the American academic landscape as a whole. I know people in the adjunct industrial complex, and they’re getting used, abused, and screwed too. These businesses–universities, colleges, and continuing ed alike–don’t want their teachers to talk about how little they’re getting paid for the great amount of work that good teaching requires, or the huge cut taken out of their paycheck for “administrative costs.” They don’t want their teachers to organize and unionize.
In his phenomenal essay “On Becoming an American Writer,”
Alexander Chee describes teaching at a continuing ed writing school in the mid-nineties. He writes, “The program pays instructors what it has always paid them, even now, twenty years later, and they do so because there is always an MFA graduate like me that needs a first teaching job, and every other place that offers writing classes in New York is more or less like this.”
He’s got that right. Perhaps the only thing that has changed over those two decades is that now these continuing ed organizations aren’t just a jumping off point. For many writers in our highly competitive corporatized marketplace, they’ve become a terminus.
There can be pleasure and pride in carving out a little nook in the online education space. I’ve honed some of my classes so much, they consistently and quickly sold out, and that’s a dopamine rush. On the ground, I taught talented and dedicated students, and the administrative staff were nice people. But over time I felt like I was treading water, putting an incredible amount of care and effort into my classes but receiving the same measly slice of the tuition. Morally, the experience was even worse, like drowning. Because I was part of the publishing dream machine, by which I mean the myth these organizations push, that if a writer takes enough classes then one day their work will get published and then they’ll find themselves in the teacher’s chair, all their problems solved. What gets lost in that race to publish is that writing, like teaching, is an artform; both are ultimately acts of compassion, faith, and love.
Coops exist as an alternative to dehumanizing capitalistic impulses. They’re not outside of the system–that’s just not possible, money changes hands. But because the tuition is handled by the teacher instead of a corporate entity, teachers can set their own prices, and offer a sliding scale, and even decide whether they want to give students in financial need a break. The money goes from the student, to the teacher. It’s a more human enterprise.
GRESKO: Because this is a big experiment! For us–we’re not business people, nor is there a guidebook on how to organize a teaching cooperative–and hopefully for our students too, who will find that the classes might be themed or taught a little differently from what they’ve seen at other organizations. We’ll offer classes on pitching, publishing, and practical business matters at some point, because those things are essential for a writer to know. But also? We’ll have classes intended to build your creative muscles and push you out of your comfort zone craft-wise. I’ve had great, fulfilling experiences taking dance classes–moving my body, expressing myself, feeling unified with the other dancers sweating in the room with me–and yet I’ve never wanted to apply to a dance troupe. We will have classes that, we hope, make space for similar joy, and risk taking, and camaraderie, without prioritizing the experience of publishing, which is just one part of a writer’s journey. So in that regard, laboratory felt like the right word, and co-lab had a playful, geeky literary look to it that appealed. Maybe that’s just me–I’m a sucker for a hyphen.
GRESKO: The whole thing. We went into this not sure how it was going to go or operate, so every step has been a surprise. We’re figuring it out as we go along. We’ve been pleasantly taken back by the positive response too. A lot of people really dig the idea, which is very cool, and inspiring. I’m excited to see how it develops! And grateful for your interest in it, and asking me to talk about it. Thanks for that.