Writing Lessons from Author Susan Shapiro

Writer Susan Shapiro, author of "Only as Good as Your Word," offers writing advice for beginners.

By Wendy Rodewald

Forget that timeworn image of the solitary scribe holed up in a garret. Susan Shapiro, author of the new memoir Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons from My Favorite Literary Gurus, insists "it takes a village to raise a writer." The key to her success? A support system of mentors and critics, and a whole lot of networking. Here, Shapiro, 46, shares her wisdom.Q. How did you get the idea for Only as Good as Your Word? A. I had been trying to write a novel for a long time, and I couldn’t sell it. I gave it to an older mentor of mine, Laura Berman at the Detroit News, and I said, "How come nobody’s buying my novel?" She said to me, "You have no imagination whatsoever. Stop writing fiction; write nonfiction." And then she said, "You write best about people you love." That really unlocked me, and it led to a series of books. I wanted to stay with nonfiction, and I thought, who else do I love who I could exploit for my [next] book? And I thought, mentors. Q. You dispense a lot of useful advice in the book. A. I think it’s really geared towards writers. I teach — I’ve taught at NYU, the New School, Mediabistro, Holy Apostles’ Soup Kitchen — and I actually find millions of people that want to write, or, you know, a lot of people in other fields [who] have a book in them. People in all fields have mentors, so some critics have said this a book for anybody who wants to get ahead business-wise, or to find mentors and advisors who will help you, and I like that.Q. That definitely comes through in the book. As far as your advice to writers, how does it help beginners to surround themselves with as many successful role models as possible? A. I think in a lot of ways. I would say hang around with people you want to be. Most of us grew up [without writer role models] — I’m from a doctor’s family in Michigan — so it’s not that easy to find a writer’s life that you could emulate. Even if you have an MFA, or you study writing, it’s not like getting a law degree or a business degree or a medical degree. There’s no road. Every writer’s life is different — there are a hundred ways to do it, and there are a thousand ways to fail. So I think having [mentors] who can demystify the process is really important.Second, one of the most important things that I’ve learned over the years is that you always need criticism for your work. Nobody ever sits down at a typewriter or computer and types something, sends it in, it’s brilliant, and they [sell] it. It just doesn’t work that way. If you write in a vacuum, you’re going to write the exact wrong thing. You’re going to write a 7,000-word essay on fashion and send it to a magazine that would never publish something of that length. You really need to find professionals who’ve done it and who can tell you exactly what you’re doing wrong. I’ve been teaching since 1993, and if I had to divide who’s successful and who’s not, I would say that [those who] can listen to criticism and incorporate it into their work are the people that get published and who move ahead. I make the joke, "It takes a village to raise a writer." I think it’s important to have a lot of different role models in each different stage of your career. You have to keep reinventing yourself, and one of the ways to do that is to get critical response from somebody older who you respect.Q. It seems like reinventing yourself as a writer, after you’ve worked in another profession, is a pretty common goal. What advice would you give to someone who’s starting a writing career later in life? A. The first thing [to do] is read what you want to write. When I was thinking about writing my addiction memoir, I read a hundred addiction memoirs, and I saw where mine would fit in. Reading is the most important thing. Second, take a class or a seminar. The minute that you start taking a class, there’s a structure, there’s an assignment. Connect with a community of writers, whether it’s through a local university or a local author who’s writing what you like, or whether you start your own writing group or [take] online classes. It’s really good to connect with other writers and to find a system for critical response. Those are two of the easiest ways to start. Q. Is it easier to start out with first-person writing? A. Yes.

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