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. In fact, I teach how to write personal essays, and I say that if anybody has never written before and they want to write, there are about 15 places that are very big markets for first-person essays. You don’t have to be a published writer; you just have to have an interesting story. To name a few, the big ones are Newsweek’s My Turn column, the New York Times‘ Modern Love column for relationship pieces, and the Lives column in the [New York] Times‘ magazine. And women’s magazines and men’s magazines publish great [first-person] stuff. What I do with my students is I have them read a hundred first-person essays. So first you read them, and then you try to emulate them.What’s really great about wanting to reinvent yourself [as a writer] [is that] it’s one of the fields where the older and smarter you are, and the more life experiences you have, the better you are. It’s one of the very few fields where 20- and 25-year-olds are never as good as the 40- and 50-year-olds. All the older people [in my classes] have the most fascinating experiences, whether it’s medical, or going to war, or somebody dying in their family, or divorce. And if you’ve ever done another field, you write about that other field.The beauty is that all you have to commit to is three pages. I always say to my students, three pages can change your life. And it’s not hard to write a three-page essay at all, especially if you’ve already read a bunch of them and you have some system in place of getting feedback. Publications are really much more open than you think if you tell a heartfelt, good story. Q. At this stage in your career, now that you’re a mentor and have your own crop of proteges, what do you get out of giving back? A. It’s a way to channel everything I’ve done and everything I’ve learned — and every mistake I’ve ever made — into helping people and making them excited about what I love, which is writing. It’s kind of a family. And I do feel like it’s payback for all of the mentors who helped me. For more information on Susan Shapiro’s books, classes, and upcoming appearances, visit her Web site: susanshapiro.net Buy Only as Good as Your Word Originally published on MORE.com, November 2007.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:19

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