Blood from a Door Nail: Talking with Susan Shapiro
For twenty-five years Susan Shapiro has taught students at The New School and NYU, along with Temple, Cooper Union, Columbia, and Harvard, not just how to write astoundingly good essays but how to sell them quickly to top newspapers and magazines. “Write and publish a great piece by the end of the class,” is the goal. More than 25,000 students have heeded her advice, landing work in pretty much every webzine, journal, paper, and glossy you can conjure. So far, her protégés have written one hundred and fifty books. Several—including Aspen Matis’s memoir Girl in the Woods, Cat Marnell’s addiction chronicle How to Murder Your Life, and Renee Watson’s novel Piecing Me Together—have been bestsellers.
Along with helping launch some significant careers, Shapiro is an acclaimed author in her own right. She’s published twelve books—fiction and nonfiction—and landed on the bestseller list herself. Shapiro has now gathered all her pithy wisdom into The Byline Bible, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books on August 21. This brilliant, witty, and inspiring guide teaches the reader how to write and publish an impressive personal essay, along with regional and service pieces, op-eds, and humor pieces.
I recently had the pleasure of picking her brain about her new book, her old strategies, and theories of how a creative soul can be both successful and sane.
The Rumpus: In your introduction, you say that as a kid you often felt silenced by your dynamic family, so you took up journaling: “My fantasies of being an acclaimed author were fueled by the desire to be heard.” How heard are you feeling these days?
Susan Shapiro: After decades of struggle—writing, revising, teaching, in therapy and recovery—I feel very heard. And blessed to live in my fantasy book-filled home with my amazing husband, who is a brilliant writer, editor, and sounding board. (“I did good at the husband store,” I tell him and he calls himself my support animal.) I’m happily ensconced in Greenwich Village, where I moved for NYU and never left. I throw lots of book parties, panels and charity events, my new addiction since I had to quit everything else. I’ve had so many generous people go out of their way to launch my books, it seems time to give back.
I’m lucky to have published essays and books with top agents and editors I admire. I’m surrounded by close friends and colleagues and revolve my deadlines around weekly writing workshops with the sharpest critics I know—who “get” me and my work. I have gurus I trust with all career and life questions. I enjoy teaching and walking office hours with students almost every night. I need the human connection to get away from the computer and out of my head.
Especially after a very sad year. I’m still in mourning for my father, who I lost in December. He’d always hated the confessional elements in my writing. In my recent piece for Literary Hub, I chronicled our recent reconciliation, how he let me know he was proud of me and my realization that my parents made my Manhattan life possible. Overall, I’d say I’m secure with my insecurities. I’ve nailed all my dreams. How many people can say that? Now the struggle is to keep it up. My shrink insists I’m jealous of myself twenty years ago.
Rumpus: You’re not afraid to go deep and raw in your personal essays, like your most recent New York Times Ties column in which you explore sibling rivalry. What allowed you to lay yourself bare like that? Are you ever frightened to do so?
Shapiro: For that piece, I showed my brother beforehand to get his permission to publish. It was very well received, except by my mother, who detests anything that implies that my Michigan upbringing wasn’t perfect and joyous. I’ve explained to her that what works in real life—being happy, loving your family—would counterintuitively be tedious on the page. And that I intentionally play up drama/conflict/tension or, to paraphrase Arthur Miller, the only thing worth writing is the unspeakable. I do feel gratitude that all my relatives are hilarious, smart, colorful and supportive in many ways.
In junior high, my first literary love was confessional poetry. I fell for Plath, Lowell, Sexton, Hughes, and Maya Angelou who spilled all the horrible secrets you weren’t supposed to say out loud. That’s what hooked me. Interestingly a lot of poets I admire (Mary Carr, Katha Pollitt, Maggie Nelson, Tracey K. Smith) expand their themes in essays and memoirs, maybe because you can actually make a living publishing nonfiction. Also, I was a failed poet. Someone who knew my work well once told me that my poetry had “too many words and not enough music” and there was more poetry in my prose.
To stay clean, sober, smoke-free, healthy, and successful, my addiction specialist told me to “lead the least secretive life you can.” My conservative Midwest doctor dad countered with “repression is the greatest gift of the human intellect.” The rule I tell my students is, “The first piece you write that your family hates means that you found your voice.”
Rumpus: You encourage writers to find the extraordinary within the ordinariness of their lives. How do we go about this?
Shapiro: Well, I don’t embrace “ordinariness” as some writers do. I don’t like or use the word “ordinary.” Too many day-to-day domestic details bore me—in writing, life, and social media. Just because something really happened is never enough reason to share it. (Unless you’re journaling and I’m not interested in seeing anyone else’s journal or stream of consciousness regurgitations.) I encourage students to write about their obsessions, to dig deeper, to explore their darkest, most dramatic moments. Someone once told me, “You could get blood from a door nail.”
I’d say: study the kind of writing you want to emulate. Read your work aloud. Take classes with tough critics who’ll tell you the truth so your pages improve. Keep revising. If you don’t have time or money for a whole semester of study, I recommend a one-shot seminar or panel. Or hire a ghost editor who’ll line edit and direct you.
Rumpus: Do you enjoy the role of mentor? Are you ever jealous of your students?
Shapiro: I had many amazing older mentors I tried to honor in my memoir Only As Good as Your Word. Now I’m at the age where I have more protégées and try to pay it back. My husband is also a professor; he’s a gifted writer and teacher. Maybe since we don’t have children, we’ve made room in our lives and hearts for younger people we care about. Also, we have cherished nieces and nephews who’ve discovered that our extra bedroom (deemed “The Murder Room” since it houses all my husband’s old Law & Order: Criminal Intent scripts) can be their Manhattan crash pad with free Wi-Fi and Chinese takeout.
But my wise therapist taught me to create good boundaries. I don’t let students email me their assignments at all hours—they have to bring hard copies to class, when I’m focused on helping others. I’m careful about word lengths and very honest. When someone asks, “Do you want to read my 700-page sci-fi thriller in rhyming iambic pentameter?” I’ll say “No, I’d rather get root canal,” recommend a ghost editor with that expertise, and remind them I’ll only read and edit the 900-word assignment.
Sometimes I’m up against the obsession with youth culture. It feels like a funny paradox when I can’t find a home for an essay I’ve spent months on when a seventeen-year-old student who has never taken a writing course before can instantaneously sell a piece I assigned and edited the day before. Though my Jungian astrologer warned me, “You’ll take others higher than you’ll take yourself,” I’ve learned to understand and embrace that dynamic. I started out teaching because it was steady, to pay bills, but it turned into a calling. I love when my students are successful. Feels like good karma since I’m emulating the teachers and mentors I cherished. Wrestling with my younger self seems more fruitful: spiritually, intellectually, metaphorically. If someone isn’t sure what to write about, I recommend exploring your feelings of failure and regret.
Rumpus: You mention in your book that you write daily. Where do you write?
Shapiro: I write every day, all day, at home. I never understood people who have to go to writing colonies to get work done because I can’t work well anywhere else. (Though I don’t have kids and my husband is a scriptwriter who totally understands “I’m on deadline, see you Wednesday.”) When I once complained of writer’s block, a bestselling novelist mentor told me, “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block. Don’t be self-indulgent. Just wake up and get to work.” He also said, “A page a day is a book a year,” which helped me.
I struggled to make a living and publish a book for twenty-three years. I was under the delusion that cigarettes, marijuana, and alcohol were helping my work when they were hurting me. Then in 2001, I quit smoking, toking, and drinking and became more successful. My intense addiction therapist forced me to reorganize my life and find better passions and preoccupations. When I sold my first memoir, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, to a wonderful editor at Random House, it felt like the whole world cracked open. I did several books in a row that were well received. It felt like I was on cocaine but the real-life publishing high was more thrilling. Comparatively being a workaholic is an improvement though all excitement can be dangerous because it takes you out of yourself and you always have to go back to yourself.
Rumpus: Do you see writing as a form of therapy?
Shapiro: No, do real therapy. Without it, how will you understand yourself or your characters or navigate the difficult terrain of freelance writing and publishing without help and good advice? If anyone emails me directly, I can recommend fantastic shrinks in Manhattan, Michigan, Chicago, Arkansas, Los Angeles, and some who work by Skype. Doing psychotherapy is like getting a PhD in yourself. I joke that I’m so over-shrunk, my students get it by osmosis.
Rumpus: What mistakes do you see writers make most often?
Shapiro: I’m contacted by a lot of people who’ve never taken an English, journalism, or creative writing course and want to jump into publishing, thinking they’ll instantaneously write well and make a living doing it. That rarely happens. I was an English major at the University of Michigan, did my graduate degree at NYU, and studied privately with top poets, novelists, and memoirists. I understand that many people can’t afford an MFA at a top school, but I recommend taking a class or seminar with an author who’s a good critic. If you’re broke, go to free readings and panels, which are offered at most bookstores and schools around the country. As my shrink told me, “Hang out with people you want to be.” They say you’re supposed to teach the class you wanted to take, which I do, and write the book you wanted to read, which is Byline Bible. I put together just about everything I learned about writing and publishing.
Rumpus: You bust the myth of the writer as loner, presenting a collaborative world of workshops and ghost editors. Why do you think feedback is important?
Shapiro: I’ve never seen anyone sit alone in their home, write a good book, and then get it published. Maybe it happens but I certainly didn’t break through that way. I studied with luminaries for six years at universities, worked as a lowly assistant at the New Yorker for four years, then had immense help from mentors, teachers, and critics from my writing workshops for the next few decades. Once you have an agent, book editor, and publisher, you get a team of experts in the field, which can be ideal. So much better than self-publishing, which I never recommend. I’d say most of the one hundred and fifty books my former students have published so far were crafted or perfected in writing classes, workshops, or with ghost editors, agents, and real editors.
Rumpus: How difficult is it to make a living as a freelance writer?
Shapiro: My advice is usually to find something else you can do to pay bills, even part time. My husband and I write by day and teach by night. It takes the pressure off the writing. My former student Marci Alboher, who wrote a smart career column in the New York Times, published the One Person/Multiple Careers, which is the wave of the future. Even when you can make it on your work alone, I’ve found having another vocation can add so much. Teaching has really enhanced my life, including spending thirteen years doing a special workshop at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, a program started by my mentor Ian Frazier that led to a joint charity book we did together. Sitting alone with your typewriter or computer all day and night isn’t so healthy. Could be why so many creative souls self-destruct.
Rumpus: Do you believe a writer should always be paid for their work?
Shapiro: Yes. The Huffington Post model, started by a multi-millionaire with a big divorce settlement, set a horrific precedent in the field. The only time I’ve written for Huff Post or other places for free is when I want a wider audience quickly for a book I’m plugging, an event, or a charity.
Rumpus: In your introduction you say you were frustrated to pay thousands of dollars to get a graduate degree where you learned very little practical advice. Do you think MFA writing programs should be teaching writers how to actually place their work?
Shapiro: I’m lucky the New School and NYU offer stipends to pay top-notch editors and agents to speak to my classes and panels. If it’s done well by someone who is discerning, there should be room at universities to educate writing students on future career potential (as they do in law, medicine, and business). But I’m lucky; not many programs care about this. I couldn’t necessarily compete with other professors in my field, so this gap left a niche open for me.
Photograph of Susan Shapiro © Dan Brownstein.