“Three pages can change your life.” This is what Susan Shapiro, prolific author and writing teacher said to me during an email conversation today. Susan teaches essay writing and many of her students have published 900 word essays in the New York Times, Newsweek, and Self magazine that have led to career changes, getting agents, and book deals.
This weekend I was lucky enough to take her workshop at The New School. I’d heard great things about it, but more importantly—I’d heard great things about her. Her debut novel, Speed Shrinking, has been touted as a “powerful, soulful, laugh out loud delight.” She’s also co-editor of Food for the Soul and authored the nonfiction books Only as Good as Your Word, Lighting Up, Secrets of a Fix-Up Fanatic and Five Men Who Broke My Heart. But it isn’t just her writing credits that impress, it’s her generosity—many have called her a guardian angel to young writers. She is one of those rare people who not only wants to see her students succeed, but believes it’s entirely possible. Her course is entitled “Instant Gratification Takes Too Long.” In this current state where everyone is declaring that publishing is dead and pursuing a writing career is just plain ridiculous, Susan is a breath of fresh air. I not only left her workshop with solid, constructive feedback, but with hope.
Not so long ago, I went to hear a panel speak and one of the writers said, “I am not going to lie to you—many of you will not be published. You just won’t. It’s close to impossible.” Here she was, a recently published writer, dissuading us from trying. It had happened for her, but she was suggesting that it wouldn’t happen for us. I was shocked. I was paying money to hear her speak, hoping for a little advice, maybe a tinge of encouragement. Her “advice” seemed irresponsible. The reality is that publishing is far from easy, but people are doing it every day. She is arrogant, my friend said. Who is she to tell us it’s impossible?
Susan believes it is possible. The first day of the workshop, she shows us this by handing out an incredibly thick packet with copies of published essays written by past students. A couple students were even paid up to $3,000 for their essays. Typically, writing programs don’t focus on publication. At an information session I went to at a university a few years back, the director of the program basically said flat out, “Well, no, we don’t teach you about the business side of writing. The focus is never on publication.” Most programs focus on craft, on the process. But many students feel that this leaves them somewhat ill prepared for the real world. After all, writing is a business. And while Susan does offer excellent writing instruction, she doesn’t shy away from the goal of publication. I left her class feeling like I was now privy to industry secrets, to information many professionals know but aren’t willing to share.
During our conversation today, I asked Susan if she would share her best pieces of writing advice. She offered these tips:
-Write about your obsessions
-Lead the least secretive life you can
-The first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice
She also said, “My favorite advice from a mentor was from my late cousin Howard Fast, who published many bestselling novels including “Spartacus.” When I once complained of writer’s block, he said “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block. Don’t be self-indulgent, just get to work. A page a day is a book a year.”
It is refreshing to know that there are people like Susan out there who want the best for aspiring writers. Don’t get me wrong, Susan is realistic. She knows that breaking into this business isn’t easy, but she’s had beloved mentors that have helped her along the way and now she is paying it forward to a new generation of writers. She is tough and no-nonsense. She bluntly tells what you need to do to get to where you want to be. And once you get there, once you break into that magazine or journal, her only rule is this: if you sell an article for over $1,000 dollars, she gets dinner.
“Don’t forget that the cosmic principle of karma involves circular deeds that create your destiny. So whatever you put out there eventually comes back to you.”
-Susan Shapiro (from “Only as Good as Your Word”)