By David Sobel
They say you’re supposed to teach the class you always wanted to take and write the book you wished you’d read. Bestselling author Susan Shapiro has done just that. Frustrated with the lack of publishing knowledge in her own undergraduate studies and MFA program, she is famous for helping thousands of her Manhattan students break into the publishing world. Now her funny, illuminating, and inspiring new writing guide The Byline Bible chronicles how writers can break into big newspapers, literary journals, magazines, and webzines. I caught up with my old professor in Greenwich Village, where we talked about her new book, her old theories, and how she balances writing and teaching.
DAVID SOBEL: The Byline Bible is full of essays students wrote in your class and then sold to The New York Times, Tin House, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. Why do so many of your students get published?
SUSAN SHAPIRO: I call it “the instant gratification takes too long” method, where the goal of the class is to write and publish a great piece by the end of the class. Being goal-oriented helps. I’ve been writing short pieces for decades. As Edie Brickell sang “I’m not aware of too many things but I know what I know, if you know what I mean.”
In your classes you mix people of all ages, races, religions and backgrounds. So what do the students getting into these top-tier publications have in common?
The ability to take criticism and revise accordingly is probably the most important trait, whether it comes to my feedback, fellow students’ or the suggestions of the editors they send their work to. The people who say “You can’t touch a comma” tend not to get ahead.
In one of your classes, a student brought in a crime novel. You said it wasn’t your genre, but you critiqued it anyway. I was blown away, because as a fan of crime fiction, I thought your comments were right on. You’ve also helped students with playwriting and TV scripts. Do the skills you’ve developed writing memoirs and personal essays apply to fiction and dramatic writing too?
Most writers I know cross genres and some of the same criticisms apply across the board. Also, I have an MFA in poetry, reviewed books for the New York Times Book Review, Newsday and Washington Post for decades. And I’ve published three novels myself. Just because I’ve focused on creative nonfiction doesn’t mean I can’t read and critique other genres well.
You wrote a pithy rebuttal to the New Yorker screed disparaging personal essays, pointing out that they published work by David Sedaris and Junot Diaz and the piece itself was a personal essay. Why do members of the literary community have such ambivalent feelings about the genre?
Maybe because anybody can learn to do it well so that’s threatening. Editors often tell my classes that the story itself is more important to them than the writing. If the story is good enough, they’ll help them revise it.
In your classes, I remember students who wrote about addiction, sexual assault, physical abuse and illness. Did you ever wrestle with hearing these traumatic encounters? How have you managed not to let it overcome you?
I always say writing is a way to transform your worst experiences into the most beautiful. I come from a confessional poetry background. My first loves were Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Maya Angelou, Yehuda Amichai, Rita Dove. I’m inspired and invigorated when people try to tackle heavy subjects. It’s the superficial cliches that depress me. I tell my students that I’ve been in therapy so long they get shrunk by osmosis.
You’ve actually written quite a bit about therapy, in your memoir Lighting Up, your bestselling self-help book Unhooked and your comic novel Speed Shrinking.
Yes, my shrink always said, “Good therapy should pay for itself,” and in my case it actually did. After my addiction specialist helped me quit smoking, drinking and drugs, I tripled my income. I talk about therapy a lot in class, to demystify the process. I’ve recommended so many students to specific therapists I feel like I should get one of the punch cards they give out at Korean nail salons AND GET SOME SESSIONS FOR FREE.
What about your rule, “the first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice”?
I believe that. My Midwest family hates most of what I write. But they’re not my audience.
A literary novelist who teaches at a popular MFA program told me the hardest thing about teaching is she rarely finds the time to work on her own novels. Yet you have 12 books out and continue to publish despite helping thousands of students. What’s your secret?
I write by day, only teach 6 hours a week by night and compartmentalize well. And I find short-feature journalism the easiest to teach, revise and publish quickly. That’s why most of my assignments are 400-900 words. It takes less time to grade and line-edit the papers and leaves me more time to do my own work.
I find personal essay writing to be cathartic, but it’s also terrifying be so open. A piece I published in Salon got such vicious feedback on social media, it almost made me stop writing altogether. What do you say to students who put something out there that they are very proud of, but who experience online abuse?
Don’t read or respond to the comments. But it’s hard not to. I’m a hypocrite who doesn’t take my own advice. On the first day of publication of Byline Bible, one idiot wrote that she didn’t really love this “nonfiction novel” on Goodreads. I told her that if she doesn’t know there’s no such thing as a “nonfiction novel” she has no business reviewing a book.
What have you written that you’re most proud of?
I loved coauthoring The Bosnia List with Kenan Trebincevic, who survived ethnic cleansing as a Bosnian Muslim boy in the Balkans. Maybe because it was so unlike my life. My father loved the book, probably because he was so happy I wasn’t writing about our family.
What can we hope to see from your own writing in the future?
I’m finishing up a timely co-authored middle-grade book, Memoir of a Muslim Refugee, with Kenan. And working on another memoir called The Forgiveness Tour.
You recently wrote that you used to feel bad about having to teach to make a living, but you no longer do. Why not?
At first I just wanted to write and resented having to read and edit the work of so many others. Then it became a calling.
Are you doing anything special to publicize Byline Bible?
Yes, I’ve been doing readings and panels. On September 11 I’ll be doing an exciting reading at the Strand Bookstore with 13 students all reading the first short pieces they published in my class which are reprinted and linked to Byline Bible. And on September 21 I’m doing a panel with great editors and agents to benefit I Too Arts, a Harlem charity started by my former student Renee Watson.
Do you like collaborating with so many students?
Yes. My husband, a brilliant script writer, is also a writing professor. He’s at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. We often joke that pretty soon our former students will be the only ones taking our calls.
David Sobel is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. His personal essays have appeared in Salon, Quartzy, and Vox.