For many young writers, trying to break into a creative field and make a living feels impossible and depressing. Acclaimed author and Manhattan journalism professor Susan Shapiro offers hope—along with a concrete plan. Her popular classes and seminars combine a practical approach with a wildly positive spirit. It’s a rare combination, painfully won through overcoming her battle with addictions. Sitting down with Shapiro at a coffee shop near her home in Greenwich Village, she shares her experiences and advice on combining career ambitions with self-care.
Publishers Weekly recently called your new novel “What’s Never Said”—about a teacher/student affair—“raw, witty and elegant.” You’ve also penned three acclaimed memoirs, tons of essays, and coauthored The New York Times bestselling self-help book “Unhooked.” Why so many different genres?
I don’t really understand people who proclaim, “I am a poet. I am a playwright.” Or write in their bylines, “Dave Smith is a poet, playwright, journalist and novelist.” I prefer just saying, “I’m a writer.” Most writers have to cross genres to make a living, like I did.
When did you begin writing?
The joke in my family is that my Aunt Ettie gave me the book “The Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson when I was two, and I used to march around our house in Michigan reciting the poems. My favorite was “I have a Little Shadow.” It was hard to get the attention of my dad, a busy doctor. But when I walked into his den and recited this poem, he shut off his x-ray machine, turned down the TV and put down the newspaper. He patted my head and told me how smart I was. The die was cast.
You’ve taught and mentored a lot of writers. Were they all struggling artists?
The interesting question is: Do you become a writer because you’re crazy? Or does trying to make it as a writer make you crazy? It’s a good debate. It certainly doesn’t help when the field you gravitate towards is almost impossible to make a living in, for years – if not decades. It took me until my forties. There’s a funny New Yorker cartoon where two parents look over their kid’s computer and one says, “Thank God it’s political theory.”
As a whole, writers seem overly sensitive. I’d say most artistic people had trouble fitting in. For me and many of my students, writing is a balm and a way to think through our issues. Joan Didion says, “I write to find out what I think.” So there’s something therapeutic about the process. In my book “Unhooked: How to Quit Anything,” my brilliant addiction specialist Frederick Woolverton tells everyone to journal. It’s very soothing and helpful. He also advised me to “lead the least secretive life you can.”
When did your addictive behaviors start?
At 13 I started smoking, drinking and toking. It seemed cool. But then I got really addicted. It took a lot of years to quit.
What helped you overcome your addictions?
Therapy! I recommend it highly. I’m a shrinkaholic. Everything good in my life happened after I quit smoking and drinking. My addiction specialist has a line I like: When you quit a toxic habit, you leave space for something better to take its place. For me that’s been publishing books, which became my new addiction.
Did your writing change after you quit?
Yes. I came to him right after 9/11. I had friends my age who died. I was 40, having a midlife crisis. I was having trouble with my marriage, going through infertility. I was broke and work was really frustrating. I said to Fred “I feel like I could die tomorrow and not get anything I want.” He asked, “What do you want most?”
Before that I would’ve guessed a happy marriage or a baby, but all of a sudden I said, “I have this book that I want to get published. If I die tomorrow, that’s what I’d want.” It’s important in therapy to identify problems and goals. My classes are very goal-oriented. I teach what I call the Instant Gratification Takes Too Long method, where the goal is to write and publish a great piece by the end of the class.
My addiction specialist’s theory was that I was going about my work as an addict. Addicts depend on substances, not people. It’s why I wasn’t getting what I wanted. With addictions, you have an awkward, weird feeling, and instead of staying with the feeling and letting it tell its own story, you cut it off. You smoke it, drink it, eat it, gamble it or fuck it away. You just do something to get rid of it because it hurts and you don’t want to stay there. So his theory was I couldn’t stay with a longer narrative.
I was only publishing short essays and reviews at the time. I couldn’t finish a book because I didn’t have the attention span. Whenever something got uncomfortable or hurt, the way I ran my life as an addict was to cut it off. He said to me, “If you stay in therapy once a week, do everything I say, at the end of one year you will be finished with cigarettes and you’ll publish a book.” I had a reason to believe him. I met him through my husband Charlie [Rubin] and he helped us get married. At the end of my first year of addiction therapy, I was finished with cigarettes and had three book deals.
But every time I quit one addition, I’d get addicted to something else. If I quit cigarettes I was smoking dope every day. Then I started drinking, then chewing gum every minute. So I actually wound up quitting cigarettes, alcohol, dope, gum and bread. And then I had to give up diet soda. What’s that Bob Dylan line, “Just when you think you’ve lost everything, you find you have something more to lose.”
In terms of self-care, is this something you still have to manage?
Sure. I learned that being a people pleaser was part of the problem. A lot of addictions start when you’re hanging out with others and you do what your friends and family are doing, even if it’s overeating or drinking and smoking too much or doing drugs. I needed to overhaul everything I did. I basically quit my social life. I wrote a piece called “Quitting Guilt” for “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” and the first two lines were “I spent the last two years saying no.” In those two years, I got everything I wanted.
My addiction specialist said to divide the world into two sections: Everything was either part of the solution or part of the problem. I stopped hanging out with friends who smoked and drank. Stopped going to dinner parties. I stopped lying to relatives and colleagues about different events I didn’t want to go to. I became extremely selfish and self-protective I got up in the morning and thought, “What do I need to take care of myself?“
What did you do with that extra time?
What I needed to finish a book—which was my goal—was to wake up and write every day. Even now that I’ve been clean and sober for 14 years (and published 10 books in that time), from nine to five, seven days a week, I write. That’s my space for my work and nobody gets in the way – unless it’s an emergency or something important I choose in advance to do.
A long time ago when I said I had writer’s block, a mentor who was a bestselling author replied, “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block. Don’t be self-indulgent; just get to work every day. A page a day is a book a year.” For me now it’s either a page a day, or I rewrite this chapter or finish the first draft of an essay. The minute I’m finished, I feel so much happier.
The most important energy is given to my work in the morning. I get a second wind at night from teaching two hour classes. After that I hang out with my husband and I try to exercise. That’s when I started the walking office hours. If a student wants more time with me, we’ll walk for an hour and that’s feels great because I’m sitting at the computer all day. My student Aspen Matis is a night owl who lives nearby. When she was working on her memoir, she had a lot questions so we did a lot of midnight speed walks around Washington Square Park.
It sounds like developing a routine is important to you.
For an addict, you need very rigid regulations and rules. If you follow your mood, your mood will always lead you to use. Just for an example, one session I was telling my therapist about something I bought. He said, “Wait a second, how much money have you spent this week?” I had spent a ludicrous amount without realizing it. I was too excited. He has a line I love: Beware of all excitement because it takes you out of yourself and you always have to get back to yourself.
You can take anything to excess and hurt yourself, which is what we write about in “Unhooked.” The first story chronicles a woman gets addicted to church events. It makes her feel good about herself and she gets so obsessed with it that she doesn’t realize she’s neglecting her daughter, who is very ill from anorexia.
How long have you been in therapy?
I started when I was at NYU. I met this fabulous shrink, Patricia Gross, who is still on 10th St. First, she was at the Post Doctorate Center and she had a sliding scale. All I could afford was $20 a session. I went in and said, “I can’t have a real relationship or publish anything.” She wound up dancing at my wedding and my book party. I still recommend students and friends to her because she’s so smart and empathetic.
My husband really hated my smoking and toking, so he pushed me to go to addiction therapy. So I later saw an addiction specialist at The Village Institute for Psychotherapy in the East Village. They have a shrinks with different specialties who will also work on a sliding scale.
What is it about therapy that helps you?
Almost everybody in your life has a stake in your decisions, so it’s hard to get advice from somebody unbiased. Maybe my husband wanted me to quit smoking because he didn’t want to smell the smoke. Colleagues might tell me not to write a book and stick to short pieces because that’s where they are. Any advice my parents give will be geared towards wanting me to come home and visit them all the time. Almost everyone you know is going to push you in a direction that pleases them. So it’s important to have a sounding board with someone who has nothing at stake except for your success.
When did you meet Charlie?
I met Charlie when I was 29. A filmmaker friend fixed us up on a blind date. My memory was that I was ambivalent and told my friend, “He’s really smart and sweet, but he’s not my type” and she said, “Your type is neurotic, self-destructive and not the least interested in going out with you again.”
But then I found an old datebook where I scrawled daily notes and I wrote about our first date. My first response was something like, “Wow! He’s gorgeous, 6’4′, great hair, brilliant hilarious!” It sort of screwed up my original story. For a recent anniversary, I found the original notebook page and I had it blown up and framed. We clicked right away but then he was a commitment-phobe who drove me crazy for six years.
Is it easier or harder to date another writer?
I find it much easier. He just understands everything. If I’m on a deadline it’s like, get the hell away from me and don’t talk to me for three days. He’s the same way so we respect each other’s time, space and privacy. If we’re invited to an event, sometimes one of us will say “I’m going but you don’t have to. You can just stay home and work,” which is a great present.
Before I met Charlie, another friend fixed me up with a lawyer. I thought we had a great date but he never called me again. I asked my friend what happened. I worried I wasn’t pretty or skinny or rich enough for him. My friend asked him and he said “I thought she was beautiful but she didn’t shut up about her writing the entire date. She didn’t ask me anything about my work.”
I was excited because I’d recently broken into The New York Times Magazine. I thought it was great feedback. I actually recommend getting feedback in a book I wrote about being a fix-up fanatic. I realized I’d a self-involved obsessive workaholic. So I married another writer which solved that problem. When he broke into The New York Times Magazine, we celebrated. It might help that he’s mostly written for TV and film while I’ve been in print. If we were in the exact same arena, that might get more complicated.
What do you think you do best for your students?
I seem to be the only one I know whose focuses on getting published. The goal of my class is to publish a great piece by the end of class, to pay for the class. Nobody else seems to do that. The reason it started was because I spent $30,000 getting my MFA at NYU, studying with Nobel, Pulitzer Prize-winning writers. I absolutely loved it, but I came out not even knowing how to write a cover letter.
Luckily, I had a professor who helped me get a job with The New Yorker. From there, I had several mentors who taught me how to get published. My life didn’t really get exciting until I realized where in publishing I could fit in. It’s not just about reading the work of brilliant authors. I didn’t have to be Philip Roth in order to get paid for my own writing. There are many places looking for new voices that will pay you for good work.
Right out of NYU, someone from the New School came to a private writing group I ran and said, “You’re a great critic. Why don’t you do this for us?” At the time, I was publishing seven pieces a week for different newspapers and magazines. But I didn’t want to do fiction 101, poetry 101, journalism 101, the way it’s usually taught. I asked, “Can I try something different?”
I only gave assignments editors wanted, the exact word length. I critiqued quickly, then encouraged revisions. I had editors come speak to my students, explaining what they wanted. The method worked! In that first class in 1993, out of 12 people, 8 got published and 4 made $1,000 or more for their work. My first rule was, “If anyone gets over $1,000 from one of my assignments, I get dinner.” Every year, great things happened. Young people would get clips, jobs, internships, editors and agents. Some became literary agents and staff writers and sold books to major houses. It just rocked.
So you teach what feels glossed over by other programs?
Yes. I only give assignments that editors want and will buy quickly. Most teachers I know view writing as a slow process and they often encourage long, unpublishable, experimental work. I taught feature writing at NYU’s Journalism School and they said, “We want you to give all your students a 5,000 to 7,000 word term paper.” Why would I give an 18-year-old who just moved here from Idaho and wants to break into newspapers an assignment to write 5,000 to 7,000 words? If I did, Idaho would probably feel frustrated and bored and hate the whole field, especially if he tried to pitch that long a piece to editors. He’d be dejected because –unless the student had an exclusive expose of a drug-prostitution ring in Mexico –nobody would be the least bit interested. But if I give Idaho a 300-word assignment, it’ll get it published and that’s exciting. Then we’ll try writing a 600-word piece. My former student Seth Kugel first sold a 600 word op-ed piece to the New York Times in my class. Now he does great 5000-word pieces for the paper as their Frugal Traveler. But it took years to build up to that.
Why start with a huge difficult academic waste of time? I only want my students to write real pieces that editors will take. A lot of editors and agents are dying for new young diverse voices. So I find it counterproductive to not pay attention to the market. I can understand why someone teaching fiction, poetry or playwriting might try different kinds of experiments to inspire students but I teach feature journalism. Each genre is different.
You’ve coauthored three books. How do you like collaboration?
It’s equally fun and interesting. Truthfully, I have a very undramatic life. I prefer first-person non-fiction. I did three collaborations with men: “The Bosnia List” with my Bosnian physical therapist Kenan Trebincevic, “Unhooked” with my addiction specialist Fred Woolverton, and “Food for the Soul,” with Ian Frazier. We taught a class at The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. Some of the members were drug addicts, homeless or recently out of prison. We put together an anthology of their first-person stories. It was on the “Today Show” and NPR. All the money went to the 25 participants and the church to feed homeless people.
I think my coauthored projects influenced my most recent novel “What’s Never Said,” which was half in a man’s voice and half in a woman’s.
What has been your experience with juggling different jobs and industries?
My former student Marci Alboher wrote a book called “One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success.” She interviewed me about being a writer by day and teacher by night. Her theory is that that’s the wave of the future. You do what you love part-time and do what you need to do to make a living with the other hours. The combination actually makes you a healthier, more interesting person. Psychologically, what they say is the more arenas you exist well in, the healthier you are.
If I was just writing, I wouldn’t have as great a life. I’d sit alone in a room too much, chasing after bylines and checks. To be able to go out into the world to teach is exciting. I’ve been at NYU and The New School and I’ll be teaching a class at Columbia University’s MFA program next year though I may turn into a pumpkin going above 14th street.
How did you figure out career issues?
I was really lucky with my addiction specialist because he was also very smart about work issues. It’s good to have a shrink or mentor to figure out your goals and see what you’re doing to sabotage yourself. You need people to help you be goal-oriented, realistic, to make a plan. There’s a great saying I love: “Upon the moment of commitment, the world conspires to help you.“ Therapy helped me identify how I felt, what I wanted, what was keeping me from getting what I wanted.
At a recent panel you told a student, “You should only write this if you are willing to write it for free.”
Well, I don’t actually think people should write for free. Some of my students write beautiful pieces and immediately put them on a blog or Facebook or give them to Huffington Post. I actually teach people not to do that.
I was talking writing a book, which can be a really long, difficult process. I’ve had students who come up with a book idea purely to make money. I don’t think that’s necessarily the best motivation to dedicate several years of your life. If a student comes to me with a novel, short story, essay or poetry collection, I’ll often ask, “If you know in advance no one will pay you for this, would you still write this book?” If they say yes, then that’s usually the book they should be writing. What if you don’t get a check for eight years? There has to be a passion or a compelling desire that’s driving you to stay with the sheer amount of hours it takes.
What’s the most frustrating thing that you’ve seen writers do?
Sometimes students ask my advice, then ignore it, get frustrated and complain the system doesn’t work. I remind them the system works if you show up to class for 15 weeks, hand in assignments, read what you want to be writing and pay attention to the genre. Youth and exuberance can be great, but there are only 20 categories in a bookstore. It’s very rare that a writer can invent their own genre and write whatever the hell they want without any help or instruction.
You also have to do your homework. If you want help from a writer, editor or agent helping you out, you have no excuse not to Google the person and start your letter with congratulations, flattery or respect. I get all these E-mails that begin, “Though I’ve never read your work, I just graduated from Princeton and my professor said my 700-page thesis is brilliant and should be published, so I’ve attached it for you.” That goes under the heading “Letters we never finished reading.”
In my mentor book “Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons from My Favorite Literary Gurus,” I give advice on how to approach someone who’s older and more experienced you want help from. Show up to their reading, take their class, buy their book and tell them what you liked about it. You don’t just go up to a stranger with your manuscript and say, “Here’s what I want.” I’m not your aunt or your mother’s best friend. I do this for a living. I’m not predisposed to help someone who comes off myopic, selfish and entitled.
Conversely, you could write an E-mail that’s so nice, that half an hour later you could be sitting in my apartment and I’ll be handing you books. I’m not saying fake it, but if you’re going to someone older, you should sincerely pay homage and tell them why you admire them. I did that with my mentors.
What advice would you give your younger self?
A mentor said to me early on, “Write books, write longer.” I didn’t publish my first book until I was 43 and I wish I would have sooner.
I also wish I would’ve found my addiction specialist earlier because I wasted a lot of time smoking and drinking. People say, “Don’t smoke, you’ll get lung cancer. Don’t drink, it’s bad for your liver.” That never resonated with me. When you’re young, you think you’re going to live forever. What I didn’t know was that my self-destructive habits were keeping me from getting everything I wanted in life. I didn’t know that the reason I couldn’t have true intimacy or finish a long book was because I was acting like an addict.
I’m making up for the lost years now. I’ve also helped students quit addictions. One student complained “I can’t get published!” But when I asked, he told me he went out with a bunch of Wall Street friends the night before and spent $70 on seven beers instead of writing or going to a panel with writers and editors. I told him to connect the two. That’s what’s beautiful about teaching. I feel like I can use my failures and mistakes to help my students, so it was all worth something.
What advice would you give a struggling writer?
My classes and seminars are designed to offer a smart plan to launch your career in the most exciting way possible. I offer specific assignments editor want. There’s a smart way to present yourself to the world. I get Facebook messages where people I don’t know basically want to do my whole class for free in a few instant messages. I do tons of free panels at the NYU Bookstore, The New School, Barnes and Noble and The Strand. Some are even taped and up on my website for free. The panelists are brilliant editors and agents. My shrink has another good line. “Successful people will do things that other people won’t.” If you really want to get published, you have to get out of your comfort zone, take a class, show up for panels to meet good editors and make it a priority. Buy good books and read them to get good publishing karma.
I was doing a panel at Cooper Union’s Great Hall which seats 1,000 people. There was a top editor at Random House I knew, but maybe not well enough to expect him to do my upcoming publishing panel for free. I Googled and saw that I book he’d written that I loved had just been turned into a movie, and it was opening that weekend. I changed my plan that night and went to the movie. I emailed him at midnight to congratulate him and mentioned how they kept in my favorite line from his book. He wrote me right back and was so excited to talk about it. He said of course he would do the panel and gave me the names of other luminaries who wound up doing the panel too. I think part of the reason he said yes was because I was being respectful to him and his years of work. Instead of being entitled, I did my homework. That’s another good reason to teach, I hear the advice I give my students and remember to take it myself.