Sunday, May 5, 2019

HAIG CHAHINIAN reviews celebrated American writing professor and memoirist Susan Shapiro's new book, "The Byline Bible"


The Byline Bible reads like taking Shapiro’s class.

For twenty-five years Susan Shapiro has been teaching students how to write soulful and successful essays, opinion and humor pieces, and book reviews. Her students at the New School, New York University, Temple, and Harvard have been published in international newspapers, magazines and literary journals. Using her “Instant Gratification Takes Too Long” method, they aim to “write and publish a great piece by the end of class.” More than 25,000 have followed her advice, landing work everywhere from The New Yorker to The Nation to The Sun.

Not only does Shapiro develop her students’ ear for writing lyrically, she helps them create work publishable in the marketplace. In the last decade, her protégés have authored 150 books. Zack McDermott’s acclaimed Little Brown memoir Gorilla and The Bird—in which Shapiro makes a cameo as an inspirational writing teacher—was optioned for a television mini-series. Aspen Matis dedicated her HarperCollins memoir Girl in the Woods to her teacher. Several—including  Cat Marnell’s addiction chronicle How to Murder Your Life and Renee Watson’s novel Piecing Me Together—have landed on bestseller lists.  One former pupil has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Along with being an award-winning teacher and mentor, Shapiro is a bestselling author. In her thirteenth title, The Byline Bible, she’s gathered all her wisdom in a poetic, inspiring guide that teaches the reader how to write and publish creative non-fiction pieces.

Full disclosure: Seven years ago when I told a friend I wanted someday to get my writing published, he suggested I take Shapiro’s class. Her New School University seminar was already full, so I waited months to register for her 5-week private workshop. Skeptical, I doubted she could live up to the hype.  But I was taken in by her story of getting her MFA in poetry, struggling through years of rejection finally to see her work in print. Shapiro stressed the importance of reading what you want to write, taking criticism, and doing multiple revisions. I devoured the course packet, thick with her students’ successful publications. To date my only byline had been a poem in The Bangles fan club newsletter. “The first piece you write that your family hates means you found your voice,” she told us. “So write about your obsessions.” Her first assignment was to draft three pages on our most humiliating moment.

As a gay father, I revealed my rage when a toddler on the playground told me my daughter had five dads instead of two. I published it in Salon. Shapiro’s method worked. Taking her class again, I wrote an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times about the cruelties of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day for same-sex parents. Since then, with Shapiro’s expert critique, my work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine and The Washington Post.

They say you’re supposed to teach the class you want to take and write the book you want to read. Shapiro injects humor on every page, including a section on “Cover Letters Editors Never Finished Reading” and “How Not to Deal with Rejection.” Her quick wit and self-deprecating style belie the massive feat she’s accomplished:  taking the seemingly impenetrable newspaper, magazine, online and book worlds and demystifying the publication process.

The Byline Bible reads like taking Shapiro’s class. She details the same short nonfiction assignments given to her pupils. As in her course packet, she includes dozens of pieces based on her assignments that students published. Like a virtual teacher, she provides emotional encouragement, too. “No never means no,” she writes. “It means keep revising and try again.”

The Byline Bible
by Susan Shapiro
Writer’s Digest Books
2018, 268 pages, $19.99

Haig Chahinian is an executive coach and writer in New York City.  He’s currently working on a memoir. 

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