The Smith Fund/ PO Box 340029/ Boston, MA 02241-0429
postcard of Susan Shapiro’s Only as Good as Your Word
in Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons from My Favorite Literary Gurus, Susan Shapiro tells of her relationships with several of her most important writing mentors to outline her own story as a writer. she starts with her high school modern lit teacher: Mr. Zucker, her older best-selling author and columnist cousin: Howard Fast, her very first boss at the New Yorker: Helen Stark, colleague, conspirator, and realist Ian Frazier, the unassuming legend Ruth Gruber, the fastidious editor Michael Anderson, and the unrelated poet Harvey Shapiro. in chronicling her partnerships with each, she describes the ups and downs of being a freelance writer: pressures to find the next assignment, dealing with unaccomodating editors, writing about things you don’t necessarily care about, or in the writing medium that is not your particular specialty, and the seductiveness of a full-time, salaried, but potentially very boring office job.
Shapiro writes of mentor/mentee relationships between writers but her coming-of-age story to be a prominent and prolific freelance writer is more about the lessons learned from the relationships that we all seek out – either for advice, companionship, out of admiration, convenience, or necessity. there are people who are always pushing you to stay true to your craft, not to sell out, or there are those who are realistic when you get idealistic. there are some relationships that seems to be less mutual admiration, and more one-sided, those that just fade b/c one person decides to just cease contact – there are these life lessons about people and relationships, that you can’t keep them all, and they aren’t always on your terms, or any sort of mutual terms. it’s something i’m still struggling with as i realize how true and frequent to the world this scenario exists.
“Hadn’t I been a promiscuous protege myself? i’d cast a wide net, juggling many editors, older colleagues and superiors simultaneously, deserting a few gurus gone wrong, always searching for more gurus gone right. i couldn’t expect her [someone wooing Shapiro to become their mentor] to be a serial monogamist when it came to mentors when i wasn’t. those kinds of adviser-advisee relationships weren’t like marriages, with the external steps of courtship, engagement, vows, separation, divorce or alimony. they were more like free love from the 1960s or polygamy, or the vague parameters of friendship. sometimes old friends took a back seat to brand-new ones, right?”
i was amazed reading this memoir that Shapiro could juggle so many different and complex relationships at the same time. she made the freelancer artist’s life sound romantic – yeah it’s stressful when you don’t have a steady paycheck coming in, you’re at the will or whim of crazy, perfectionist editors, and people may steal your ideas, but to be so dedicated to your art that you don’t take the easy office job, and put up with the instability and crazyness instead so that you can continue to do what you are passionate about is admirable and completely inspiring. high school and college ruined a lot of reading for me, but if i can find more material like this memoir, i might just pick it up again. reading – just for pleasure.