A mentor is worth a 1,000 words


By Jane Warshaw

That’s the bottom line in Susan Shapiro’s new book, Only As Good As Your Word: Writing Lessons From My Favorite Literary Gurus (Seal Press). In this memoir of writing and friendship, she analyzes her relationships with seven of her mentors — Jack Zucker, Howard Fast, Helen Stark, Ian Frazier, Ruth Gruber, Michael Anderson and Harvey Shapiro — and shares their advice. She also stresses that mentors, like her high school English teacher Jack Zucker, don’t have to be famous writers or editors.

Zucker not only encouraged her poetry, but also became her “first substitute father” and advised her to “read what you want to be writing.” In an especially juicy and revealing chapter on her cousin, best-selling author Howard Fast, she shares his admonition, “Don’t allow yourself to be self-indulgent, just get to work. Remember a plumber never gets plumber’s block.” Erica Jong put it to her differently: “Writing is a trade, like being a shoemaker. You get up in the morning and go to work every day.”

Shapiro admits that getting her own first job in journalism had more to do with the dexterity of her fingers than her mind. Being able to type 100 words a minute landed her a job as a research assistant at The New Yorker, where Helen Stark, her boss, also became a mentor.

The mentor-protégé relationship is a complex one, she notes. In the book, Shapiro recounts a dinner with the poet and editor Harvey Shapiro after he’d spoken to her journalism students at The New School. “I nervously brought up the possibility of my writing for The Times Magazine.” He answered, “ ‘It’ll never happen…. You in the magazine will never happen. No shot in hell,’ he repeated, in his typically blunt fashion. ‘I’m not going to lie to you.’” But Shapiro knew better. “At the same time, by this phase in my freelance career, I also knew that no never really meant no. It meant ask again later, in a different way, offering a new pitch, spin, updated lead or revised pitch so timely, hot or exclusive it couldn’t be refused.”

The book is filled with smart, usable advice for all writers and would-be writers. But considering Shapiro’s track record — she’s helped about 20 of her students get books published in the last two years — her own advice may be the most valuable of all.

Shapiro is doing a series of "mentor-protégé" readings throughout the month. On October 5th at 7 p.m. at the Montauk Cub at 25th and 8th Avenue in Park Slope, she’ll be appearing with poet Harvey Shapiro; on October 10th at 7:30 p.m. at the Strand Bookstore on Broadway and 12th Street, poet Grace Shulman and former student Christine Kenneally (whose non-fiction book, The First Word, was just published) will join her; and on October 12th at 7 p.m. at Borders Bookstore on 59th Street and Columbus Circle, she reads with Philip Lopate and Andrea Meyer, whose novel Room For Love was just published by St. Martins.