Inside the art of confessional writing with Susan Shapiro

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Nobody expected funny Manhattan memoirist Susan Shapiro to become the go-to girl for the Yugoslavia war. But thanks to great reviews for The Bosnia List, her mesmerizing new book coauthored with Kenan Trebencevic, Shapiro is now collaborating on the memoir of another Balkan-born beauty: transgender supermodel Andreja Pejic.

That’s a far cry from Shapiro’s conservative Jewish upbringing in suburban Michigan where, she jokes, she flunked the entire state. She was a doctor’s daughter who was always too “out there” for her three brilliant, science-loving brothers. When she was 20, the chain-smoking, black-clad young woman escaped to New York City to find her voice as a writer. After years of struggle and addiction therapy, she reinvented herself to help thousands of other people find their voices. Now she’s an award-winning journalism professor with bylines in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Salon. She has also authored 10 books, including Unhooked, Speed Shrinking, Overexposed, and the renowned memoirs Lighting Up, Only as Good as Your Word, and Five Men Who Broke My Heart.

By night she teaches the wildly popular “instant gratification takes too long” classes at the New School, NYU, and in private workshops in Greenwich Village. I caught up with Shapiro (my former teacher) at the L.A. Press Club, where she and her Bosnia List coauthor Kenan were doing a West Coast event.

dot429: How did you go from Five Men Who Broke My Heart to co-writing The Bosnia List?

Susan Shapiro: It started three years ago, when I tore two ligaments in my lower back and Kenan Trebincevic was the physical therapist saving my spine. As a writing teacher with 100 students a term, I always carry a stack of student papers with me. The PT exercises bored me, so I took out papers to grade. Kenan got annoyed I wasn’t focusing. It was September, so he looked over and asked sarcastically if the assignment was, “What I did on my summer vacation?” I told him, “Actually, my first assignment is to write three pages on your most humiliating secret.”

Walking into our next appointment, Kenan handed me his 900 words. It was about how he’d recently returned from Bosnia, two decades after the ethnic cleansing regime that almost killed his Muslim family. When he was 12, his beloved karate coach came to his door with an AK-47 and shouted, “You have one hour to leave or be killed.” He took Kenan’s father and brother to a concentration camp. I thought, he’s like the male Muslim Anne Frank who lived to tell the story. I told him, “You have to write this.” He said, “I don’t write, I fix backs.” I told him “Here’s the deal: You fix my back, I’ll fix your pages.”

That first essay I helped him with ran in the New York Times magazine and was picked up in the Best American Travel Writing anthology. Kenan came to my book seminar, where he met a WME agent who agreed with me that he should expand it to a memoir. 

dot429: Was the collaboration between a Jewish-American female and a Bosnian-Muslim male difficult?

Susan Shapiro: Though I’m liberal, I have many close relatives in Israel, and suicide bombers and anti-Semitic rhetoric makes me crazy.  After 9/11, living near the World Trade Center, I secretly feared I could become Islamophobic. So when Kenan first  told me he was Muslim, I decided to avoid talking about religion or politics. That turned out be hilarious since that’s all we wound up talking about for the next two years while we wrote the book.

The book started out because of my severe back pain, my first serious injury that took two years to heal. Emotionally, Kenan and I spent that time immersed in his childhood trauma,  which he’d never really spoken about. Since he’d never been in any kind of therapy before and lost his mother, I became his Jewish mom and femme Freud. Then we sold the book during Hurricane Sandy when we had no electricity. It was a book born of trauma. The adage I always tell my students,  that “writing is a way to turn your worst experience into your most beautiful,” came true.  We ended up calling The Bosnia List “A Jewish/Muslim book of healing” and advise all inter-religious collaborations to start the way we did: respecting each other’s pain.

dot429: You assign “the humiliation essay” for all your  “instant gratification” classes.  Why should one want to humiliate oneself on paper for the public to read?

Susan Shapiro: Over 22 years of teaching, I’ve made “the humiliation essay” my signature assignment. It encourages students to shed vanity and pretension and relive an embarrassing moment that makes them look silly, fearful, fragile, or naked. Through the art of writing you can transform your worst experience into the most beautiful. I found that those who cried while reading their piece aloud often saw it in print. It’s  because they were coming from the right place—not the hip, but the heart. But a litany of bitterness will not suffice. My rule for first person nonfiction is: question, challenge, and trash yourself more than anyone else. My favorite essays begin with emotional devastation and conclude with surprising metamorphosis. This is why true stories of human failure and recovery are so intriguing. 

dot429: Why do so many of your students—from all ages and backgrounds—get published so quickly?

Susan Shapiro: If want to be a writer and you don’t have any clips, no editor will assign you a news story or a book review. Yet the top magazines and newspapers will publish a great fully written, provocative, heartfelt personal story. It’s a way of declaring yourself to the world, making a statement. Many of my students have written about surviving rape, incest, addictions, racism, and homophobia.

dot429: What was your goal for teaching when you started  22 years ago?

Susan Shapiro: I spent $30,000 on an MFA, and I didn’t even learn how to write a cover letter. It took me 10 years to learn how to freelance. They say you should write the book you want to read and teach the class you want to take. I published the book Only As Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons From My Favorite Literary Gurus. Then I  decided to teach the class I needed to take. It turned out that having students of different genders, backgrounds, and mindsets keeps me young. In my mind, I’m still that 20-year-old girl that moved from Michigan to NYC.

dot429: You’ve written about your struggles with infertility. Is it fair to say  that the students you take under your wing are the next best thing to having your own kids?

Susan Shapiro: Yes, I definitely have the maternal aspect when it comes to my students. A brilliant Jungian astrologer, Bob Cook, did my chart and said, “You will take people higher than you will take yourself.”  At first I was pissed off, but now I see it not as a curse, but a gift.

dot429: Many of the students you’ve helped get published are from the LGBT community. Is that on purpose?

Susan Shapiro: Publications are looking for material on these subjects. Many editors I know—including the awesome Jerry Portwood (head of New York Press and now Out Magazine)—are specifically looking to young gay and lesbian writers to explain what they are going through and what we can do to help. It’s a new era and I encourage it. Some of the essays, from coming out to trans-discrimination, have been incredibly poignant and cathartic for my students. But ultimately, it’s about telling a good story in an honest way that’s beautifully written with a strong point of view. I’ve had Republican students ask me if I would still help them get published. I said yes—all I care about is if your work is good. My motto is: I’ll lie about anything but writing.

dot429: Is there anything that still surprises you about writing?

Susan Shapiro: I get obsessed with my own books, especially the memoirs. With The Bosnia List, I was shocked that I could also get as emotionally involved with someone else’s memoir. I was also surprised I could do such a crash course in Yugoslavian history and weave it throughout the book to give Americans the background without putting them to sleep. A friend recently joked, “You found your voice, as a 12-year-old Muslim boy.”

dot429: What’s next?

Susan Shapiro: I just finished a new novel. Then, right as The Bosnia List got a great review in the New York Times and on Oprah.com, I bumped into a terrific agent who said she was working with an important young Balkan born during the Bosnia War who needed a co-author. I thought: been there, done that. Then I met Andreja Pejic and heard her story and it blew me away. The book will cover what it was like for her to have a Serbian mother and a Croatian father, growing up in Australia, being a muse for the world’s top fashion designers, and her gender reassignment surgery.  

About The Author

I was born in The Dominican Republic and was raised between New York City, New Jersey and Mexico. For the past 12 years I've worked as an events planner-producer for corporate, luxury goods and socials; in addition to opening three hotels in New York City and working as a chief concierge. I've been profiled in Vogue, The New York Observer, BizBash, Club Systems International and IN NY Magazine. I just moved to San Francisco to live & tell stories, while developing a TV show based on “The Art of Hospitality” and my website. Some of my essays and interviews have been published in The New York Times, New York Press, Huffington Post and Sheckys.com (I was their hospitlality expert).

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