Saturday, September 15, 2007

Review: Susan Shapiro's Your Only as Good As Your Word

(image via amazon)

At the outset I'd like to say that Sue Shapiro is a friend and she has advertised on this blog. That having been said, I read her latest book "Only As Good As Your Word" in a furious two day period, sandwiching posting duties at FishbowlNY and the various obligations of my life in between. In Sue's previous books she has excavated her romantic life and her addictions with a compelling mix of merciless self-revelation interspersed with a wit that suggests a world of smart. This time Sue -- a writer's writer -- looks backwards, following the thread of characters who nurtured her career as a writer.

And what a motley crew they are. Among them former New York Times Book Review editor Michael Anderson, bestseller Ian Frazier, former New York Times magazine editor Harvey Shapiro and the journalist Ruth Gruber. Shapiro's odyssey takes us from the world of poetry into the memoir.

Sue is a particularly interesting person, the embodiment of downtown New York whitely chic. Sue's mantra-motto, which she told me several years ago at her favorite lunch spot in the West Village, is to "live the least secretive life." As a mildly repressed Ugandan-American ex-Catholic, I was shocked. Yet living the least secretive life has led Sue to combine a lifelong interest in Psychology and Writing into a series of pitch-perfect memoirs, one of which, the beautiful "Five Men Who Broke My Heart", was optioned for a movie by Paramount Pictures.

"Only As Good As Your Word" follows Sue along the path that led her to become one of the most influential writers in the downtown-NYC scene. Sue has mentored hundreds of young writers through her classes at NYU, The New School and Mediabistro. A nod must be given at the outset to Sigmund Freud, a proto-mentor, whose influence greatly permeates this book on mentorship, as well as to another doctor, her Father, Dr. Shapiro, whose subtler, Chesterfield-scented influence can be detected behind almost all of the mentors who move Sue closer and closer to her end goal of becoming a successful writer in New York. Sue's mentors clearly supply a literary mentorship that she felt she didn't get from her father, who is more right-brained, though, as the book unfolds, we find that that, too, is not quite the case.

From the perspective of the successful New York writer Sue starts from the beginning, to her past as a gifted, aimless child in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Starting from the portrait of Jack Zucker, who nurtured her formidable energies as a blooming writer at the Roeper School, towards poetic self-revelation. In the beginning, Jack Zucker told her that good writing "started in delight and ends in wisdom." One of the most curious aspects of Sue's memoir is how she resolves her lifelong love affair with rebellion and mentorship. From Only As Good As Your Word (p.23):

"Woodside avenue, where (The Roeper School) was located, was on my doctor father's route to the hospital. So he drove me to school every day, which gave us rare, much needed time alone together. My favorite part was when his silver Cadillac would race down the 20-mile an hour zone on Lahser Road and the same redneck cop would give him a speeding ticket. 'Don't tell your mother,' he would say every time, paying the secret tickets at his office. I never told."

Rebellion and mentorship is a recurring and contradictory theme. Zucker and the then-adolescent Sue bonded over, of all things, T.S. Eliot. And that bonding took the form of arguing, which took place in class, after class, in my pages and in my mind." Rebellion and mentorship.

The Chapter on "Spartacus" author Harold Fast, her next mentor, is my favorite. Clearly Sue loved him deeply, perhaps the most of all her mentors because he was the first mentor as an adult, and perhaps also because he was a successful writer. Many times in the chapter sue relates that she wanted to be Howard Fast. Fast was her first mentor after she moved to New York to live out a period as a Greenwich village poet. Fast, a relation, invited her to his swishy Connecticut home. The meeting was momentous in the life of Shapiro because the entire pace of the narrative slows and lingers over the details of what Sue wore ("best black jeans and black sweater"), and what Howard and his wife Bette wore, and their stately manor. Fast was probably destined to mentor Sue as he was, aside from being a successful writer, a born rebel who refused to name names to the House Un-American Committee in the 50s("I loved his moral outrage, his fierce candor, and his juicy celebrity-studded story with its triumphant end; I wanted to be just like him").

Sue's next mentor, Helen Stark of The New Yorker, comes across as a mother figure, an ally, a friend. Stark is the eyes and ears of The New Yorker, this ultimate institution of writerly excellence. It is interesting to note that Sue's mother sent her the Armani suit and Giorgio perfume that made such an influence on Stark. Sue's early mentors have direct connections to her parents, and, taking it a step further, the entire book appears to be an extended structure of her clan, starting from her family in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and extending outward charting the course of her life. Howard Fast was an actual branch of her family tree, and Jack Zucker came from the same area as her father (Who also shared a fondness for T.S. Eliot). Stark is the first mentor that that doesn't have a direct connection, although she admired her mother's taste upon first meeting her.

Ian Frazier, Helen Stark's darling, is also not related to Sue, but he represents an ideal. Sue and Ian met at The New Yorker, where he was a staff writer,then, later, find themselves teaching a writer's workshop at the Chelsea Soup kitchen at Holy Apostle's Church. As co-teachers their different personalities led to light disagreements. Sue, who wore her "best black jeans and black sweater" to meet Howard Fast years earlier, asked the students to explore the darker topics("The Saddest Mother's Day," "The Loneliest Christmas"), while Sandy "let participants ignore the weekly topics and attempt to tackle fiction, light verse, fairy stories or come up with their own language or science fiction universes." Sue agreed to teach the class because she admired "Sandy," as she calls Frazier, a sanguine big brother type, but in the end she actually affects people's lives and realizes that she is actually quite good at it.

Ruth Gruber, a petite 77-year old journalist, is perhaps the most interesting mentor of Sue's. Gruber, a globe-trotting author, joins Sue's liberal, freewheeling West Village writer's group ("It was free after all, and no matter how broke I was I served soda, cheap beer, cookies and popcorn, and everyone shared joints later"). Michael Anderson, Sue's crabby but brilliant African-American editor at the New York times Book Review, becomes Sue's next mentor. Finally, Harvey Shapiro became Sue's mentor after some near-misses, and an almost romance. With Shapiro the book comes full circle, as he connects with Sue, like Jack Zucker years earlier, with poetry. Harvey Shapiro, like Howard Fast, is cantankerous, and there is lots of room for rebelliousness as well as mentorship. Zucker told Sue Shapiro years ago that good writing "started in delight and ends in wisdom." Delight and wisdom are suffused in this book, "Only As Good as your Word." I strongly recommend it.

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