BY GARY SHAPIRO | Writing teacher Sue Shapiro cheers ardently for her students. This popular professor who resides in Greenwich Village has taught legions of students how to get published in prestigious publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Scores of her students have gone on to land publishing contracts.
In her most recent book, “The Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks,” she lists the assignments that have been the most successful in students getting published. At the top is one in which Shapiro (no relation to the journalist writing this article) asks her students to confess their most humiliating secret.
Shapiro’s students have gone on to publish more than 150 books in the past decade alone. Outside of literary agents and editors, this is virtually unprecedented among teachers.
“She’s a genius literary matchmaker,” said Laura Cronk, associate director of the New School’s writing program, in presenting Sue with a Distinguished University Teaching Award. “There is really no one like her.”
In the classes Shapiro taught online for the first time, a lot of her students have gotten published this year, which she attributes to COVID-19.
“Everyday people and young students were going through such extreme experiences,” she said, “such as, ‘I have to live in my parents’ Minnesota basement, I’m a full-time mom and I have to work full time,’ etc. Everyone had these really dramatic stories.”
The pandemic also created an intense, yet supportive atmosphere among the classmates in the online courses she teaches, she said.
“Writing is a way to turn your worst experience into the most beautiful,” Shapiro tells her students.
In her seven-week online evening New School class, Shapiro now has students from as far away as Vietnam, Manila and Brussels. Some arise at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. in different time zones to attend.
“I’m sitting here in Greenwich Village, and there’s a global reach, which I didn’t expect,” she said.
A lot of leading editors and agents join from their homes in the evening Zoom classes, which has given her great choice among editors to invite during COVID-19.
Her already-big classes have doubled online.
Success didn’t come at first for Shapiro. She earned an M.A. in poetry at New York University, and had difficulty getting published at the outset. That’s why she subscribes to what she calls the “Instant Gratification Takes Too Long” school of writing.
“I waited so long,” she said.
She didn’t publish her first hardcover book until age 43.
In her popular “Instant Gratification Takes Too Long” course, the goal by the end of the class is to publish a great piece. She says the students most likely to succeed are the ones who are open to criticism and rewriting.
There is a class rule: “I always say the first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice,” Shapiro said.
She came to New York from the Midwest and worked as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker for four years. An N.Y.U. professor was instrumental in her getting the job, inspiring her to pay it forward with her own students.
“I landed in Greenwich Village to go to N.Y.U.,” she said.
She had a lot of guilt because she wanted to live here rather than fulfilling her father’s hope that she would return to Michigan. Her father encouraged her, as she put it, to “move back to Michigan, have kids, become a lawyer and a normal person.”
“The minute I got here I knew that I was never leaving the Village,” Shapiro said. “I found my people.”
She has hosted many innovative book events in the Village over the years. In 2003, she had a big book launch at the Puck Building for “Five Men Who Broke My Heart.” For that book, she went back to re-meet her five top heartbreaks to find out what really went wrong in each relationship. The invitation asked attendees to “Bring an ex for just desserts.”
She has two favorite editors in the Village. Danielle Perez, an editor at Random House, bought Shapiro’s first three books. Village resident Naomi Rosenblatt, who founded Heliotrope Books, an indie press in Downtown Manhattan, bought Shapiro’s novel “What’s Never Said.”
For her comic novel “Speed Shrinking,” Shapiro hosted events that she modeled after “speed dating.” In these popular gatherings, which spread elsewhere, participants have three minutes to tell a psychiatrist their problems before moving on to the next psychiatrist present. Some go on to be patients of these psychiatrists.
One of those who participated was psychotherapist Patty Gross, who works in the Village and was Shapiro’s first shrink. Also participating was Fred Woolverton, her psychologist, who founded the Village Institute for Psychotherapy. Shapiro co-authored The New York Times bestseller “Unhooked: How To Quit Anything” with Woolverton.
It took 13 years from the time she started her first novel, “Overexposed,” until it got published. So instead of a book launch, she had a Book Mitzvah at Arté restaurant, at 21 E. Ninth St. She had editors, agents and others who helped her all come to a candle lighting ceremony.
Shapiro has been a frequent literary event organizer in Greenwich Village.
“I quit alcohol and drugs, and then I became addicted to book events,” she said.
She looks forward to when Village venues reopening for these events.
She hosted a “Byline Bible” event at the Strand Book Store, at which some of her favorite former students read their first published work aloud.
Another favorite locale of hers for events is the N.Y.U. Bookstore. She believes that one should only buy books at brick-and-mortar stores.
“Otherwise there won’t be any places left to do book readings,” she said.
Many other popular events of hers have been held at the New School.
Last year she hosted events at Barnes & Noble Union Square, most notably a charity event with former New School student Renee Watson, bestselling author and activist for I Too Arts. Shapiro also hosted an evening with Reverend Elizabeth Maxwell at the Church of the Ascension, an Episcopal house of worship at 36 Fifth Ave.
In her comic novel “Speed Shrinking,” after the heroine quits smoking and drinking, she gets addicted to cupcake icing from Crumbs, which formerly had a store on E. Eighth St. When Shapiro threw the book party at Knickerbocker Bar and Grill, at 36 University Place, Crumbs donated hundreds of cupcakes for the event.
Shapiro credits therapy with saving her career and highly recommends it to all her students. On the “CBS Early Show,” host Harry Smith discussed Shapiro’s book “Speed Shrinking” with her as he reclined on a couch as though he were undergoing psychoanalysis.
After her own experience of six years of higher education without getting concrete advice on how to make a living as a writer (including how to get an agent and how to write a cover letter), she decided that her own class, which began at the New School in 1993, would cover practical advice on getting published.
“I became what was missing in my own life,” she said, adding, “I wish someone had taught me more about publishing.”
Shapiro is adept at teaching students the mistakes to avoid, such as sending a pitch to an editor who doesn’t cover that subject. Another rule is don’t finish at 3 a.m. and immediately press the button sending it to The New Yorker.
Her own stories have titles that draw attention, such as, “I Started a Secret Facebook Friendship With My Ex’s Wife.” She offers the following advice: “Write the piece that only you can write. If anybody else can write it, then don’t.”
Her psychologist Fred Woolverton advised her, as she put it, “Hang out with people I want to be and if I ever had the ear of anyone smart, I should ask that person very good questions.”
Shapiro has not just one but three upcoming books in the next year: “I always tell my students, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get.’”
One book is a middle-grade school version of her acclaimed 2014 Penguin memoir “The Bosnia List” that she co-authored with Kenan Trebincevic, a young Bosnian Muslim war survivor who emigrated to the United States when he was 12. The second is a memoir, “The Forgiveness Tour: How To Find the Perfect Apology.” Her third upcoming book is called “The Book Bible: How To Sell Your Manuscript No Matter What Genre Without Going Broke or Insane.”
Her husband, Charlie Rubin, is a television writer and professor at N.Y.U. He has written for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Seinfeld” and “Saturday Night Live” and other shows. At the N.Y.U. Tisch School of the Arts’ Department of Dramatic Writing, he created and runs the popular TV Writing Concentration.
Among the testimonials on Shapiro’s Web site, her editor at Tablet magazine, Wayne Hoffman, writes, “Watching Sue Shapiro teach is like watching a tornado in reverse. She blows in quickly and grabs everyone’s attention, and in the span of a few very intense minutes, rearranges everything around her — but instead of leaving a path of destruction in her wake, she leaves order, clarity, confidence and purpose.”
Shapiro earns some culinary dividends.
“If a student publishes an assignment that pays $1,000 or more, I get dinner and I always eat for free,” she quipped.