Before my first night as Sue Shapiro’s student, I opened her book, The Byline Bible (required reading). It was around the end of Chapter One that I was forced to put it down, my excitement reaching inappropriate levels for a writing workshop. Within the span of 30 pages, I learned more about what I want to accomplish – writing for magazines – than any other book or professor had taught me yet.
With a long career in freelance writing, Shapiro continues to publish while teaching wildly successful courses at The New School and NYU. However, some would say that the true measure of her acclaim is becoming Barbie’s memoirist for the doll’s 60th birthday, supplying words for the Assouline art book set to come out next month.
Read below for Sue’s tips for breaking into the world of magazines and how she landed the title of Barbie connoisseur.
Alyson: What was your first published piece?
Susan: I wrote for my high school, college and grad school papers. My cousin Mike Greenblatt, an editor at the Aquarian, a music rag, published some of my poems the first day I moved to New York. My first paid piece might have been a short humor piece for Cosmopolitan.
The advice I always give to my students on getting published is this: three pages can change your life; write about your worst obsessions; write about your most humiliating secrets; the first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice.
What was your motivation to begin teaching?
I couldn’t pay my bills with my freelance writing and I was sick of full time, 9-to-5 office jobs, since I’m a night owl. So when The New School offered me classes I could teach from 6-10 pm, I couldn’t believe the great hours. Turned out I loved it.
What has teaching writing taught you?
My former student Marci Alboher interviewed me for her book called One Person/Multiple Careers about how I write by day, teach by night. She says juggling a few jobs is the wave of the future. Turns out I’m a much better person for teaching. I get out of the house and away from my computer, I get to meet tons of amazing people of all ages. I love to inspire. It keeps me younger and I feel more useful, like all my decades of mistakes add up to something great. I can use what happened to me to help younger people navigate the terrain better.
You recently wrote Assouline’s 60th anniversary book on Barbie. How did you become acquainted with Barbie, and how did it feel writing her retrospective?
As the only girl in a big Midwest clan of boys, I’ve always been a Barbie fanatic. I still have all my Barbies, the dream house and the car. I wrote a humor piece about it for the NYT that was in an anthology that led to me being on some TV shows. My former star NYU student Joanna recommended me for this book – about how Barbie is a feminist. Best assignment ever.
Photo by Rhianydd Hylton