Book Note: “Only as Good as Your Word” by Susan Shapiro



The subtitle is what caught my attention – Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons from My Favorite Literary Gurus. Author Susan Shapiro’s name was familiar, but I couldn’t place it with anything that I had read recently. Still, the basic premise of sharing writing advice through the lens of the mentors who had passed it on to her was unique and potentially less drab than a classic “how-to” manual. I was intrigued.

And then I was neutral throughout the read. The bits of writing wisdom and experience that she shares are buried among often petty, whiny, needy stories of her own writing journey. I respect her position that writer’s should share honestly when they are purporting to be writing nonfiction – and by honestly, she means sharing inclusively of the good, the bad, and the ugly – but after a while I was looking for an edit button.

There were lessons learned in unpleasant situations that were worth repeating and supported her points, but there were others that seemed to be included for no reason other than to name drop or with the sense that she was trying to “get back at” a perceived injustice.

Some of the instructive conversations included one with Ian Frazier about whether it was a good idea to encourage participants in their soup kitchen writers’ workshop to consider publication and an ongoing conversations with veteran writer Ruth Gruber about what to include in memoirs – everything, including a failed early marriage (Shapiro’s view), or focus on the more positive second marriage, and not mention the first (Gruber’s view).

While the first example is primarily situational, the underlying discussion about whether all writers want to get published regardless of the grit in their lives touches a nerve with any writer who has considered selling a particularly poignant and personal piece. The second example hit on a consideration for anyone writing a form of nonfiction – blog, essay, or memoir – does telling the truth about your life mean you have to include the dirty, messy stuff too or can you choose to accept what you see as good and pass that forward and consider it wholly honest. Both are points well worth fighting with, over and over again.

In the discussion of memoir honesty I tended to see Shapiro’s point initially – negative details are a part of life and including them makes the protagonist more approachable, more human. But, using Only as Good as Your Word as a case study, I was tired of hearing the details of Shapiro’s personal life. It was like having a conversation with a friend and you just need to keep saying, “You’re a good writer. You can do it. You’re a good writer. Yes, I think you’re important and impressive. You’re a good writer. You can do it. Yes, I think you’re important and impressive.”

And perhaps in that was the best part of the book that was reiterated through her mentors and her own personal ambition: Edit, edit, edit. I may argue for more editing in this manuscript particularly, but I do not doubt that Shapiro had it handled by several people who tweaked, pulled, yanked, and negotiated words and sentences to present something they were proud of. Shapiro developed a writing/critique group that went on for eighteen years and was renowned for sharpness, cutting feedback, and prestigious publication. Many of the mentors she included were highly critical of her work, and she responded by getting better. That’s an invaluable lesson.

The last chapter was a bit more like a traditional “How-To” guide, but it was a perfect compilation of basic lessons for approaching your own potential literary gurus – 15 Do’s and Don’ts that seem like common sense, but apparently are not universals. Ironically, given my first impression of the book, it was the best chapter.

There are gems of wisdom littered throughout the read, but I’d be more inclined to recommend it to someone who wanted an insider’s view of the Manhattan literary scene and the inner turmoil of someone by all accounts successful but yet unfulfilled. Approach it as a personal memoir and you’ve got an honest and unique account of what it’s like to be a writer in NYC; expect a professional account of grit and insight and you’ll be neutral throughout – not completely disappointed but unsatisfied.

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