Sunday, September 13, 2009

Susan Shapiro Speaks

The latest generous Modern Love columnist to share her story with us is Susan Shapiro. She is the author of today’s Modern Love offering “Making Room for My Junk Man” and the new novel “Speed Shrinking” (St. Martin’s Press). She has a lot of great information about what makes a great Modern Love essay, what it’s like to be edited by Daniel Jones and why those of us who have put a few months, even a few years, into trying to crack this market have nothing to whine about.

Tell us about your path to Modern Love publication.

This is about my tenth try. I’ve been teaching since 1993 and I can’t tell you how many of my students have gotten into Modern Love. I was like the wedding planner who couldn’t get married. I’ve been writing essays for 28 years and this was making me crazy. At a certain point, I thought: I’ll never get it. I’ll just help all my students get it. But I kept trying.

Did you have any inkling that this essay was The One?

The minute I brought it to my writing group, everybody cracked up. So I had an idea.

Tell us about the editing process.

Dan is a brilliant editor. He is like a good shrink. I always say a writing teacher is just like a therapist except we get paid less. Dan was great. He said – and I’m paraphrasing -- that he likes pieces that start in one emotional place and go to another. The early draft of my essay did not have enough of that transformation. I teach essay writing. If there’s not a transformation, it seems staid and one-note. I am good at helping others but I didn’t see that in my own work until he pointed it out. Dan was very incisive.

What advice do you have for us wannabes?

Read the column. I always say to people: Buy Dan’s book, The Modern Love Anthology, read it. The more you read, the more you understand the tone, the length, the structure of the Modern Love essay. Really analyze them. They tend to be high concept. “I married my gay friend for his green card.” “I fell in love with a man who wears an electronic ankle bracelet.” The biggest mistake my students make is they write, “I had a bad breakup, Bummer.” Those don’t have a beginning, middle and end. Go for the bigger, higher concept. Go for deeper meaning. And darker. Go darker. Write about the worst thing that ever happened to you. I teach a class called Instant Gratification Takes Too Long. One of my assignments is: Write about the most humiliating thing that ever happened to you. It’s produced something like ten Modern Love columns and 12 Lives columns. There’s something about writing about the worst thing that ever happened to you that works.

Is your Modern Love essay connected at all to the promotion of your new book, Speed Shrinking?

I’ve literally been trying to get into Modern Love since the first day the column started so I can’t say I planned this. But with my novel out now, it couldn’t have been better timing.

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