Both Susan Shapiro's memoirs Five Men Who Broke My Heart and Lighting Up mine intimate, personal territory. She leaves no stone of her psyche unturned as she delves into her family, love and sex life, therapy sessions, and addictions. Five Men takes readers on a quest as she revisits these past relationships, looking up her exes, even though she is now a successful author and married woman. Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex charts her therapy sessions to quit cigarettes, drinking, and smoking pot (along with gum, carbs and caffeine), and in the process she not only learns quite a bit about herself and her family, but also take her readers on a hilarious tour through her neuroses, quirks, and issues. Read together, the memoirs provide a touchingly intimate portrait of this longtime New York writer, whose work has graced the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Village Voice and countless other publications.
And lest you think that memoirs exaggerate, Shapiro's email addiction, one of the few things she didn't have to give up in Lighting Up, is alive and well. Within hours of receiving my initial email, I was quickly engaged in a flurry of delightful back-and-forth missives, followed by Shapiro's thought-provoking, revealing responses to my questions. Anyone with an addictive personality, who's been in therapy, who's tried to quit any substance or who's wondered what happened to a long-lost ex will appreciate Shapiro's ability to both chronicle and laugh at her foibles, even as she overcomes them.
In Lighting Up, you chronicle your successful quest to quit smoking, which also led to quitting drinking and smoking pot. How are you doing with all the things you quit now? How have these urges and addictions changed over time? Also, out of all the things you quit in Lighting Up, which was the hardest, and how are you progressing now?
I haven't had a cigarette in three years. I haven't had a drink, joint, or gum in two years. I get little urges, but it's easy to abstain when the equation seems obvious. When I quit, I published three books, tripled my income, lost weight and fell in love with my husband again. I honestly believe the good stuff will disappear if I smoke, toke or drink again. Quitting bread was the hardest. I still struggle with food issues. I try to understand the underlying reasons why I want to overeat, the same escapist reasons I smoked or toked.
In Five Men Who Broke My Heart, you go back and revisit five exes, dating back to your teenage years, from the standpoint of being a married woman. Do you think you could've undertaken that journey had you been single?
I couldn't have written them earlier. I needed to have the experiences and perspective. I'm sorry but I'm not interested in recent sex and addiction books by 19- and 23-year-olds or watching the hottest youngest new thing in movies, TV or music. It's easy to be cute and clever for ten minutes in your youth but there's rarely any real wisdom. Let's see if they last or burn out. My journalist friend Ruth Gruber is 93-years-old and still writing and publishing great books. Now she's a good mentor and role model who fascinates me. How do you stay healthy, productive and keep it up for that long?
What was the timeline of writing the memoirs versus the periods they cover? Were you writing about things as they were happening?
As I tell my students, I worked 100 hours a week for 23 years, then Five Men Who Broke My Heart took six months to write. Lighting Up also took six months, though I'd taken extensive notes on a 2-year period of addiction therapy.
Did you have a specific framework for how you were going to structure the books? How much of the events that unfolded surprised you, and perhaps altered the outcome of the books?
I'm very literal minded and hate confusing time frames. They say you write the books you want to read. So I structured both memoirs chronologically. I put the month and year at the beginning of each chapter, so the flashbacks, flashforwards and amount of time that had elapsed were clear. I didn't know how either book was going to end. In both cases I would have guessed differently. After quitting cigarettes, alcohol, gum and other addictions, I decided that Lighting Up should end with me quitting the addiction therapy. But Dr. Winters changed my mind.
While both men and women suffer from numerous addictions, a lot of the battles you recount, especially over food and weight, and the connection between that and your other addictions, seemed like profoundly female experiences. In your research and the feedback you've gotten, have you found gendered nuances to addiction?
I find men have the same addiction problems, though they are judged more for their success and finances while women are still judged more for their looks and body.
By the way, I think the author of French Women Don't Get Fat is an idiot. She works for a champagne company so she benefits financially from encouraging women to waste time and money going out to fancy restaurants, drink champagne, smoke. I'm in the opposite camp. For me, getting rid of cigarettes, alcohol, and fancy dinners in restaurants was the first step to health and happiness. Then I had to delve into what was really going on when I was reaching for a cigarette, or drink, or chocolate and, in the words of Dr. Winters, "learn how to suffer well." Most addicts can't be moderate so ordering five desserts would be ignorant behavior. Her advice not to work out is stupid too. Only women in Paris and New York walk everywhere. You'd have to speed walk 30 to 60 minutes a day to lose weight. Her eat-all-the-chocolate-and-cheese-you-want than spend a weekend with leek soup is encouraging wildly unhealthy binging and fasting, eating disorder behavior. It's a good gimmick - she says drink, smoke, eat chocolate, don't work out, avoid pain, and lose weight. You can understand why people like her lies. But it won't work.
You disguise the identity of many of the people you write about, but I'm wondering if you've had any negative fallout about the way friends, family or colleagues were portrayed, not because you were deliberately cruel, but you offer a very no-holds-barred look at feelings like jealousy and anger, as well as a wide range of emotions. Were you mentally prepared for the feedback you got from people in your life?
I didn't meant to hurt anyone in my books and thought I analyzed, questioned and trashed myself more than anyone else. But yes, people in my life had mixed feelings. My husband threatened to write a rebuttal called The Bitch Beside Me. My father said he's moving to Alaska. My mother said "Go ahead, tell the whole world you're in therapy," a line I would up stealing. One guy in Five Men said, "You've written a better character than I am a person," but two of them don't speak to me anymore.
In some ways, the reactions were good because, along with other bad habits, I needed to quit feeling guilty and people-pleasing. I tell my students that the first piece they write that their parents hate means they've found their voice. If your goal is to be a nice popular person, don't be a writer. Or write cookbooks. Dr. Winters' advice for staying clean, happy and successful is: "Lead the least secretive life that you can."
When a friend asked my husband Aaron how he can handle being so scrutinized in print, he had a good answer. He used to write for Seinfeld, when Jerry was dating the 17-year-old Shoshana. Many women in their 40's would ask Aaron, "How can you work for a 40-year-old man dating a 17-year-old?" Aaron would answer: "I've worked for happy bosses, and I've worked for unhappy bosses, and happy bosses are much better." In other words - it's so much nicer and easier to be around a happy person.
It seemed like Lighting Up was as much about your very intense relationship with your therapist, Dr. Winters, as it was about your addictions. You relate numerous therapy sessions and he basically takes over your life, dictating everything from what you should write to what you should eat. Did you expect to form such a close bond with your therapist, and how has that relationship changed since you've published your book? Are you still seeing him?
I'm still seeing Dr. Winters. We're currently working on Unhooked, a scientific addiction book together. It's changed our relationship, made me feel more like an equal. I don't pay for therapy while we're writing. I'm his shrink when it comes to getting rid of his blocks. Writing teachers are like shrinks, we just get paid a lot less. At first, I was going to ghost write it for a fee. My husband said that I better have my name on the book and contract. If not, Unhooked will be a bestseller and I'll have to be in therapy the rest of my life figuring out why Dr. Winters got rich and famous on my writing when I didn't. My next book will be on why you should never write a book with your shrink.
One of the most fascinating parts of Lighting Up was the connection between your various addictions and your creativity. After quitting various substances, such as cigarettes, you were unable to write, but when you quit pot, you were on fire with your writing. It's certainly legend that some of the best writers, and other artists, need or needed substances to fuel their work. How do you now see the connection between getting high in some way and one's writing output?
I used to be sure I needed to smoke, toke, or drink to write. I learned it was the exact opposite. When I quit, my mind was so clear that my work was better and I couldn't stop writing. My addictions limited my life, work and happiness for many years. I was stuck in a vicious addiction cycle - cutting corners, unable to deal with discomfort and negative emotions, self-medicating.
On the bright side, I did get two fun books out of my dubious past, so I have no regrets.
Has writing two memoirs made you more aware of the nuances of your daily life? Are you constantly mining your interactions for potential material, and if so, how does that affect how you go about your day? Does it make you self-conscious?
I've always loved first person writing. Growing up in West Bloomfield, Michigan, I was lost and confused by materialistic suburban rituals (like who had the most money or the best car or jewelry). I felt like the weirdest, saddest, fastest-talking, black sheep of the state. When I was 10, I fell in love with the confessional poets - Plath, Hughes, Lowell, Sexton. They wrote so poignantly about deep important emotions and shared their sadness and fears. I tried to emulate them. I moved to New York right after college.
You've lived in Manhattan for over twenty years, and a running theme throughout both memoirs is how much this city has helped shape who you are today, and was an alternative to suburban Michigan, where you grew up. What about New York has been the most useful to you in your growth as a person and a writer
I remember sitting in Washington Square Park, watching all my fellow chain-smoking, black-clad artists and writer weirdos and thinking "This is what was wrong with the first 20 years of my life! I wasn't here!" Though radical in Michigan, I was disappointed that in Greenwich Village I was merely mainstream. As a journalist for 20 years I published many personal essays, so the memoirs are just an extension of what I was already doing. People in my life will stop in the middle of telling me a story and say "Off the record."
You told me that you spend time webstalking yourself. How do you go about it, and what are the best and worst things you've discovered in doing so?
I have found many reviews and mentions of my books in blogs by webstalking myself. They have been mostly funny and positive, so it's a riot. Every once in a while, a sexist male from Texas will say something idiotic on Amazon.com, like "she doesn't deserve that nice husband of hers" or "she wasn't really an addict." I feel like answering "that's why you're wasting your life posting dumb reviews on Amazon.com," but I don't respond.
You teach classes at NYU, The New School and Mediabistro. What's the most rewarding thing about teaching writing, and what's the most common mistake young writers make?
I have taught writing at NYU, the New School, Mediabistro, and Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, in a program started by Ian Frazier ten years ago. The biggest thrill was editing a soup kitchen anthology of writing about life on the streets called Food for the Soul. All the royalties go back to the soup kitchen, the largest in Manhattan, which feeds 1,500 people a day. I became close with the contributors, whose lives and outlooks greatly improved because of this book. I always say writing is a way to turn the worst things in your life into the best, it was amazing to watch that happen.
What's next for you?
Being a freelance writer in the big city can be a very self-involved existence. You're chasing after hot stories, checks, by-lines, book deals. I struggled for two decades. Lately I have been extremely lucky with love, family, friends, shrinks and in my career, publishing three books in the last year. I plan to continue teaching, and working with the soup kitchen writers, and doing readings for charity. I believe in karma. I feel like I've taken so much from the world I have to keep giving back.
Susan Shapiro will read from Lighting Up and Food for the Soulon Friday, March 4th at 7:30 p.m. at The Prince George Tea Room, and from Lighting Up on April 19th at 7 p.m. at KGB Bar. She will teach a one day writing seminar at NYU entitled "Ten Secrets of Selling First Person Pieces" on March 27th. Five Men Who Broke My Heart: A Memoir, Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking and Everything Elise I Loved in Life Except Sex, and Food for the Soul are available now. Find out more about Susan Shapiro's books and upcoming events at her website.