Prepare to set your career goals, writers. In Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons from My Favorite Literary Gurus, Susan Shapiro divulges tales involving her impressive list of mentors in nine engaging chapters. As Shapiro grows close to boisterous Cousin Howard Fast, elegant and dedicated Helen Stark, and youthful and determined Ruth Gruber–so do we. We’re there at the Fasts’ apartment, the New Yorker‘s library, Shapiro’s living room for the writing group. Not all of the stories have happy endings, but Shapiro says, perhaps with a sigh, “That was the problem with mentors…they had every right to walk away and not look back when their work was done.”
Though the book jumps around and often leaves the reader to construct the timeline of Shapiro’s career, it’s a satisfying mixture of memoir, tribute, and relationship advice. Ultimately, despite the fact that she condenses her entire career into 400 pages, the book doesn’t really seem to be about her career: it’s about the people who shared their knowledge and time with her. Through the book, Shapiro becomes a mentor herself, sharing her knowledge and giving hope to all the Midwestern girls with writing dreams. She even takes the time to teach the reader how to be a worthy protégé and sneaks in a few lines of romantic wisdom here and there.
However, Shapiro’s book almost seems to contradict her title. While one’s writing abilities are certainly important, she proves that it takes ambition, persistence, and networking to really build a successful writing career and that the people one meets along the way make the struggle worth it. Only as Good as Your Word is a much better title, though.