At Age 18, a Beloved Writers’ Workshop Retires

By Sherry Amatenstein

Published August 15, 2003, issue of August 15, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

For 18 years Tuesday nights were sacrosanct for the members of one group of writers who met to read and critique one another’s work in Manhattan. Known informally as “the Tuesday Night Workshop,” this weekly writing group — which held its final session July 29 — was not for beginners or dilettantes but for artists dedicated to perfecting their craft.

No one was more dedicated to the Tuesday Night Workshop than its founder, Susan Shapiro. In the fall of 1985 she began what is widely regarded among New York City’s cultural elite as a literary institution instrumental in shaping hundreds of books, stories and plays.

Seth Kugel, a lapsed member, attended the nostalgia-laced last meeting. The 33-year-old freelancer sighed. “I wonder if there’ll be a decline in the quality of published writing,” he said.

Back when the group started, Shapiro was 24 and an editorial assistant (a self-described “peon”) at The New Yorker. Having completed a master’s degree in English at New York University, her ambition was to have her poetry published.

“I’d become addicted to the workshops at NYU, where I’d studied with greats like Joseph Brodsky,” Shapiro said in an interview. “The first time classmates chopped up my work, I cried. Then I got excited about the process. I wanted to re-create that setting.”

During breaks at The New Yorker, Shapiro sat on the magazine’s legendary “smokers’ couch,” feverishly scribbling poems. Curious colleagues would ask to see her work and sheepishly confide that they too were poets. Soon Xeroxes (yes, made on the company copier) were being circulated and workshopped on the sly. A move to a more conducive setting was inevitable.

That setting was the one-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment Shapiro shared with a roommate. Six people were at the first workshop; within a month there were 20 writers of fiction, poetry and prose. Membership was by invitation only.

“I chased after the smartest brains,” Shapiro said, “older, seasoned writers who could help me with my work.”

Those included Gerry Jonas, then a New Yorker staff writer and now the science fiction editor at The New York Times Book Review. Jonas, now 67, said, “Sue’s rules were simple. Everyone got a copy of your poem or story. You would read it, then — and this is key — be silent while the others critiqued your work.” Jonas, rules were simple. Everyone got a copy of your poem or story. You would read it, then — and this is key — be silent while the others critiqued your work.” Jonas, who has published poems and stories initially read by the group in publications ranging from The Paris Review to Commentary, adds, “While it’s true you learn about writing by reading the best, you also learn from hearing stuff that doesn’t work and figuring out how to make it better.”

Even the most renowned writers were not immune from the acid tongues of the group critique. Ruth Gruber, author of 16 books including “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refuges and How They Came to America” (Putnam, 1983), joined the Tuesday enclave in 1985.

“It was marvelous being lit into,” Gruber said. “Instantly they knew what worked — and what to throw out.” Gruber’s editor forbade her to workshop her latest book, the Pulitzer-nominated “Inside of Time: My Journey from Alaska to Israel” (Carroll & Graf, 2003), fearing the group would have time-consuming suggestions that would lead to a missed deadline.

Just shy of 92, Gruber was the group’s oldest member. The youngest is Molly Jong-Fast, now 24. The author of “Normal Girl” (Villard, 2000) attended her first meeting in 1994 at age 14. In 1996 her first published piece was printed in this newspaper. It explored growing up in a family of famous Jewish writers (her mother is Erica Jong, her father Jonathan Fast, her grandfather Howard Fast).

“It’s interesting how many of the participants worked on pieces with Jewish themes,” Jong-Fast said of the group.

While Jong-Fast and Shapiro were the only members related when the Tuesday night sessions began — they’re cousins — that changed over time. Ultimately, Shapiro said, “There were three marriages, three kids, one divorce and, sadly, two deaths.”

Former Omni Magazine editor Marc Kaplan, 49, cited Shapiro’s generosity. “Each week Sue provided not just a safe haven for writers, but food.” The group helped polish an article about his parents, Holocaust survivors, that ran in Hadassah magazine. He said, “I had stopped attending regularly, but when I heard it was ending I thought, ‘What? The sun isn’t rising. How can this be?’”

Shapiro is candid about why she wrote the group’s final chapter. “I teach journalism at New School and NYU, and many of the current participants were former students. While it was great to have young blood, it also felt like another class.” She said she also wants to concentrate on her own career, which is booming: Her memoir, “Five Men Who Broke My Heart,” is being published in January by Delacorte and she has two more book projects in the pipeline.

While members seem to empathize with her decision, most are disappointed. Nicole Bokat, 44, and the author of “Redeeming Eve” (Permanent Press, 2000), which Shapiro reviewed for the Forward, said, “I thought Sue would keep it going till she was on her deathbed.” Happily there’s no need to sit shiva for the workshop. There are rumblings of resuming, but it won’t be the same without Shapiro and her boundless hospitality. The angst of change, however, will doubtless provide material for new stories — which will in turn necessitate sharp but fair critiquing.

Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.