At Age 18, a Beloved Writers’ Workshop Retires

By Sherry Amatenstein

Published August 15, 2003, issue of August 15, 2003.
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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.

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