“I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.”

TDFW Issue #8: The Guru Susan Shapiro

“Writing is a way to transform your worst experience into the most beautiful.”

What should people know about you?

People saw me on “The Today Show” plugging my Random House books, and doing standing room only book events with famous editors and agents and assumed my big-city career was exciting and glamorous. So when my students ask about my background, I like to share the truth: Finishing my graduate degree in poetry, I was a failed poet for 12 years. I couldn’t make a living as a book reviewer. I was told my confessional writing was too autobiographical for fiction. I wasn’t funny enough to be a comedy writer. I finally published three memoirs in my forties that weren’t big hits. After these kooky parties I hosted for my debut comic novel “Speed Shrinking” were on TV, everybody begged me to host their speed shrinking party, so I became almost famous for the wrong thing. Then I co-authored 3 books which did better, and now I make a living working 50 hours a week, freelancing and teaching.

By day I’m the bestselling author/co-author of 12 books my family hates (Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Lighting Up & Unhooked.) My husband doesn’t like being written about either and has threatened to publish his memoir “The Bitch Beside Me.” By night I’m a Manhattan writing professor who teaches the popular “instant gratification takes too long” method I invented -where the goal is: write and publish a great piece by the end of the class.

Tell me about a time you turned something down. (We fudge with this a little here and instead talk about a rejection that turned out to be for the best, but I maintain Sue still technically turned down dating other guys to end up with Charlie!)

After working for four years as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker in my twenties, I finally landed an amazing job: writing my own book column for Newsday, where I was allowed to choose which books I wanted to review. It was syndicated across the country. I felt powerful, able to champion poetry, short stories and essay collections from small publishers, living on shrimp from fancy book parties. I made $8000 one year selling the extra review copies I didn’t pick back to the Strand Bookstore. After I was unfairly fired (for a dumb reason), my boyfriend dumped me. I freaked out and cried to my shrink “I’ve lost my love - and work -and I’ll never be able to land another job as perfect for me.” She said “Didn’t you once tell me if you weren’t reviewing books, you'd rather be writing them?” And then I was fixed up with Charlie, a tall, brilliant scriptwriter I adore. We recently celebrated our 22nd anniversary. I did good at the husband store. Of course I published a piece about it, “Losing my fantasy job led me to my dream life.” As I tell my students - “writing is a way to transform your worst experience into the most beautiful.”

What’s the best or worst advice you’ve ever been given?

When I was quitting smoking and drinking (subject of my book “Lighting Up”) my addiction therapist told me to stay clean, happy and successful I should “lead the least secretive life you can.” My conservative Midwest father countered that with “Repression is the greatest gift of the human intellect.” I lost him last year, but I still laugh at his great lines. I quoted him in a recent essay.

As a former student I have to ask. How does it feel to know that you’ve been instrumental in launching so many writing careers for your students?

At first, when a Jungian astrologist told me “you’ll take others higher than you can take yourself,” it seemed like a curse. And bizarrely accurate: I’d fixed up many marriages while I was still single, and helped tons of protégés launch major book projects before I could publish my own. But now that I’ve found success in love and work, it feels like a blessing. Someone I fixed up with her great husband (and father of her 4 kids) told me “you’re one of the magic people.” I’ve realized that being able to change someone's life for the better is a powerful blessing. Teaching started out as a part-time gig to help me make a living but has become a calling. I fought to include the short pieces that 60 students published in my class in my new writing guide “The Byline Bible.” Since I quit all my other addictions, I’m now addicted to book events. The best part has been doing readings and panels around the country with so many former students - for many it’s the first time they’ve ever read their work in front of an audience. I had a lot of great teachers, editors, and mentors who helped me, so it feels like I’m passing on all their great karma.

Find Sue on Twitter, Facebook and her website to keep up with her writing, her books and her available classes.

TDFW Issue #7: The Musical Mackenzie Shivers

"I'm trying to take up space in my own life."

What should people know about you?

They should know these margaritas are really good.

They are! I love the margaritas here. [We are at Street Taco on East 26th and 3rd Ave]

But I am somebody who believes in living life to the fullest. For me that means traveling as much as I can, spending as much time with friends and family as I can, spending time on what I’m most passionate about, which is music. I believe in equality, and I think everyone should be a feminist and if you’re not a feminist you’re actually just sexist. I think those are the things everyone should know about me.

Any weird jobs you wanna talk about?

Background work is a pretty weird job.

It IS a weird job, that’s how we met!

Yes that’s how we met. I wanna say we met on Gossip Girl?

Yeah probably. I feel like a lot of us met on Gossip Girl. [Correction: we realized later that we actually met on Boardwalk Empire playing high class ladies of the night. See @daniellesep on Instagram for the picture].

That’s a pretty weird job, I was actually thinking about that today. That job was mostly about being quiet and staying out of the way and now I feel like I’m doing the opposite of that, like I’m trying to take up space in my own life. When you do background you’re there to just do what you’re told. But also not to be noticed. A lot of casting people used to ask me if I’d consider dying my hair so that I would be less noticeable.

I’m so glad you didn’t.

Yeah I said that I appreciated having that job and having my SAG card but at the same time I thought, well I don’t think my ultimate goal is to dye my hair so no one notices me.

Yes, you should be noticed.

Tell me about a time you said no or turned something down that you always think about.

To be honest the thing that comes to the forefront of my mind and it isn’t a one time no, but it’s something that I’m consistently saying no to in the moment right now is having children. I’m not saying that I don’t want to ever have kids but for the past few years it’s something that’s been on my mind and currently I just want to focus on x, y, z instead. So it kind of feels like an everyday no?

Because you’re married does it seem like people often feel entitled to ask you about your intentions?

Sometimes. I think the curiosity can be natural. But my answer is pretty unsatisfying when they ask because it’s usually just “maybe!” I do want this overall to be a more candid conversation in general with women. I think it’s difficult to be a mom and we should all be able to be honest about that and what it entails. Also the decision is personal so sometimes I’m like thanks so much for reminding me that I have ovaries and somehow that makes me a ticking time bomb! You don’t know what other people are going through, you don’t know anyone’s story, you don’t know if someone is trying to get pregnant and can’t. It’s really no one’s business. Men don’t get asked this as much I don’t think. Women are expected to want to be mothers and maybe not all women do. I wish we could be more accepting of what anyone decides to do whenever they decide to do it.

What’s the best or worst advice you’ve been given?

Some of the best advice goes back to the heart of this interview. Saying no to things. I think you don’t always have to say yes. I have been given advice to say yes to everything and I’ve been given advice to say no to things. Sometimes saying yes to things outside my comfort zone can be good for me but if I said yes to everything? I’d be a shell of a human. It’s important to have time to take care of yourself.

Follow Mackenzie on Twitter and Instagram @nykenzie.

Pre-order her new album The Unkindness here at PledgeMusic.

Listen to the first single “Believe” off The Unkindness on Soundcloud

TDFW Issue #6: The Reclaimer Sam Grittner

"How honest can I be with myself?"

Scene: Cloudy afternoon. A tattoo shop in Williamsburg Brooklyn where Sam Grittner is getting a fantastic new tattoo.

What should people know about you? I suggest telling everyone how you were once Employee of the Month, but feel free to tell the good readers of TDFW whatever you want.

First of all I’ve been Employee of the Month on multiple occasions. I’ve also been Employee of the Year.

My bad.

This is a tough question because I feel like everybody who is familiar with me already knows too much as I tend to overshare.

What should people NOT know about you?

Ohhh see that’s like the Marianas Trench. Can’t go down there. We won’t come back. I would like people to know that I’m a recovering alcohol and drug addict, I’m a writer, I’m a comedian, I am a humble beekeeper, I am a passionate mother and I am a part time owl. Should I keep going and you’ll edit this?

If you want. Or some people like to tell me about some offbeat jobs they’ve had, like the guy who was Dolph Lundgren’s assistant.

That’s weird because I’m also Dolph Lundgren’s assistant. What are the odds? I’ve worked many a job, mostly in the service industry. But one job that will forever stand out is that I answered a Craigslist ad which said “Clean my apartment.” So I went over there and it was already clean. And this guy-I was trying to suss out what he wanted. Clearly it was just companionship and someone to listen to him. I Windexed like one mirror and he said “wanna get pizza?” And I said “yeah let’s get pizza!” Then he just told me his life story which was fascinating, he was a great pianist. But then I took my money and got out of there because he was installing a security camera right before I got there and I feel like I’m the one who got away, like he clearly was finishing a dungeon. Another job on Craigslist was listed as “Industrious Builder Needed, $20 an hour” and I am none of those things but I did need $20 an hour so I go to this warehouse and find this guy named Hans I think. He said (*insert German accent*) "What we are going to do over the next 72 hours, well YOU are going to do, you are going to build shelves. And they are going to be beautiful shelves.” I was like “Hans I’m onboard.” I ended up building metal shelves, turns out I am industrious and hard working. Every time I came in, in the morning or after lunch he’d always say “I still yearn for the days of California.” There was a part of me that wanted to know so much more but I just let it sit. The mystery is always gonna be better.

Tell me about an instance where you turned something down.

As I said in the beginning I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. I’m 36 years old, I spent the majority of my life using and abusing drugs and drinking to excess. I definitely have been very open about this, I write about it, I talk about it, I have no shame in it, in fact I’m quite proud of where I am. I understand that I’m just a person and alcoholism and addiction is a disease. But October 31st I will have exactly one year sober. Not to get all Nancy Reagan on everyone but I’ve been saying no to drugs and alcohol when it’s been offered and I haven’t actively sought them out so I’m also constantly saying no in my mind.

In contrast to this time last year, I was living with friends, I was almost homeless, I was going to start selling all my possessions. I had 7 months sober and then I relapsed. The relapse made it really clear to me that if I pick it up once, whether it’s pot, or a pill, doesn’t matter, they’re all interchangeable. And if I take one, I can’t stop. So a year ago I was unemployable, I had no job, no money, and I was lying to my best friends, the few that were still talking to me. No one trusted me. I didn't trust me. And I was suicidal. I’d already attempted suicide once. It was an extremely scary place to be. A friend of mine kind of had a come to Jesus moment with me at Kellogg’s Diner over here-he’s sober as well-and he was like “you’ve been sober and you’ve seen what it’s like. You know where your life is right now and it’s just gonna keep going like this and get worse.” At no time did he say I needed to go back into recovery. He then said “what are your thoughts?” So I said “I’ve got two joints in my pocket that are rolled up, I’m gonna go smoke those and then tomorrow I’ll go back to recovery.” And that’s exactly what I did. It not only saved my life. It turns out that everything that I thought I wanted I didn’t.

Growing up the only thing that mattered to me is that I wanted everyone to know my name, I wanted to feel important. I was completely insecure, I didn’t really know who I was, I hated myself because I just had a superficial layer to me. Depending on who I was with, I put on the face I thought they wanted to see. In recovery I learned that there’s nothing that I can’t do. Which is incredible.

I’m literally saying no on a daily basis. That’s a conscious decision I’m making every day. I’m choosing to say no. No one is making me go to recovery, no one is forcing me. It’s very self empowering. After the first 90 days is when you see people get a glimmer of life in them. If they’re rebooting a Westworld robot you just see the eyes light up for a moment. You see there’s something there. Once you know that spark is there now you can chase it. Every day just gets better. I don’t have hangovers. Every hangover was worse than the last, my alcoholic mind would say you can’t get a hangover if you never stop using. You don’t have a life, you don’t have friends, you don’t have money but you don’t have an 8 hour headache. The recovery community especially in New York, there are more meetings in New York than I think anywhere else. At any hour of the day you can go to a meeting. And if you’re serious about this you make a network. You see the same people over and over again after awhile they become friends, they become real friends. The idea that people can change is so powerful, but no one can change until they’re ready and I wasn’t ready for a long time.

I stopped trying to control everything, I admitted defeat that I was powerless to control life. Once you take away drugs and alcohol and you see you’re capable of change and you start to see that change there is this infinity circle, if I feel this good after 90 days, how about 6 months, how about a year? I’ve taken a big hiatus from comedy which has been hard. My self image was completely tied to comedy. If I wasn’t known as a stand up comic then I had no value. Versus now. I’m a good person, I’m a great beekeeper, great builder of metal shelves.

YOU ARE A PRETTY GOOD MOM.

I forgot to get someone to watch the kids today!

Maybe for the advice portion we should talk about how people needing help with addiction can seek that out?

You can’t make someone get into recovery. I knew I had a problem. But it’s easier to do what you already know. Even if it’s bad for you. Even if you’re isolating yourself to do drugs and blowing all your money. That’s familiar to you.

People don’t need to be afraid to ask for help. There’s no shame. If you’re a human being, you have family members, you have friends who are battling addiction and alcohol abuse. There are a lot of people who are in recovery and just don’t tell people about it. If you’re concerned about a friend or a family member? Like for me at my rock bottom it was “how much could I lie? How convincing could I be in this lie?” And now what I try to do, I do it imperfectly, I fall short all the time, but I really try to do it on a 24 hour basis which is “how honest can I be with myself?” If you live that way, nothing but good things can happen. You’ll be ready when you’re ready. It took a relapse for me to realize this is black and white, this is life or death. There’s this huge misconception for everyone who comes into recovery where it’s like ok I stopped drinking and doing drugs my life isn’t going to be fun anymore. And my life is so much fun. Even with this break from comedy, I’m still writing, I’m showing up for my friends, hanging out, I get to FaceTime with my niece and nephew. If you’re thinking about it and you’re like if I stop using my life is over and I won’t have fun anymore, the opposite is true. I have a complete new wardrobe, I’m gonna be able to take my first vacation soon, I wasn’t even able to entertain that possibility [when I was using].

Just have just a little bit of faith, be open, and never stop yearning for the days of California.

Follow Sam on Twitter, read some of his posts on recovery on Medium and he’s created a Google doc with resources for those needing help with recovery, addiction and suicidal ideation. The Suicide Hotline is 1-800-272-8255.

TDFW: Issue #5 The Bandit Kat Likkel

"I can do something better I can live a better life, sometimes in saying no you're saying yes to yourself."

What should people know about you?

I’m 2nd generation Dutch, and I grew up in a conservative, religious family. My parents got divorced and at 15 I moved to be with my mom and my (I didn’t know it then) angry alcoholic stepfather to a tiny town in Kansas. Our trash was collected in a pick up truck by old man, named Mule Morgan — and I have no idea what he did with it after that. But I’ve always wondered. Got kicked out of my house right at the end of my senior year by my mother and my angry, alcoholic surgeon stepfather and drove off in my stepbrother’s hand me down ‘74 Nova Supersport. I still miss that car. Lived on a friend’s front porch for a while. Eventually dropped out of college, I got myself to LA where I thought I would become an actress— and then quickly realized I sucked. Bad. I learned how to juggle from itinerant performers at the Renaissance fair, which has been a valuable skill in Hollywood.

Any weird jobs?

I answered the phones for a crop duster who had glaucoma and was going to go blind. He smoked a lot of pot. Also worked as a waitress at the local country club and I sucked so bad that I would forget I even had tables —and when I did remember I’d be so embarrassed, I’d hide from them. Because Kansas people were too polite to say anything they would just seethe in silence until someone noticed. I eventually was asked politely to maybe find another job. Worked in a scary bar in college where I didn’t go by my real name, so people started calling me The Bandit. A huge biker walked in one day looking for me asking “You the chick they call The Bandit?” I’m standing there holding mugs and just like “yeah?” And he said “I just gotta tell you, you gotta lotta class ok?” And he turned and walked out. I said “um thank you?” And I have no idea what that was about. None. But it was one of the formative moments in my life. But the thing that ultimately focused me and got me to writing was working at AIDS project LA for a while where, among other things, I helped out with deathbed wills. Some of the people I sat with would spend so much of their time telling me what they wished they had done, chances they wished they’d taken, or life directions they wish they'd had the courage to pursue. I felt privileged they told me their stories— and it helped focus my life and it led me eventually to take the chance on becoming a writer.

Talk about a time when turning something down was a pivotal moment for you.

I’m kind of an “all in” kind of girl when the chips are on the table, so I’ve taken risks a lot and the dice have rolled my way at a few crucial moments. My husband [writer/showrunner John Hoberg] and I ridiculously turned down writing jobs on *two* TV shows, in hopes that we’d just get a MEETING on My Name Is Earl.” We had read the script and knew it was a show we belonged on. We called our agent and said out of all of the scripts you sent us this is the show we want to be on. But our agent said that they already had the writing staff for MNIE. Our agent and manager said it was crazy to turn down the offers we got and we said well we’re going to bank on ourselves because if we accept these other jobs we’re gonna be miserable. We have to take this shot or we’ll regret it. We went from being those writers who were hungry for anything to “this is what we want and we’ll do anything to get it.” We stayed up until 1 or 2 in the morning on a Friday night when our agent got us a meeting and we drove to the creator’s house at 7am in the morning on a Saturday to pitch ideas. That same night he called our agent and said he was going to try and make room in his budget for us. And a week later he did. If we had gone the safe route, those other two shows went thirteen episodes and then cancelled. MNIE changed our lives, changed our careers. Being stubborn enough to take that giant risk, I think that’s how most important things happen in your life honestly, it doesn’t always all work out. But so many good things have happened in our lives from looking at what we want and sticking to that and also being open when something comes to you and thinking oh hey this is an opportunity. You have to think about that core of what made you want to do this in the first place.

This year we turned down down some big network stuff with people we liked because we wanted to take chances doing some more off-beat passion projects. The jury is still out on this move. But fingers crossed.

Best or worst advice you’ve ever been given?

Worst advice I was ever given was learn how to type, so you can always fall back on secretarial work. Best advice I was ever given was learn how to type because that’s what makes script writing so much easier.

Fascinating additional info about Kat because we spent 2+ hours together in a coffee shop in Pasadena:

She worked in animation and as a writer on Aaahh!!! Real Monsters on Nickelodeon.

She is an excellent listener when it comes to talking about your love life.

She was once offered an on-the-spot modeling job by a guy on a motorcycle. She didn’t take it and later saw him on the news because he was a murderer who drove his models up into the San Gabriel Mountains to kill them.

She met a guy on the Promenade in Santa Monica who offered to cut her hair for free and she ended up doing Vidal Sassoon hair demos and shows for a year which was also while she was doing a lot of animation work for Nickelodeon. Their president ended up telling one of the show-runners she didn’t want him hiring Kat any more because her hair changed all the time and she thought it meant Kat was unstable.

Follow Kat on Twitter.

TDFW: Issue #4 The Reframer Alexandra Dean

"The world would like to stick us in aspic at the moment of our greatest beauty"

Alexandra Dean is a Partner and Director/Producer at Reframed Pictures production company. She is an Emmy award-winning journalist and producer having produced news- magazine documentaries for PBS before becoming a series and documentary producer at Bloomberg television, producing the series Innovators, Adventures and Pursuits. She also writes about invention for Businessweek magazine. Her most recent documentary is Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and later was released on American Masters.

Let me just say I’ve seen Bombshell about four times now. I have always loved Hedy and been fascinated by her life. Wild that we’re still not any better now with how we treat women in the public eye when they age.

It’s true. The world would like to stick us in aspic at the moment of our greatest beauty which is not usually the moment of our greatest intellectual achievements but it was for her!

What should everyone know about you?

I grew up in London but I have American parents so that means I have a weird accent that goes back and forth between English and American and it’s not under my control and I’m not trying to be Madonna! That’s a huge part of why I wasn’t able to do one thing I really wanted to do in my life which was to be on the radio. I was so self-conscious of that accent that I didn’t do it.

Talk about a time when turning something down was a pivotal moment for you.

Well I was going to go work for Keith Olbermann at one point because I’m trained as a journalist. At the same time I wanted to go out and start my own thing and I was really torn about it. He was saying these wonderful things about how I could grow to be an executive producer and I was excited. So I went out and bought myself this Donna Karan dress for about ten times the price of any dress I’d ever bought before. I loved this dress and I went home and told my husband I was going to take this new job and he said “that’s great” and then I went and sat under the bathroom sink all night thinking about did I really want to work for someone else or did I really want to strike out and start my own production company and see what I could do. In the morning I had to admit that I wanted to do my own thing and turn down the job. And I’d been sitting in the Donna Karan dress in the bathroom all night so I couldn’t return it! I still wear that dress so much. You ever see me at a wedding I will be wearing that dress! Starting Reframed was a really pivotal moment in my life. If I hadn’t jumped out of the corporate world and taken this risk I never would have made Bombshell or tried to have my own voice, I was always making things for other people. This was me speaking for myself. Everyone should try that once in their life if they can.

Best or worst advice you’ve ever been given (or followed)?

As a female director starting out, I noticed and observed (not just for me), many women found it difficult to have a voice, or a strong opinion. We don’t kind of operate that way, we’re more subtle in general. So what happens when you’re working, people-often men-will come in and try to give your work a voice of their own. Rewrite it, etc. To have a really successful piece of work you have to let it really be you. It can’t be somebody else. There will always be someone foisted on you [in the process] and it’s really important to know that you can listen to them, that teamwork is important, collaboration is important, but you have to go back to your work at the end of the day and see, does it have a coherent voice now, does it reflect me? Is this how I really feel? Because otherwise it might lose its integrity.

Follow Alexandra on Twitter and tweet her that she should post a pic of the infamous Donna Karan dress!

Reminder that you can reach out and suggest, recommend, nominate anyone you’d like to see in future issues! Because everyone has turned down something. And I want to know for what.

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