Writing About Roots and Teaching About Place


Published: August 25, 2010Fordham College at Lincoln Center’s (FCLC) English department just got a little bit luckier thanks to the addition of Helene Stapinski. Stapinski, a New Jersey native who taught a memoir class at Fordham in 2008, is returning this semester to teach a non-fiction-writing course called “Writing About Place.” Best known for her memoir “Five-Finger Discount,” Stapinski is not just an author but also a journalist and freelancer, writing for such publications as the New York Times and Travel and Leisure. An NYU and Columbia graduate, Stapinski currently lives in Brooklyn, spends summers on Long Island and finds inspiration for stories from her two children.

Helene Stapinski returns to Fordham College at Lincoln Center this fall to teach a non-fiction writing master class, “Writing About Place.” (Nancy Stone/The Chicago Tribune/MCT)

The Beginning

I love to write. I wrote when I was five years old. I edited my high school newspaper.

Life on the Jersey Journal

I went there as a police reporter, an entry-level job. I had to deal with the cops everyday. I [also] wrote a weekly column. I was very opinionated and it was unusual for that place. I got tons of hate mail. People called me [and told me to] get a nice woman’s job like a nurse or teacher.

Teaching Memoir

I’m teaching memoir writing. I don’t even know what to teach people in journalism. The memoir thing [in 2008] was great because I could show what I was writing. Memoir writing is like psychotherapy, you have to give these people a way to open up, to let them see that I put myself out there.

Writing About Place

I went to Alaska—that kind of changed my life. I was really burned out and Alaska busted everything open for me. I became a volunteer with the Jesuit corps. I did all kinds of freelance stuff while I was there… I did a sled dog race story for Newsday.

Becoming an Author

I wanted to do more creative writing. I got into the Columbia program [and] I started writing these little stories which became my first books. This was the second major life change… It opened doors.


As a freelancer you are constantly throwing stuff out there. It is great work—doing something you love to do and having someone pay you for it.

The Future of Journalism

The industry is really shifting now—it’s not just journalism. The publishing industry, it’s just upside down. No one knows what is going to happen.

Future Writers

Being a writer has been this romantic idea. It’s still out there; you just can’t get paid for it. I think there will always be writing. You still have to know how to tell good stories.

Writing Style

I definitely prefer creative writing—it’s more personal; it’s easier. Reporting a story is a lot of work… There is something more rewarding about reporting a story. To be a good reporter you’ve got to be a pain in the ass; you’ve got to be a pit bull.

Favorite Thing About Teaching?

The give and take you get when it is working, when people listen to what you say and do their part and get excited.

Worst Part of Teaching

You get a little stage fright sometimes. Right before class I [would] get a little nervous and worried I wouldn’t be prepared enough.

Fiction Vs. Non-fiction

One of my pet peeves is people who call fiction non-fiction or non-fiction fiction. Writing fiction is really hard, and making stuff up is hard.


Be truthful. Don’t be lazy when writing a memoir. If you do it in the right way and do it with integrity and you don’t make stuff up, it turns out okay. Everybody’s got a secret; are you willing to write about it?