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A Writer’s Comeback: How I Built My Own Literary Scene and Saved Myself

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September/October 2014

Online Only, posted 8.20.14

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It was 2002 and I was twenty-four years old, recently graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and signed by a top literary agent. My debut novel was going out to New York City’s most prestigious publishing houses. I was on top of the world, and for the first time—I’ve never been an optimistic person—I believed I was about to receive the validation every writer dreams of: I would be a published author.

My expectations had started high, for I’d adopted the hopes of my fellow classmates at Iowa. They were the first writers I’d ever met, after all. I’d been so shocked by my acceptance into the program two years earlier that I’d called the Workshop office to make sure there hadn’t been a mistake. When your first dreams are that lofty, when you are comparing yourself to the 1 percent of writers who receive six-figure two-book deals before they turn thirty, the fall is far. Eight months later, when I had moved to New York and my novel had been rejected by what seemed like every editor in the city, and my new husband and I were barely able to scrape by in the post-9/11 economy, I plummeted.

I avoided writers and literary events. I avoided bookstores. I stopped writing. I cut ties with my former Iowa classmates, many of whom were being published right out of the gate. I steered clear of anyone who had known me as Julia, the “writer.” The rejection, plus the stress of moving to New York, plus the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder I’d struggled with since childhood, pushed me into a cycle of episodes, both depressed and obsessive, that would make it difficult for me to leave the house, socialize, write, and even read for years.

That year, somewhat improbably, I decided to host a writing workshop in my Brooklyn apartment—a decision that would become the Sacket Street Writers’ Workshop. Almost twelve years later, I receive grateful e-mails and letters on a weekly basis from some of the twenty-five hundred writers who have passed through Sackett Street. How can I explain to them, better yet convince them, that it is they who should be thanked, and by me? That it was the Sackett writers, and the haven they have provided me over the past decade, that saved me and renewed the faith I was certain I had lost?

It may seem as if Sackett Street was born from within the “literary scene.” The truth is, Sackett Street sprung from my need to escape—my retreat from the intimidating, distracting, and equally dazzling glare of publishing, the competitive nature of MFA programs, the gossip of literary parties, and the overload of information that can cement a wall between a young writer and the act of writing instead of motivating her. Too much knowledge of what’s hot and what’s not in publishing, or on what critics deem “good” and “bad” literature can make many young writers doubt every choice they make, preventing them from finding that sweet spot we all write to inhabit, a state of mid-consciousness specific to writing early drafts, where we lose awareness of our technical choices concerning structure, character, and language (the choices we return to in revision), and where we feel confident enough, safe enough, to let go, to allow the characters and storyline to move with their own momentum, as if the story is writing itself.

Now that I’m thirty-seven, a bit wiser, finally published, and more knowledgeable about some of the mysteries of publishing, I can see how my once near-zealous devotion to the purity of the writing process can sound naïve. But in 2002, we were relying on the Internet much less than we do today, and online literary magazines and blogs were relatively new. So the separation between publishing and writing was much wider, and a craft-focused bubble in which writers could lose themselves in the process of writing was more attainable.

Today, Sackett Street writers are everywhere in the literary world: On the New York City–side, they are featured in reading series and book festivals, work in publishing, and serve on the committees of literary nonprofits; on the MFA-side, they are both students and faculty members in creative writing programs. And they can be found everywhere in between—on the mastheads of literary magazines and small presses from coast to coast. The current Sackett Street instructors are nearly all published by commercial publishing houses. But these are relatively new developments. For the first seven years, I did everything I could, consciously or not, to keep the literary “scene” outside the walls I had so carefully and lovingly crafted.

I can’t remember who first suggested that I hold a writing workshop in my home, although my mom surely deserves the credit. It still amazes me that, amid the paralyzing doubt I was experiencing after my book’s rejections, I found the confidence to place that first ad on Craigslist. Fiction Workshop taught by Iowa MFA grad. A few weeks later, a motley crew of eight writers of various writing backgrounds and skill levels showed up, climbed the four dimly lit flights of stairs to my brownstone apartment kitchen, and Sackett Street was born.

My obsession with craft, my compulsively thorough feedback on students’ work, and my need to be surrounded by writers reading fiction with the hyper-focused attention that Sackett alums still call “the Sackett method,” along with the pots of coffee I served, made our classes stretch late into the night. I had high expectations for myself as an instructor and workshop mediator, and I had equally high expectations for my students, regardless of their skill level or experience. In my kitchen, we were all equal. Writers with MFA degrees sat next to writers who spent their days as accountants, lawyers, editorial interns, stay-at-home moms, baristas, bartenders, corporate secretaries, and MTA workers. Each was motivated and enthusiastic. They had to be to keep up with the kind of work I demanded. The workshop guidelines I drafted, which we still use in our classes today, laid out what was expected: Students were required to read each writer’s work twice, make notes on the manuscripts, and then write a two- to three-page critique summarizing their feedback.

I remember more than once applauding my students for reading “hard,” analyzing every technical choice a writer makes and determining its unique effect on the reader’s experience. We talked about the reader often in workshop, investigating whether the reader’s experience matched the writer’s intention, and I realized, gradually, that Sackett Street had become an amalgam of the best that I’d absorbed in workshops I’d previously taken, and the opposite of what I’d found least helpful. I made sure to mediate discussion actively in class, helping writers translate their opinions (I didn’t like this character) into technical craft-focused language (The exaggerated tone in this scene made me distrust the character). While we spoke of the reader, we made sure that we were talking about the reader that a particular story intended to engage. We started each workshop by discussing what worked in the piece being critiqued: This focus on identifying and examining the successes of a piece of writing was often absent in the workshops I’d participated in before Sackett. How, I asked my students, can a writer find the good in her own work if she can’t see it in someone else’s? The sharpest reader is one who can find a glimmer of potential in a piece of writing that is unpolished and/or unlike his own style of writing.

I promised my students that the more effort they put into reading one another’s work, the better writers they’d become. As a chronic doubter of just about anything, this I believed with a religious-like devotion, and when those writers returned for class after class, honing their close reading skills, my prediction proved true. Even the beginners had learned how to write engaging stories and many of them are now published.

Credit: Raquel Frechette

The author leads a class as part of the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop in Brooklyn, New York.

Reader Comments

  • vateop says...

    Ms. Fierro, thanks for sharing. Your pain and your joy seem to be a common element within the field. Climbing out of any dark place seems to resolve itself as we unite ourselves with others and focus on them. Bravo for sharing your struggle through this article, and for sharing yourself with so many who gain enormous skills and strength from you!

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