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

by
Julia Fierro
8.20.14

Through word-of-mouth and more Craigslist ads, new writers contacted me about these “workshops for serious writers” they’d heard about. Although we offer workshops in all genres, and our writers range in age from twenty to eighty, the majority of our students began, and have continued to be, young literary writers in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, motivated and experienced, and headed for MFA programs or publication. They are hard-working writers and hard-working readers. They are creatively ambitious writers who come to New York City from all parts of the world. They want to live here, need to be here, have dreamt of being surrounded by the literary life. They work several low-paying jobs, live five to an apartment, write at night after work, all while volunteering at literary magazines, reading series, and nonprofits. They are the backbone of what culture magazines have called the current “Brooklyn literary renaissance,” and they are also the backbone of Sackett Street.

In 2005, I was teaching four nights a week in my home, and was able to quit my adjunct jobs. In 2006, I began hiring instructors to teach in their homes in neighborhoods all over Brooklyn and Manhattan. I hired teachers based on how generous they would be with their students, not on whether they were published, and asked that they use the workshop guidelines and make room in each class to focus on the successes in each student’s work. Workshops always include typed feedback from the instructor and a private conference—the same expectations I’d had for myself all those years. Prior to founding Sackett I had been teaching post-MFA workshops, and I hired some of my students from those classes to become Sackett instructors, knowing they would teach the craft-focused method we had used in the post-MFA workshop. As the number of classes multiplied, it became clear that while the majority of students attracted to Sackett Street were either MFA-bound or had already earned their MFA degrees, many were also writers who were just as skilled as MFA students but couldn’t, for many reasons, attend a graduate program. These were writers creating their own MFA-like experience by taking consecutive workshops at Sackett Street and cobbling together an inspiring and active literary life by attending many of New York’s literary events, festivals, conferences, and talks. We have a high returning-student rate at Sackett Street, particularly in our advanced fiction workshops, and many of these writers have been taking classes, sometimes with the same instructors, for years. It is a special treat when Sackett alums, upon returning to New York after earning their MFA degrees, register for more classes, or join the faculty.

As the Sackett Street writers produced and published, I was still not writing. I dabbled here and there, writing fragments of stories and chunks of novels. I had a dozen one-night stands with opening novel chapters, only to wake up the next morning and realize I was no longer interested in the affair. The amount of administrative work for Sackett Street tripled. I gave birth to two children, and while continuing to run the program and teach workshops I raised them at home, which made finding time and the motivation to write more challenging. I began to fear that I was a fraud. Here I was, running a literary organization, teaching writers who were on their way to becoming the new generation of literary writers, and I was unpublished. My husband grew so sick of hearing me call myself a failure that he banned the word from our home. I hid the truth from my students. When they asked about my own writing, or begged me to read at one of the Sackett Street readings, I lied—talking about, or reading from, an old project that I hadn’t touched in months. I simply could not write. When I sat in front of my computer, a paralyzing panic came over me. Nothing I told myself—get over it, already! Everyone gets rejected!—could help me return to that place of effortless writing I had once escaped to for hours at a time.

The more I worked with the Sackett writers, especially with my novel-writing students whose manuscripts I watched come to life over the years, I was reminded of the reason I first felt the need to write: to feel less alone. To escape into a world where I can do what I can’t do in life—to see and experience another person’s consciousness, and through that character investigate, and, if I’m lucky, make sense of who I am and what my place is in the world. Of course, we all dream of publication, but we remind ourselves that we write to become not only better writers but also better friends and partners, mothers and fathers. Now, over a decade after that first Sackett workshop, having published my debut novel, Cutting Teeth, this past May, I can see that the same was true for me. I needed that decade of not writing. Those years were not a failure. I grew up. I learned how to write a novel. I did have something to say, and a way to say it.

All those years of teaching and running Sackett Street were motivated in part by my own needs—for community, inspiration, and a kind of literary companionship that sheltered me until I was ready to return to the vulnerable hard work that is the writing life.

Last fall, shortly after I sold my novel, I moderated a panel titled “Life After the MFA” at a writers conference in New York City. In my introduction, I joked that it sounded like a recovery group. I was the last to introduce myself, and when I did I admitted that my story was a kind of recovery story, and that I’d stopped writing for seven years. I was sure I heard a few gasps come from the audience, mostly young writers in the process of earning their MFA degrees, several my own former Sackett students. I went on to explain that it was through teaching the Sackett Street writers that I found the strength to return to my own writing in 2009. I’d given myself one more chance to write another novel, doubling my babysitting hours, rejoining a writer’s space, and committing myself full-time to finishing Cutting Teeth. My recovery story is now my favorite story to tell, including the part where I discovered that I hadn’t lost my writerly chops after all. In fact, I was twice the writer I used to be, and my new confidence wasn’t the lightweight and delicate kind that had shielded me at Iowa, where I had relied on praise from my classmates and teachers.

After the panel, one of my former students from my advanced novel-writing workshop found me and asked, sympathetically, “Why didn’t you tell us, all those years, that you weren’t writing?”

How could I have told them the truth about those years I spent consumed by anxiety? How could I have placed the weight of my self-doubt on their shoulders? My duty was to lift them up, to help them feel as if any story could be told, that any piece of writing could be taken seriously. Part of my responsibility, I believed, was to shelter them until their work was ready to be sent out to agents, and then, if they were lucky, to editors. I was their guide through the daunting labyrinth that is the literary world. I could help them feel confident, so much so that they’d dare to take risks, dare to tell authentic, honest, and revealing stories—the same dares and risks that would eventually lead me back to my own writing. When I returned to the literary scene in 2011, it was with a novel I was proud of. I did so with an army of writers by my side. 

Read more about Fierro’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, as well as Eve Bridburg’s GrubStreet, Edan Lepucki’s Writing Workshops Los Angeles, and Susanna Daniel’s Madison Writers’ Studio, in “The MFA Alternatives: Independent Writing Workshops” by Michael Bourne, in the September/October 2014 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Julia Fierro is the author of Cutting Teeth (St. Martin’s Press, 2014), which was recently included in Library Journal’s “Spring Best Debuts” and on “Most Anticipated Books of 2014” lists by HuffPost Books, Flavorwire, Marie Claire, and the Millions. Fierro’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Guernica, Glamour, Psychology Today, and other publications, and she has been profiled in the the Observer and the Economist. In 2002, she founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop in Brooklyn, New York, which has been featured as an MFA alternative by the L Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, and Poets & Writers Magazine. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, Fierro lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two children.

Comments

Appreciation

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!

This is a very inspiring post

This is a very inspiring post about the courage needed to become a published author.  So glad you were able to draw strength from your students.  And it sounds like vice versa.  Don't give up, don't give up, don't give up...I don't think those words can ever be said enough.  Thanks for sharing!  Janelle www.janellefila.com

Fantastic!

You are indeed a success story. From "failure" came enormous growth. Most debut novels are really sisters of the 2, 3, 4, 5, siblings in the drawer. 

Fantastic!

You are indeed a success story. From "failure" came enormous growth. Most debut novels are really sisters of the 2, 3, 4, 5, siblings in the drawer. 

Fantastic!

You are indeed a success story. From "failure" came enormous growth. Most debut novels are really sisters of the 2, 3, 4, 5, siblings in the drawer.