Julia Fierro is the author of Cutting Teeth, which was included in Library Journal’s “Spring Best Debuts” and on “Most Anticipated Books of 2014” lists by HuffPost Books, The Millions, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine and Marie Claire. She also founded the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop; what started as eight writers meeting in her Brooklyn kitchen has grown into a creative home for over 2000 writers. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop … and you’ll hear a bit more of that in her wonderful post. Enjoy! – Meg
When I introduce myself to students at writer’s conferences and literary events, and in the writing workshops at The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop I founded in 2002, I make sure to mention that while Cutting Teeth is my first published novel, it is not the first novel I wrote. Or tried to write, I often add. When I tell the story of how I became a writer, I make sure to include the seven years I spent not writing. Even after all I’ve accomplished, I still feel ashamed of those years spent not writing. Not so much because I didn’t publish in time with my expectations, or write consistently, but because I was so cruel to myself, so impatient, beating myself up daily for not writing. I avoided my students’ requests when they invited me to read with them at the many Sackett Street readings I hosted to celebrate their hard work. I practically lied about the various “projects” I claimed I was working on when I was stuck in a state of paralysis, unable to write for years at a time. I used the F word to describe myself often—failure—until my husband banned it from our apartment. But that didn’t stop me from feeling like one.
While I know that we are all insecure, especially those of us who risk rejection and misunderstanding by sending our perspective out into the world through our creativity, I still find myself envying writers who are, at least, able to appear confident. Until recently, I relied solely on an external sort of confidence—the flush of accomplishment when my work was praised in class, the thrill of winning a writing contest. My first taste of this kind of confidence was when I was accepted into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop when I was 23, an acceptance that allowed me to give myself the permission to think of myself as a Writer with a capital W. For all the talk and recent debate on “to get an MFA” or not, Iowa gave my insecure 23-year-old self the chance to imagine a new story for my life, and I still wonder if I would’ve been able to take that risk in believing myself as a Writer if I hadn’t gone to Iowa. For two years, I’d not only be allowed to talk about reading books, I’d also begin to investigate how to write them, a passion that would transform into the method I’d use in the earliest years of The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop.
At Iowa I was surrounded with writers for the first time in my life. I was a blank slate and absorbed craft like a sponge. I had written little, and read even less. I was that annoying eager student in workshop, the one who talked too much, and was too enthusiastic on just about everything. My classmates, despite being just as young as I was, had been writing for many years, were comfortable with the terminology of craft, and were so well-read that I spent almost every afternoon at the library and left with armfuls of contemporary authors I’d never heard of. These were the first writers I’d known. I was raised in a family where the definition of “work” was not synonymous with creativity. And so I adopted the lofty expectations of my Iowa classmates. I would publish before I was thirty years old! I would get a two-book deal! I’d sell film rights and head off on a book tour around the world!
I wrote my first novel at twenty-four (way too young) in 6 months (way too fast), and revised for only another few months (and way too sloppy). I signed with an agent, one of many who came to the Workshop to recruit young writers. After I graduated (my teachers said they had high hopes for me!), I moved to Brooklyn, found a low-paying adjunct teaching position, and my book went out to publishers. It was then rejected again and again for almost a year. But it’s really for the best, I told people (and myself). It wasn’t a very good book, I said. And while this part is true—I’d only been writing for a few years, after all—that truth didn’t lessen the sting. With every pass from another editor, my acceptance at Iowa, the praise I’d experienced there, and the hope my teachers had in me, started to feel like a fluke. The confidence I’d pieced together while earning my MFA suddenly felt like temporary scaffolding. It fell down.
It took seven years worth of teaching hard-working Sackett Street writers—each and every one a model for me as I worked to rebuild my faith in myself as a writer—before I returned to writing with solid commitment. And when I did sit down in front of my computer, I was a better writer. A better person. I needed that time off to grow. I needed to learn how to write.
I imagine it would be wiser professionally notto mention those years I spent not writing, years I spent doubting myself so fully that it was torture to pound out a page. But who else is going to tell that story? Many of the successful published writers I hear talk on panels at conferences make it sound as if they are writing machines, as if they haven’t taken a day off from writing in years. Part of my success as a writer was not writing. If I hadn’t spent all those years teaching and reading and editing the work of other writers, I am certain I wouldn’t be the writer, and person, I am today. There are infinite ways to be a writer with a capital W, just as there are infinite ways to tell a story. After so many years of writing and not writing, of failing and succeeding, the best advice I can give my students (and myself) is a reminder that there are many definitions of success. My favorite definition of success as a writer is one I heard at the annual Slice Literary Conference, from author and writing teacher Fiona Maazel, “Success in publishing means being able to publish a next book.” That’s my story for now. – Julia