Thirteen steps belo Court Street, in the basement of a bookstore in the heart of Brooklyn lieterary renaissance, Julia Fierra sits with five writers around two tables pushed together, reading.
Her focus on this damp February night is Florida, a short story penned by one of the students in her Sackett Street Writers' Workshop post-MFA class. Fierro reads aloud, as the other women pop chocolate- covered pretzels into their mouths and follow along silently.
"I like the way this ending makes the reader feel," she says after putting the pages down. "Now let's work backwards and make sure you're dropping the right clues, the bread crumbs that lead to it."
Julia Fierro, CAS/BA '98, is a novelist, editor, essayist, teacher, business owner, mother, wife, slight obsessive compulsive, constant self-evaluator, demander of hard work, and astoundingly hard worker.
But at the core of it all, she's a reader. Earlier that afternoon, she shared her reading-centric philosophy of writing over a skim mocha at one of the seemingly ubiquitous coffee shops manned by bearded baristas in the Cobble Hill section of the borough.
"No one talks about the reader or mentions that you're writing for a reader," she says. "For me, the reader is just somebody like you who has similar tastes. I think it's really valuable to talk about the reader in the workshop. What would the reader feel here? Is this what you want the reader to think? There's a reader for every writer."
After the release of her debut novel on May 13, Fierro, 37, hopes she'll have millions of devoted ones. But as confident and successful as she appears now, she was not always able to so easily embrace her own doctrine. A dozen years ago she was just another talented but supremely insecure writer burdened with fistfuls of rejection letters from publishers and a head full of doubt. With no obvious next path on her own literary journey, she pivoted and placed an ad on Craigslist seeking writers interested in improving their prose.
An odd mix of people, including a restaurant owner, a comic, and an accordionist, responded to her call. They each paid $175 to sit around the kitchen table in Fierro's third-story brownstone walkup on Sackett Street and have their writing deconstructed, critiqued, criticized, and even occasionally praised over eight sessions.
Sackett Street Writers' Workshop has grown immensely from that humble beginning. It has taught more than 2,000 students, employed more than 80 teachers, and produced novelists and hosts of MFA students. Classes remain intimate, usually with no more than eight students meeting either at the teacher's home or a salon-like space such as the basement of BookCourt (yes, a few relics known as "bookstores" still do exist).
"I produced more fiction in two years than I had in my previous 20," Orli Van Mourik wrote of her Sackett Street experience in an essay published on the website Brooklyn Based. "My critical habits developed even as the scathing voice in my head died away. I began to see what I was good at and where I might hope to advance. Not everything I wrote succeeded, but I came to see the bad as a stepping stone instead of as a roadblock.
"Fierro's philosophy deserves much of the credit for this. Sackett's emphasis on craft puts the power in the hands of the writer. In Fierro's universe, you don't have to be born extraordinary to earn the label writer, you just need to write, and write, and keep on writing. Thanks to Sackett Street, for the first time in my life I can, in good conscience, call myself a fiction writer."
Scores of writers credit Sackett Street for nurturing and improving their work. Julia Fierro, its founder, is one of them.
"I grew up and became more confident through Sackett
Street," she says. "When I sat down to write my novel, it just came out
in nine months."
Born healthy, she named it Cutting Teeth.
Fierro grew up on Long Island, the child of an Italian immigrant father and irish-american mother. Her parents owned a card and gift shop, and while they were educated, they had little time for reading. So their daughter picked up the slack.
"I read voraciously," she says. "That was a huge escape. I read whatever books we had on hand. My grandmother's romance novels. Stephen King and Steinbeck. I remember reading Grapes of Wrath and being amazed. I loved Crime and Punishment at an early age. I wasn't a great student in high school because I only wanted to read."
Fierro enrolled at AU eyeing a law career, but after taking a creative writing class, quickly decided to major in literature.
"At no point growing up did I ever think I was going to make a living reading or talking about books," she says. "When I went to American, that was the first step in giving myself permission to take my thoughts about books, my ideas about literature, and my writing seriously."
Harvey Grossinger, CAS/MFA '90, was an early influence.
"She took risks," says Grossinger, who taught Fierro when she was an undergrad. "Her writing showed a depth of imagination.
I don't want to overstate by saying she was unconventional, but she was different. I always used to give a spiel about how I don't want any stories about dorm room love affairs. I want you to write what you don't know. Julia seemed to know that intrinsically. She wasn't afraid to use her imagination and to look a little bit outside of herself. For people in their first creative writing class, that's actually pretty rare."
After graduating from AU, Fierro applied to the renowned Iowa Writers' Workshop, harboring no illusions of actually attending. (Last year 950 applied in literature—25 got in.)
She read her acceptance letter in a state of shock.
"I was only 23 when I went to Iowa," Fierro says. "I had never hung out with writers. I'd never been in a place where we talked about writing. I wrote for eight hours a day. It was exhausting and competitive."
Yet Fierro excelled. She landed a prestigious fellowship, then graduated with a completed novel, Roseland. The next logical step was to move to New York, a city where writers' dreams flourish-or die.
A year of opening rejections and thanks-but-no-thanks notes from "every editor in New York" would be enough to beat down any creative person. For a young writer and adjunct professor who was adjusting to marriage and trying to make ends meet in pricey New York (writers often loiter in the same sad tax bracket as mimes and musicians) while attempting to reignite a suddenly stalled writing career, it was a dark time.
"I needed to retreat," Fierro says. "I had no confidence in my writing. But I discovered in Iowa that I loved teaching. What I feel the most confident about is teaching writing. I really do believe, and maybe it's delusional, that I can look at any book and figure out what it needs to be engaging."
Fierro drew heavily, but not entirely, on her experience at Iowa when she started Sackett Street in 2002. She wanted to build a community, a haven really, where she could spend time with writers while simultaneously repairing her own shattered confidence. While Iowa was ultracompetitive and writers were occasionally known to browbeat one another to tears with their critiques, Fierro aimed to create a more comfortable, inclusive workshop in Brooklyn.
In most Sackett Street classes, the writer sits silently as the other participants first discuss what they liked about the material. Criticism comes next.
"If you're not analyzing people's work and trying to figure out how they did something that's working, you're not going to be able to have that positive perspective of your own work," Fierro says. "Reading with a hyperanalytical perspective, and asking yourself how the writer accomplished this, is how you become a better writer. It's not so much getting feedback from other people, it's learning how to read in a more confident way."
Heather Aimee O'Neil is the second person Fierro hired for Sackett Street. Now the program's assistant director, she also teaches writing at Hunter College.
"Julia's not somebody who's a writer who just happens to be a teacher," O'Neil says of her good friend. "She is a natural teacher. Working with Julia has improved my writing because she's constantly asking why and how. If she's editing your work, you can't just get away with making a suggestion without answering why."
Why? Why hadn't Fierro resumed her own writing career? With Sackett Street firmly established and her second child having just turned 2, she no longer had a reasonable response. So she hired a babysitter and joined a writer's space in the neighborhood (the kind of place where even a vibrating cell phone can garner dirty looks), sat down at the computer, and banged out Cutting Teeth.
The novel tells the story—from different characters' perspectives—of a group of Brooklyn mommies (and one daddy) and their relationships with their children, their spouses, and each other. Every one represents an aspect of parenting that Fierro had fear or inadequacy about, or loved. The material can be biting, painful, amusing, emotional, erotic, and intense, and succeeds for many of the same reasons Fierro has.
"It's her curiosity for the mind and world, and her empathy in the way that she sees people," O'Neil says. "Not every writer could write a novel with so many points of view. That is because of her capacity to really study and examine a person's psychology. Her reading and writing and teaching, that's her religion, her philosophy. It's the way she experiences the world, the way she processes it and discusses it."
Cutting Teeth is being published by St. Martin's Press, one of New York's most prestigious houses. Although she'll be traveling the country doing readings and signings in support of the book (including one at Politics and Prose in Washington on June 1), she'll continue to run Sackett Street. As its director, she still reads and responds to every application personally. Its popularity remains a thing of wonder to Fierro, who's only recently stopped apologizing for its "accidental" success.
"So much of good writing is instinct, but a good teacher can show you how to maximize those instincts. Julia did that for me," says the novelist Keija Parssinen, author of The Ruins of Us and a Sackett Street alum. "She introduced me to a vocabulary of craft, such as point of view, pacing, world, structure, and taught me how to read like a writer. This was perhaps the most invaluable thing Julia taught me, because it enabled me to use every novel I read as a learning opportunity. Julia taught me to focus on the characters' desires and fears, and to bring that to the fore."
In a way, Sackett Street taught Fierro the same lessons.
"All those years I wasn't writing, I was becoming a better writer through teaching," she says, strolling down Court Street toward the bookstore to lead another class. Her voice gains slight speed and pitch, and it's clear that she's looking forward to reading, to listening, to instructing, and to learning from her students.
She's looking forward to becoming a better writer.