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American Magazine April 2014

American University is located in Washington, D.C., at the top of Embassy Row. Chartered by Congress in 1893 to serve the public interest and build the nation, the university educates active citizens who apply knowledge to the most pressing concerns facing the nation and world. Students engage with leading faculty experts and world leaders, learning how to create change and address issues including the global economic crisis, health care, human rights and justice, diversity, the environment and sustainability, immigration, journalism’s transformation, corporate governance, and governmental reform.

ILLUSTRATIONS BY MARIA

ILLUSTRATIONS BY MARIA JACKSON

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 chocolatecovered 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. LET’S TALK #AMERICANMAG 27