4 years ago

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.

“I was only 23 when I

“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. “Today’s literary renaissance not only rose from the ashes of Brooklyn’s industrial past, but in many ways owes its existence to it. For one thing, neighbourhoods full of gorgeous 19th-century brownstones had fallen into neglect, allowing young creative types, many of them writers, to escape the high-rent districts of Manhattan. And Brooklyn’s former manufacturing districts offer cheap, spacious offices for small literary outfits breaking off from the publishing behemoths in Manhattan. This has created a kind of vertically integrated factory for literature, where would-be poets or novelists can find not only throngs of other would-be writers at their local coffee hang, but also a locally run writing programme, excellent bookshops and readings series, and a cottage industry of literary magazines and small presses. A first stop on this literary assembly line is the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop.” —The Economist, June 2012 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. 28 AMERICAN MAGAZINE APRIL 2014

Excerpt from Cutting Teeth (on shelves May 13) PHOTO BY AMANDA STEVENSON LUPKE Nicole stood in the driveway and searched the windows of the house before popping the trunk of the car. There they were. The product of months of researching and purchasing, until she was certain she had the best Go Bags in the tri-state area, more thorough than the official Office of Emergency Management Ready New York! Go Bag. She began her inventory, checking items against the Disaster & Preparation Checklist. The iodine tablets, the “Space Emergency Blankets” and first aid kit, the whistles, toilet paper, plastic plates and utensils, the camping stove, bottles of water and nonperishable food, including twelve cans of gluten-free organic Alphabet O’s, her son Wyatt’s favorite. She had packed changes of clothes for all three of them, including her husband Josh, and toy cars for Wyatt, as well as his lovey, a cuddleworn blanket named Blue. There were matches, flashlights and packs of batteries, and an envelope with five hundred dollars cash. A to-go package of tampons. A thick paperback, The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare. The print was so small, she had added a magnifying glass. Not her ideal reading material, but more bang for the buck space-wise. The Go Bags had taken her months to complete since she’d had to hide her collecting from Josh. First, she had saved the money, then she had spent it, using a PayPal account opened in her mother’s name, arranging for the items to be shipped to her parents’ house—$50 for an economy bottle of Cipro antibiotic, $250 worth of gasmasks (extra charge for childsized), $100 of Mylar blankets, $185 for walkie-talkies. Nicole’s fingers dragged over each object as if, by touch alone, they imbued her with protection. A force field, Wyatt might say. Her sweet boy organized the world into two ranks. Good guys and bad guys. Entwined with this feeling of safety was selfloathing. How could an intelligent person buy all this crap? Yes, she was neurotic, she thought, as most creatives were, but she was a high-functioning member of society. She paid her bills on time, made sure her child had all he needed to thrive, and taught at a well-regarded city college where her classes were among the students’ favorite. The trunk of this car belonged to a militia-member of a paranoid fringe cult, not a liberal educated uppermiddle-class mother. She felt like a fool when she thought of it— the end of days, like she was some right-wing evangelical. Or one of those people who believed the Mayan prediction that the world would end in 2012. But still, talk of the end was everywhere. Measles in Park Slope, mumps in Midwood. And the bees were disappearing. Armageddon. Apocalypse. By flood, by tsunami, by flaming asteroid. Shortage of water and food was inevitable, claimed even the most rational voices on NPR. The world was a mess and people were terrified; there was no denying that. Autism rates were skyrocketing, the ozone depleting, and you couldn’t eat a tuna sandwich because of the mercury. When Wyatt was born, all she had at stake multiplied exponentially, and she had come to see that terrible things—the witches and boogey men of her childhood nightmares—could, and did, happen during the day. An airplane could slice open the sky. A pair of psychopaths could take a high school hostage. You, yes you, could receive mail coated in white dust. She’d had the single page checklist laminated, but could see creases where she had folded it time and time again. It had been massacred by check marks and scribbled notes. She felt love for this list. She pressed it to her face and breathed deeply. The plastic was cool against her sunburned cheeks. LET’S TALK #AMERICANMAG 29