Teach Only If You Have To: An Interview with Julia Fierro

Julia Fierro directs the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, home to 2000+ NYC writers, which she founded in her Brooklyn kitchen in 2002. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of Cutting Teeth, a novel due out from St. Martin’s press in Spring 2014. 

julia fierro

Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

After graduating from American University with an English degree in 1998, I dreamt (quite naively) of “making a living by talking about books,” but I knew my GRE scores and GPA were nowhere near the 4.0+ score needed to be considered for a PhD program.

I’d heard rumors of this “MFA” and my parents had been badgering me to get a Master’s degree, because, they claimed, you could earn a higher salary. A higher salary doing what? I wanted to ask. I was knee-deep in that sludge of directionless doubt that so many new college grads feel in that first year post-undergrad. What should I do? Who should I be? What career should I have?

My extremely generous and supportive undergrad creative writing professor, Harvey Grossinger, urged me to apply. At the time, there were no MFA blogs or chat forums, and MFA programs didn’t have websites. I sent a check to AWP, and a few weeks later, the glossy green catalogue that listed all the current programs arrived, a fraction of what exists today. Professor Grossinger gave me a faded photocopy of the first official MFA program rankings, which had been published by U.S. News World Report in 1997, and I applied to the top 15 schools and waited, hoping I would get into just one—opening a door to a new life.

When you started the degree, what were you leaving behind?

I left behind an over-priced Boston rental and temp jobs I loathed, all of which I was elated to abandon. But my boyfriend did have to sacrifice. My now-husband, writer Justin Feinstein, was a professional gigging hand percussionist (congas, bongos and the like). When I applied to programs, I assured him I would NEVER get into Iowa – the odds were insane, and we fantasized about programs in cities where he could play music, like NYC and Austin, Texas.

When my acceptance letter from Iowa arrived, I was amazed, shocked, excited, all of which was instantly clouded by the terrible fear that Justin might not come with me to Iowa.

Thankfully, he did. He sacrificed a lot to be there and had many dreary jobs (including holding a sign in the bitterly cold prairie wind for a jewelry store going out of business). In the end, his experience at Iowa was a huge gift to both of us—he realized that he loved the writer’s perspective and that he felt more comfortable with writers vs. musicians. He became a writer and recently completed a manuscript and signed with an agent.

If a Sackett student is considering applying to MFA programs and asks me for advice, my first questions are — can you leave your current life without too much repercussion? How old are you? Have you worked hard to establish a career you wouldn’t want to leave behind? Do you have a partner/significant other? Do you have a family?

There are writers who cannot afford to leave their jobs and their families for a two or three-year program. But the majority of today’s MFA students, especially those in programs outside NYC, are young – most in their twenties — and many attend straight from undergrad, which means they have had little time to create ties that can’t be left behind. I imagine this trend of the young MFA student is partially due to the slump in the economy, which has created a slump in employment. Historically, young people flock to universities when there are no jobs, especially when they are accepted at a fully funded program. Lastly, there is a growing romantic buzz around MFA programs that appeals to young people searching for an identity, and this has been enhanced by the many communities of MFA program candidates who find each other through blogs, groups on Facebook, and forums via Poets & Writers. The experience of applying to MFA programs has become its own community, in a sense.

When you started your program, what did you envision happening afterward?

When I first started my MFA, I was an inexperienced writer who hadn’t yet learned to take her writing seriously, and so all of my post-MFA dreams were focused on “career.” I hoped I’d come out of Iowa with teaching experience, enough that it could help me get a teaching job. At the time, I knew university positions were few and selection was competitive, but I had no idea how competitive.

My expectations for life post-MFA changed dramatically after my first semester at Iowa. I was chosen as one of seven Teaching-Writing Fellows, my work was well received in workshop, I realized I was a natural teacher, and I fell in love with the craft-focused writer’s perspective. I had found my calling. For the first time ever, I was surrounded by people who were a lot like me. They too were obsessive observers, storytellers and character analysts. I had never felt less alone. After decades of being told by my family and friends that I thought too much, that I was too critical and overly analytical, I remember thinking, at Iowa, “There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m just a writer!”

With this newfound confidence, my vision for life post-MFA changed, and with every success in workshop, it ballooned. I left Iowa with very high expectations for myself and for my writing.

My first few years post-MFA were very difficult, definitely some of the darkest years of my life, and I do think this is in large part due to my unrealistic expectations. When you are part of an insular world (the MFA is its own kind of “beautiful bubble”), and your classmates are earning two-book deals and being published in The New Yorker, you create very high expectations for yourself. When those dreams of instant publication and instant employment at a university did not come true after I graduated (I was very impatient), I lost my confidence and motivation. I wouldn’t regain it until the Sackett Street Writers’ gave me a new kind of focus and self-worth.

I knew enough about Iowa’s prestige to call the workshop and speak to one of the secretaries, just in case there had been a mistake and I had received the letter of acceptance by accident. No, they reassured me (with a smile in their voice), you’ve been accepted. It wasn’t until I arrived to start the program and spoke to other writers, equally as shocked at being accepted, that I realized the staff at the workshop received these calls every year.

When I arrived in Iowa City, I went to Prairie Lights, a wonderful independent bookstore. Lo and behold, there was an entire shelf dedicated to books about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop! Nearby shelves were covered with books by Iowa MFA grads, and they were some of my favorite authors – Michael Cunningham, Sandra Cisneros, Ethan Canin, Nathan Englander. That was when I understood how incredibly lucky I was.

That said, the point I am trying to make, is that when I went to Iowa, I was a [Editor: the following link is silly and has nothing to do with Julia Fierro] blank slate, and in many ways this was the best way to be. Unlike my classmates — several already had MFA degrees, and many had already decided what they believed to be good and bad writing — I had no presumptions. The only craft-talk I had ever heard was from my one and only undergrad writing teacher.

I was a sponge and I soaked up every bit of advice my teachers — Ethan Canin, Chris Offutt, Marilynne Robinson, Lan Samantha Chang, Frank Conroy, Francine Prose — offered me. I was eager to participate in class, had no pretensions, and I was in love with reading about, talking about, and thinking about the craft of writing.

Do you like your work? Why or why not?

I LOVE my work.

Not a day goes by that I don’t feel very very lucky.

How long did you spend looking for work after the MFA?

My husband and I (newly married) had a very hard time finding work when I graduated in 2002. I was an adjunct at three different universities, as well as a part-time babysitter, and he was working full-time at a catering company, and still we could barely make rent. Oh, it was rough.

The worst part was that I lost all faith in myself as a writer after my first book went out and was gradually rejected by every publishing house in NYC. I did not write for close to 5 years, and instead threw myself into teaching my Sackett Street workshops – first one class, and then another, until I had four full classes of amazing writers gathering in my kitchen four nights a week, and I could finally quit my adjunct work.

Do you feel that with your job, you’ve been able to structure your time to privilege your writing? How do you do that?

My schedule as an adjunct, and as director and main teacher of Sackett Street, was full of time in the four years between when I started Sackett Street and when I had my first child.

Oh how — now in retrospect — I wish I had taken advantage of all that free time I had before my children were born – the first in 2007 and the second in 2009. I often wonder if I had too much time on my hands, because I became more organized, disciplined and motivated in the years after my children were born. Writing truly does feel like a “privilege” when you are in stealing time from your work and your family to practice it. But this is a topic for another time.

From 2004 to roughly 2009, I was not writing. I was recovering from the rejection of my first novel, was consumed by teaching at multiple universities and at home through Sackett Street, and by the constant struggle to make enough income to pay our bills. My son was born in 2007 and I could only afford 6 hours of babysitting a week, so I spent many hours critiquing student work and preparing for class in my home, while he watched Sesame Street — sometimes on one half of my computer screen, while I worked on the other half. It wasn’t until my son was 4 and my daughter 2 that I was able to invest more in childcare and I returned to writing regularly in 2011. Hallelujah.

Did you have the opportunity to work in academia after you graduated? How did you respond to that opportunity?

I did work as an adjunct for several years (and at several different NYC universities) after I graduated from Iowa. The commutes were very difficult – I’m a high-strung writer, after all – and after a year I decided to work at just one university and supplement with editing work. Many years later, I am still ashamed to admit that I made a little over 11,000 dollars a year at that university teaching an 8-credit load. This was between 2002-2006 and this was at a very expensive private university. I was young and energetic, however, and madly in love with the craft of writing, so much so that I taught all my courses – even composition and literature – like one big writer’s seminar. Because I read with a “writer’s perspective” and am more interested in how a writer creates the reader’s experience through technical choices such as point-of-view, order of information, pacing, etc., I felt I had little in common with the literature professors, who were scholars and more interested in what a work of writing meant.

A few months before I left academia to dedicate myself to the development of Sackett Street, I was called into the English Chair’s office. “Professor Fierro,” he said, “I heard from Dr. (James Joyce scholar) that you’ve been telling your students not to read Joyce.” I explained that I told them I didn’t like Joyce. He laughed. I laughed. But as I walked out of his office, I began plotting my escape.

I would love to return to university teaching someday, especially at an MFA program, but for now I am teaching the most motivated, experienced and skilled writers in NYC in the Sackett Street post-MFA workshops. Can a writerly girl ask for more?

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?                   

I don’t have any regrets. There are aspects of my experience I would, in retrospect, have altered, such as my unrealistically high expectations for my life post-MFA, but I was young when I went to Iowa (24-25), untethered, career-less, and it was a perfect time for me to devote all my time to my writing and teaching.

The MFA experience was a necessity for me, and the timing was perfect. I needed the validation of being accepted, and the critical reception given to my work and my ideas while at Iowa, in order to take my own writing seriously.

Unlike many of the writers I would meet at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I did not grow up in a family of readers or writers, and so the notion of writing as a “profession” wasn’t part of my reality. Many of my Iowa classmates had wanted to be writers since they were teens, even children. Since I was child, my parents had told me I’d be a lawyer, my brother a doctor, and this is a common experience among children of immigrants.

My declaration of an English major as an undergrad had already disappointed my parents, and when I was accepted at Iowa, there was nothing I could say to convince them of the program’s prestige. In their worldview, success came with financial stability, and how could a writer make money? They could not believe that creative writing was a tangible “career”. They could understand the worth implied in the phrase, “Master’s degree,” and I didn’t inform them that an MFA was not the most lucrative degree. And when I called home from my first semester at Iowa to tell them that my students called me Professor Fierro, they delighted in telling their friends that I was a Dottoressa.

So my decision to apply to MFA programs, and to take my writing seriously, was quite a leap of faith. I am almost certain that if I had not been accepted at an MFA program, particularly one that gave me substantial financial aid and an opportunity to teach, and if I had not lived for two years in a world where writing was treated as a sacred craft, I would have never given myself the “permission” to call myself a writer, or to make the necessary sacrifices (time, financial, family, etc.).

I also believe that the “Iowa MFA” helped me fill classes in those early years of Sackett Street. All my early Craigslist posts (starting in 2003) advertised, “Writing Workshop with Iowa MFA grad,” and many a student showed up at my kitchen table because they wanted to work with an Iowa MFA grad, and had dreams of going to Iowa themselves.

I do not think the MFA is necessary to a writer’s development, and/or their success, but, if feasible, it is amazing opportunity to devote time to your work — a privilege not everyone can afford.

What is your response to the articles that pop up every so often condemning the MFA as misleading or bad for literature?

Like so many controversial topics that flare up online, I do think that if one looks at the question relatively, there would be nothing to write about at all.

It’s simple: For some writers, MFA programs are great. For others, not so great. It depends on that particular writer’s subjective needs at that unique point in the development of their unique craft.

As far as the larger effect that MFA programs have on the state of literature, this is an interesting question. Like any intensive graduate program, the MFA student receives information, advice, and perspective from their instructors and their classmates, each of whom has different taste and style, and by the end of those two or three years, the MFA student is filled to near bursting. The first few years post-MFA are an important, and often confusing, time for the MFA graduate, because he/she must shed the information and prejudices he/she has gathered, retaining what truly matters to their unique way of writing.

I often tell my students who are returning after completing the MFA, that whatever matters most to their perspective and their work will rise to the surface after this period of post-MFA “shedding.” As I mentioned in my recent Millions’ essay, it took me years to loosen my style, to allow myself to not only find my voice, but also to accept it.

In this current state of publishing, when editors at major houses seek the next hot young writer, and there exists what I consider a uniquely American obsession with “the young debut writer”, I can see how a writer published immediately after graduating from an MFA program may seem to have an effect on “literature.” But I do think this has more to do with the publishing world than the rise of the MFA program.

It is important to point out that as it becomes more and more difficult to be published by a major publisher, and as self-publishing becomes more common, the ability to be able to revise your own work becomes more essential. I advise my students to have their manuscript as polished as possible even before they send it out to agents. Revision is a writer’s greatest tool.

Do you have any other words of advice for recent or soon-to-be graduates of MFA programs? For writers just entering those programs? 

My advice for recent or soon-to-be graduates is:

Dare to dream, but also keep one foot planted on the ground. Every aspect of the professional literary world – publishing, university teaching – is competitive. Don’t get lost in that competition so that you forget where you started. We all started as writers who write to write, because we have to, and because life would mean less without the opportunity to make sense of it through language and story.

In my first semester at Iowa, Kurt Vonnegut came to visit. A small group of us young MFA students sat in the rec room of a dorm hall while Vonnegut chain-smoked and gave us some of the best advice I’ve ever heard. He urged us to make a living outside writing. “Be an insurance salesman,” he said.

In many ways, I agree with him. I know that may sound strange coming from me, a writer whose “living” is earned by running a writers’ workshop, but I do think that writers, too often, only seek income within the extremely competitive (not to mention, low-paying) worlds of academia and publishing. I love to teach – every minute I spend teaching workshop is a carpe diem moment for me – and that made the sacrifices, especially financially, a bit easier for me. But too many MFA graduates feel they have to teach, and, as we all know, teaching can be consuming. Teach only if you need to, if it is your passion. There are others ways to pay your rent—more lucrative ways that won’t deplete the creative energy you’ll need to focus on your own writing.

My advice for those entering MFA programs is:

Go easy on yourself. You are about to enter an inspiring but also intense world where you’ll feel as if you are often under scrutiny. Remember, all the writers in your program feel insecure, even if they don’t appear so.

Do not take everything people say in workshop seriously. In the end, it is you who knows what your story or novel needs. This goes for your teachers too. Just because they may be “famous” authors doesn’t mean they are famously generous or insightful readers. Trust your instinct – it will remain your best friend years and years after you graduate.

Ask the program’s current students for advice on which teachers are the most generous — who writes critiques, who commits to individual conferences.

Don’t beat yourself up if you suffer writers’ block, especially when you first arrive at the program. For some, the fear of criticism in workshop is a motivator, for others a clamp on their creative confidence. If you can’t write, read as much as you can. The MFA is about learning for some writers, and about producing for others. Above all, remember that the beautiful bubble of the MFA experience is temporary—there is a world outside its walls, and a future for you and your writing in that world.

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Follow Julia on tumblr: http://juliafierro.tumblr.com/, read an excerpt from her novel at Guernica, or, if you’re in NYC, sign up for a Sackett Street workshop! 

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