My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Julia Fierro, founder of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, a creative home to more than 2,500 writers since 2002. Her novel, Cutting Teeth (now out from St. Martin’s Press), was included in Library Journal’s “Spring 2014 Best Debuts” and on “Most Anticipated Books of 2014” lists by HuffPost Books, The Millions, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine and Marie Claire. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, she’s written for Guernica, Glamour, and other publications, and has been profiled in The L Magazine, The Observer, and The Economist. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two children. Visit Julia’s website and find her on Twitter.
My First Failure
(also known as the failure that turned out to be a blessing in disguise)
My first failure in publishing was a spectacular one, or at least it felt that way at the time. It was 2002 and I was floating around in a bubble of promise. I’d just graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where my work had been praised by my teachers and classmates and earned a coveted fellowship. I had signed with an agent at a big agency a month before I graduated. I had a novel ready to go out on submission to editors. I’d just had a beautiful wedding, marrying my college sweetheart, and we’d moved to Brooklyn—the Promised Land for young writers. I had even managed to lose ten pounds before the wedding.
I’m not a naturally optimistic person. In fact, I come from generations of Italian and Irish farmers and laborers, all filtering life through the paranoid cynicism that hard life breeds. But back then, in the fall of 2002, it really did seem as if I was on the threshold of realizing my big dream, to becoming a published author. So I let my guard down and hoped, and even believed, it would turn out to be true. And it did turn out okay, of course, but not until after my novel had been rejected by what seemed like every editor in NYC, and not until after I’d taken a six-year break from writing to recover from the rejection, and not until after I’d treated myself so cruelly those six years, calling myself “a failure” again and again until my husband made a new house rule—the word “failure” was outlawed.
At least half the workshops I taught in that decade were novel writing classes where we spent hours analyzing the structural choices novelists make again and again, learning from each other’s successes and missteps. When I sat down to write Cutting Teeth, having given myself the challenge of finally finishing another novel—doubling my babysitter’s hours, rejoining the Writers’ Space—the writing felt (almost) easy. In those years I’d felt like a failure, a fraud even, I had learned how to write a novel.
If I could tell that ten-year younger version of myself something, anything, I’d tell her to be more patient. And to stop calling herself a failure. But I’ve come to learn that writers, and maybe novelists especially, are a controlling and stubborn bunch. A bit of hardheaded delusion is needed to convince yourself that you can write an imaginary world populated by imaginary people. We need to feel as if we know where our novels are headed, what our characters are feeling, why we must tell this story and no other. So I’m pretty sure I would’ve ignored my own advice. What young writer, full of dreams, will believe someone when they tell him or her that so-called failure can be the most fertile soil, and that the residual “writer’s block” can provide a writer with the time needed to learn and to grow? Writing is unique from other creative practices, I believe, in that a writer can learn just as much from reading as they can from writing. How lucky we writers are that we can develop our craft without even touching the pen to the page, or our fingers to the keyboard.