Simmer. Smolder. Bubble boil churn stew.
When Julia Fierro isn't writing the next big thing, her brain chews on the next big thing, spitting out bits and bobs that Fierro saves until she has a towering pile.
"Sometimes I'll write what I hope will be a first chapter, but I send myself notes most days," she told Spine. "It might be one line. Last night at two in the morning, I'm struggling for my phone in the dark."
Structure typically bookends Fierro's rambling thoughts. "I often know the beginning and the end, or a pivotal moment towards the end. Something about the shape of the story." Then her mind considers the options: "Maybe what if this happens? What if that happens? It might lead me toward something."
This process can last for years. Fierro began The Gypsy Moth Summer, which she's currently promoting on tour and in interviews (us!), as a pre-law undergraduate at American University. After writing a sketch of a character who became the book's dementia-addled Colonel, she switched her major to English.
Several years later, as an MFA student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she filled out her sketch, turning it into a short story. She sold the concept of the full novel after publishing Cutting Teeth, her first full-length fiction. At this point, she had been writing pieces of the book for years.
"I had 1,000 pages of notes, drafts of the first chapter that I had rewritten and rewritten. I put it all in a huge pile. I carried it from apartment to apartment for years." After the book contract was signed, she had to transform the pile into a book…and she hardly looked at it. "It was all inside me." And so began the binge writing, something Fierro says is still her practice today.
"I get into this very obsessive mode," she explained. "In my 20s I was diagnosed with OCD. It is sometimes a great tool but mostly a hindrance. It's very uncomfortable – I do have the whole book in my head. For me, it's not so much that I know all of it before I sit down and right the book, it's just that at a certain point I can hold it all in my head. "
Currently buzzing in Fierro's head? Drunken bees.
Fierro's next book is inspired by her father's story. He grew up in Italy during World War II. The village priest taught him to keep bees. He'd drink a mouthful of wine, then blow wine-saturated breath into the hive to get the bees drunk, which would allow him to gather the honey. [Note: Bees are but a tiny, tiny bit of the giant scope covered by the book. This is not a book about drunken bees, as amusing as that sounds.]
While the next book ferments (and always), Fierro runs Sackett Street Writers. She founded the workshop in New York City in 2002. The program has helped more than 4,000 writers and now includes classes in San Francisco and LA, as well as online.
Working with writers on their process, Fierro emphasizes that it's less about one trick for all writers, and more about each writer finding their own tricks, processes, practices and running with them. "Do whatever you need to do, " she said. "If you need to buy fancy colored markers and different colored Post-it notes, that's great. Figuring out what you need to keep writing is important."
As important as it is to discover how best to produce, it's equally important to learn how to recognize what's working in your writing, Fierro said.
"When I hire a teacher, the one thing I ask…start every workshop by talking about what does work. It's so hard to see the good in your own work sometimes." When a teacher or fellow class member highlights not only what is working, but the technique being employed, each writer becomes much more likely to recognize what's working when outside the workshop environment.
Fierro says teaching this way during the early years of Sackett Street transformed her writing. "I was just working so hard to see the good in other people's work, and how to structure their work, I came out of six or seven years of teaching seeing it all."
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Susanna Baird serves as Authors editor of Spine. She tackles her own creative writing and client projects from her dining room table in Salem, Massachusetts. When not working words, she helps lead The Clothing Connection, a local nonprofit getting new clothes to kids who need them. Find more of her writing at susannabaird.com, and find her (re)tweeting regularly on Twitter @SusannaBaird.