Sara C. Rolater

IMG_3678Would you give us a bit of background about yourself? Briefly tell us who you are.
I am a fiction writer and teacher who lives in Houston, Texas. I grew up in Memphis, came to Houston to attend college at Rice University, worked full-time at an office for three years while continuing to write fiction, drove around the country for a year working on organic farms and writing, and then got my MFA in fiction at the University of Houston while teaching. Now I work part-time at an office and part-time teaching fiction, creative nonfiction, and freshman composition, while working on my novel and story collection as much as possible in the meantime.

Would you share with me what were some of your early experiences with reading, writing and art? When did you decide to be a writer, and how did you know?

I have written, or rather made attempts to write, for pretty much as long as I can remember. I always loved reading because it offered an escape and there was never anything all that interesting to do when I was a kid; we didn’t have cable. I wrote a series of stories copying The Boxcar Children when I was seven and some copying Caddie Woodlawn when I was ten and some copying Stephen King when I was in junior high. So my early experiences are ripping off, basically, but that’s a good lesson to learn early, that artists steal. I remember hating literature when I was a freshman in high school, mainly because I didn’t understand it. Shakespeare and Faulkner were like foreign languages. Then sophomore year we studied the Transcendentalists, who were more accessible to me, and that’s probably the first moment that I knew I really wanted to be a writer, though it was something I said without having any concept of what it would entail or how to do it. What I really knew was that I had to do something that I wanted to do; I still didn’t really know what that was yet.
I always took English and Literature classes, but I didn’t take my first actual fiction-writing class until I was a sophomore in college. I was smitten immediately. The stories we read in it were different than what I’d encountered in my other English classes, where we read older, bigger books. The encapsulated insight into the conundrums of real modern-day people was new to me, and I couldn’t get enough. I knew fiction was something I was going to continue to pursue indefinitely, though at the time I had no concept of what indefinitely really meant. The first fiction-writing class I took was an intro workshop, and the very first story we wrote just the professor read, and he liked mine, and his positive reaction to my first effort could have a lot to do with me being a writer now. I had this thought like oh, I guess I can write. After that I pretty much wanted to be writing something all the time; I could always be working on something. I seemed to know early that writing was going to be a matter of just writing a lot, to get to the point where I wanted to be, which I was still pretty far from. And am still.


Do you have any daily rituals?
The only thing I do consistently every single day is the time I spend in the morning preparing my food for the day, a smoothie and then a salad for later. I’m an impatient person by nature and taking the time to do it is a good way to start the day for me, sets a tone of patience and mindfulness. The prep is routine so I can think about other things, what I’m working on maybe (which according to some you’re not supposed to think about consciously, but if my mind goes there, I let it), or whatever I’m doing or teaching that day. Through grad school I also did 45 minutes or so of yoga first, but my post-grad school schedule is tighter and now I’m only able to fit this in two days a week. I wish I could still do it every day, as I’m better able to use that time to appreciate what’s good in my life and positive about my circumstances, and also it’s good to get your blood moving at the beginning of the day. But even though my schedule’s tighter than it was, it’s important for me personally not to hop out of bed and rush off somewhere immediately, to have some time to myself in the mornings.


What are three pivotal moments in your life? How did they come to be?
I’d say one pivotal moment was getting into grad school, because that opened the door to my teaching career, and teaching has been a critical influence on my fiction writing. The ultimate goal of the fiction writer is much like that of the teacher, to cross an invisible bridge into another person’s mind, to try and put things in terms another person can understand and appreciate. My getting into grad school came about from, first, hearing and reading about how this was the ideal path for fiction writers to take if they wanted to make a career out of it, and second, being willing to take a risk. After taking fiction classes in college I knew I wanted to pursue my MFA in fiction, but I wanted to have some lived adult experience first, whatever that meant, for my writing to be more “mature” before I opened it up to such intense scrutiny. I had a vague idea that I would get as good as I could on my own, then do grad school to help me past that point. So I took a full-time job to support myself in the meantime at an office that publishes legal code books. Then, once I was finally ready to apply, I didn’t have the time or the energy to do all the work necessary for the applications. So eventually I made the decision to quit my job and live off my savings and out of my car, giving myself the time to get the applications done, which I did.
Getting into grad school was critical to another critical moment, which was going to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference my first year in the program. It was in Chicago, and there were something like 20,000 people there, mostly students in other programs. The sheer volume of other people trying to do the exact same thing I was doing—publish short fiction in small journals then publish a book then get a teaching job at a university—totally overwhelmed me. My reaction was a negative one, that I was swimming in a huge sea, that I’d never have what it took to compete with all these people—so many! It was in this mood that I slammed a fifth of Jim Beam and woke up the next morning in a bed in the Rush Medical Center, without anyone I’d been with the night before having any clue where I’d disappeared to. I recognized, from this instance and others, that I was using alcohol as a crutch for my insecurities, and that, given my propensity for blackouts, this was probably more dangerous for me than it might have been for others, but I wasn’t sure whether I’d actually be able to give up booze completely until two days later, when I returned to Houston and saw a screening of Being Flynn, based on the memoir of Nick Flynn, one of the professors in the program. Its portrayal of addiction’s entanglement with creativity struck a chord with me in that moment, and I haven’t had a drink since, almost three years ago now.
Not long after that, another critical moment occurred that helped change my perspective on the enormous community I’d encountered at AWP, helped me realize that it was actually a great thing that so many people wanted to make fiction writing their life’s pursuit and great that there are a plethora of journals out there to host them. I got a gig editing a novel written by a guy I went to college with, someone who’d never taken writing classes there, incidentally. His training wasn’t in fiction writing but rather in Integral Theory, which he’d written the novel to teach readers about and which I’d never heard of. It’s essentially a “theory of everything” that seeks to synthesize the best in all theories and philosophies that already exist. Basically it looks at how you can integrate disparate elements into some more useful and cohesive whole, which resonated both with my understanding of fiction and narrative itself and also the process of creating it. It helped me think about how what seems bad can be integrated into something good, how something like drinking to the point of hospitalization in a strange city can contribute to a larger, better picture. It helped me see that everything is really about perspective, which is so much of what fiction-writing is about: rendering perspectives that are not our own, rendering moments in which our perspectives are challenged and in which we thus change. I was thinking about this stuff around the time I got to go to the Writing and Wellness retreat in Bali, and what I learned there went hand-in-hand with this type of philosophy, specifically in the value of integrating the wellness of the body with that of the mind.


How did you come to have the creative pursuits and lifestyle you have?
By not being good at math and not caring about money. I never knew what engineering was until I came to college and everyone was majoring in it. If they weren’t majoring in engineering, they were pre-med or pre-law. Everyone seemed to have a clear idea of the well-paid career they were destined for. I didn’t. But those people were also working so hard, harder than it made sense to, even for the amount of money they were ostensibly doing it for. I had to take some science classes and the type of studying and work I had to do for them was so different than the type of work I had to do for my lit classes—memorization and regurgitation versus trying to figure out what your own thoughts and feelings actually are. I remember one time I was studying for a final in one of them, and after I’d been sitting in the same tiny cubicle in the library for hours reading about dinosaur bones and dirt, I had an epiphany that I couldn’t spend my life doing something I hated this much, and that this was the choice life pretty much amounted to, that choosing your profession was choosing the way you’d be spending most of your time, most of your life. A lot of people choose to spend their time doing something they don’t like because it pays well. A lot of people don’t have the luxury of a choice and have to spend their time doing something they don’t like that doesn’t pay well. With pretty much no practical consideration, I majored in English because I liked it. It’s always been my inclination to do what I like, and not to do what I don’t like. I’d worked since I was 16 at a job that I hated, and from that I knew that in order to come close to being happy in life I’d have to like whatever it was I was doing to earn a living. After college I really struggled working full-time, having to spend the majority of my time doing something that I didn’t actually care about. The problem is, you want to spend the majority of your time doing something you love, but you might come to hate whatever it is you’re doing to earn a living by virtue of the stress of it; doing it for money has the potential to corrupt it, whereas if you don’t do it for money it’s not a commodity but then you’re going to have less time to do it. Everything’s a tradeoff. Basically, you, or at least I, need what you spend most of your time doing to have some meaning, some value. For me writing fiction and teaching provides those things. I need creative pursuits to feel like I’m always working toward something, that I’m not just stagnating, doing nothing productive or of value to anyone. When you’re engaged in creative pursuits you’re more engaged in the issues of the human condition and therefore more engaged in what’s going on around you in general. I’ve been aware of the value of these pursuits ever since I was introduced to them; the issue for me has been how can I spend the majority of my time doing things that aren’t going to help me support myself financially? And currently my answer is by working part-time and by maintaining a lifestyle with low overhead. In grad school I learned I could live on very little money, which was probably one of the most important lessons I learned there.


What advice would you give those who would like to take a similar path?
Don’t care about others’ standards of material success. Try not to be jealous and begrudge others’ their success because their success does not detract from the possibility of your own. And perhaps more importantly: Don’t care about money. Keep your overhead low. Try not to go into crazy debt. This is easier said than done, obviously. I took on loans to go to undergrad that I’m still paying off. When I applied to grad school programs for fiction, I was completely unwilling to go into any (more) debt for it, because it wasn’t a degree that was necessarily going to increase my earning potential; getting an MFA was more about the time to write and the people you got to work with. I knew enough at that point to know going into debt for something that wasn’t going to earn any money was not a good idea. I had a professor in the program, Mat Johnson, who had a spiel about how we students needed to work on a project that was manageable in the time we’d been given, because our time was limited not only in the program, but in how soon we’d get sick of living without money, get sick of living off Ramen, as he put it, and give up the pursuit of writing for something that paid. One of the toughest things about fiction writing is that it’s generally not a paying gig, though I like to recall the fact that the richest woman in the world is a fiction writer (JK Rowling is richer than Oprah!). Fiction has the potential to pay off, but before you’re an established author, when you’re in the process of actually writing it, most likely you’re not getting paid anything. In terms of supporting yourself in the meantime, it’s my advice to try and find things that don’t totally sap your creative energy. I have a rule where I don’t take jobs writing copy. I can edit other people’s writing, but if I actually have to generate the words and sentences myself, it robs the reserves I have to do so in my non-paid hours. The office job I have is itself pretty basic work, mechanical enough that I can listen to audiobooks while I do it, so at least I’m able to do something with that time that’s valuable for my creative pursuits. That’s more advice for aspiring unpaid writers—use your time wisely, and use the non-creative things that you have to do as fodder for the creative things that you want to do. In my opinion, the best job a fiction writer can have to support themselves in the meantime is to teach fiction writing, though the problem with this is that if you’re teaching enough classes to support yourself financially, you’re going to wind up inevitably diverting a lot of energy to your students from your own writing. So you have to be patient, because if you’re not independently wealthy or supported by a spouse or someone else, you just have to do what you can with the time you’ve been given. And that can be frustrating, but you just have to keep in mind that you have a goal, something larger you’re working toward that gives your life meaning, which so many people don’t have. A friend of mine from the program wrote a blog post on this topic that I think about often, in which he quotes another writer friend of ours (full version here: ): “…we’re writers. And if you think about it that’s a pretty great thing. We already know who we are. We know what we’re here to do.” At times this has struck me as more of a curse than a blessing, but it’s all about perspective.
Another thing to keep in mind is that even when you do finally get to do what you want, and sit down and write, it’s not going to be all good all the time. Sometimes the work is going well and you feel like a genius; other times you’re spinning your wheels and want to pull your hair out. The important thing is to do the work. Important for perspective, once again, is to remember that even the parts of the process that are painful have value in the long run. Periods of struggle lead to breakthroughs that couldn’t have happened otherwise. I keep an old New Yorker cartoon on my desk of a dog talking to a yogi up on a mountain, where the dog says, “The bone is not the reward—digging for the bone is the reward.” Process is more important than product.
And finally, I’d say try to find a way to manage the anxiety of the uncertainty of this lifestyle of frequent rejection and cobbling together part-time work. For me it’s exercise; the yoga and breathing exercises I learned at the retreat have also been hugely helpful in maintaining an awareness of what’s good about the lifestyle that makes the drawbacks worth it. And for writers, as for most people perhaps, procrastination can be a pretty big problem; one of my favorite writers, David Mitchell, offers some great advice for that (in an interview here: “Get disciplined. Learn to rush to your laptop and open it up. Open the file without asking yourself if you’re in the mood, without thinking about anything else. Just open the file: and then you’re safe. Once the words are on the screen, that becomes your distraction.”


Were there any gatekeepers in the professional world for you, people who either let you in or barred the way as you were coming through?
I wish it weren’t true, but getting into graduate school was a huge gate, and critical to my getting to do everything I’m doing on my writing/teaching career path currently. I always knew I wanted to write; I was never as sure about teaching before I actually did it. It seemed to be a good way to balance writing with the necessary act of supporting yourself financially, while providing some content and interaction with the outside world that writing requires but that the actual act of doing itself negates. I was fortunate to get into a program where teaching was part of the package. A lot of people there complain about the workload, but if I’d gone to a studio program where all I’d done was write, I wouldn’t be the writer I am now. I think a lot about Yogi Bhajan’s quote: “If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.” And teaching fiction writing has improved my own exponentially, reading story after story, breaking down how it works, or doesn’t work. Without grad school I can say with a fair amount of certainty I’d still be writing fiction, but there’s an extremely high likelihood I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to try teaching, which I discovered to be much more fulfilling than my previous office work.
There was a moment when I was waiting to hear back about my grad-school applications when I really didn’t know what was going to come next. After I got some rejections I was thinking I wasn’t going to get in anywhere. I knew, theoretically if not emotionally, that just because a particular group of people at these particular institutions had rejected me, it didn’t mean I should give up, but rejection’s always hard. I think the especially hard thing for me about the prospect of not getting in, and not getting the opportunity to enter that career field the way I had always envisioned and been told was the path you were supposed to take, was that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to give up writing fiction. I knew that when I wasn’t writing was when I felt the most depressed/restless/useless, and that if I didn’t get to take this career path it meant I was going to have to take the moonlighting path, taking some other day job to make ends meet. I thought that basically the gatekeepers could delay me years if they rejected me at this stage and forced me onto that path—that I would keep writing, but without the benefit of those instructors and fellow students. And I still think I was right about that. I would have continued to write on my own when I could, however little that was, and learned as I did that, but it wouldn’t have come close to matching the breadth and intensity of what I was exposed to in grad school.
I love Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article “Late Bloomers” about the writers Ben Fountain and Jonathan Safran Foer. Fountain quit his job to start writing fiction full-time in 1988, and published his first (masterful) book in 2006. Foer was a prodigy whose first novel novel he wrote as a nineteen-year-old undergraduate. Gladwell’s point is that a lot of people who aren’t prodigies might be able to attain levels of what seem to be creative genius, were they to dedicate themselves fully to a pursuit for such an extended amount of time. Most people not only don’t have the opportunity to do so, but even if they did, wouldn’t have the patience to continue working like Fountain did when it seemed like his work wasn’t getting anywhere. I wonder, though, if Fountain had actually gone to an MFA program and taken some intensive classes, if he might have cut out some of those years it took him to write that book. He had a law degree, and when he decided to write full-time, it sounds like he basically taught himself to write fiction from scratch. He proves that it’s possible to do this, but when you’re on your own, it can take a long time.


What kind of control do you think you exert over your own destiny?
I think we’re all at the mercy of larger forces outside our control, any of us susceptible to some random event that could snuff us out in the next second, be it a car accident or a meteor strike. Of course there are varying degrees of control any individual might exercise over such external forces; I can choose to drive less and mitigate that risk, but there’s not much I can do about an asteroid strike. I think a lot about the concept of “freedom” in this country, and how little freedom we actually do have; most of the “choices” we’re offered in a capitalist economy are illusory at best. When I think about what I really want to spend my time doing, that’s to sit down and write stories, but I can’t just do that—I have to earn money to support myself to pay my bills. You could say I got to choose what to do after I graduated from college, what job to take, but taking a job at all was something I had to do that I didn’t want to. And in these recession times the amount of choice people actually have about their jobs, about the way they spend most of their time, is mitigated even more. That’s what you learn in adulthood, that the ultimate tradeoff, for me at least, is that you can have time or you can have money, but you can’t have both. In order to have the time and energy to apply to grad school I had to take a plunge, quit my job, live off my savings, get the apps together, and I got lucky and got in. The quality of my work has something to do with me getting in, and my going through the effort of applying in the first place, but it’s largely luck to that my application wound up with people that my particular material and approach struck a chord with. So much is taste. I’m fully aware that if my college or graduate school application had wound up with a different person, I could easily have been nixed, never gotten in at all, and then my life would look a lot different than it does now. The schools I’ve gone to have everything to do with where I’ve wound up geographically. I’d like to think that without grad school I’d still be pursuing fiction writing, that I would have prioritized the same things and developed similar goals, just perhaps wound up in a different setting. And yet setting has so much influence; my grad program was in a city with a lot of job prospects specifically for fiction writers, at least those who are willing to teach writing fiction, and most of us are—I am at least—because teaching writing inevitably improves your own writing. In the end, my grad school got me some connections and knowhow. What I do with that now is up to me. I think there is something, maybe several things, that each of us has an aptitude for, a certain skill set, something we’re good at that’s ours to contribute to everyone else, something we get pleasure out of and because we get pleasure out of it we do it well, and because we do it well we get pleasure out of it, and maybe a lot of life is trial and error to discover what that thing is, but if you’re paying attention, hopefully you’ll figure it out.
I’ve learned to approach the question of destiny by thinking that everything that does happen to me has happened for a reason, that even if it seems negative, there’s some way I can use it, something I can learn from it. I learned from working full-time that I didn’t want to work full-time, and that it needed to be a priority for me to figure out how to not have to do that. Being a part-time worker and earning my living through different outlets so that I’m able to have the time, energy, and financial stability to write is not something that this society has made it easy to do; I’m only just now able to do it with the safety net of health insurance. When I quit my full-time job a few years ago to do grad school apps, I went without insurance for over a year. I was young enough then to not be overcome by anxiety by the risk of this, but that would not be the case now, so again, I’m lucky, though perhaps I’d be luckier to have been born in Europe. So a lot has to do with luck, but we all have a certain amount of control over what to do with/how to handle the circumstances we’re in that are outside of our control.


What are you own criteria for success?
One very basic criteria for success is being able to support myself. A higher level of success would be to be able to support myself doing something I actually like doing. My dream for myself, one earmark of “success” along the career path that’s a writerly ideal, is to publish a novel that others will read and that will maybe make them think about some things that they hadn’t before, a novel that makes them think about the fact that other people exist for whose sake your own actions and consequences should be considered more deeply. Publishing a novel would be one milestone; I imagine, at least, that with an actual book published with my name on it I will feel more legitimacy when I call myself a writer, though I recognize this impulse as basically irrational; I’m a writer if I’m writing a book, whether it’s published or not. So I’m aware I need to not focus all my energy on that in such a way that builds it up so that when it does happen, it’s an inevitable letdown. Maybe not that many people will read it or it will get bad reviews or whatever, and if it does do well, well then there’s the pressure of living up to it with the next book. I recognize that achieving “success” in my field will only make things harder; I recognize that at this point in my life and career nothing is going to get easier. But at this point it’s important for me to keep in mind that I’m simply successful as a writer if I’m writing, not if I’m published. So to me one level of success will be actually finishing the novel, whether or not it gets published, whether or not it does well by conventional standards of sales or awards. I think these measures of success are often what lead to disappointment. Winning an award could make you feel happy and successful, but then that leaves you susceptible to feeling like crap about all the awards you haven’t won. You’re letting committees of strangers determine your self-worth.
If my first dream and potential marker for success is finishing, and potentially publishing, a novel, then a second and more overarching life goal is basically to be self-employed, to be able to set my own schedule, to be my own boss. So in a sense my criteria for success is the amount of control I feel I have over my own life and career—basically over what I have to do on a day-to-day basis. Between freelance editing, teaching, and part-time office work, I have a lot more control over my schedule now than I did when I worked full-time, and I’m much happier. Variety is the spice of life, as they say.
Another measure of success for me has become how valuable what I’m doing is to other people. Of course for writers this is a difficult prospect, as other people are physically nowhere in evidence when you’re doing the work, though you are ostensibly doing that work for others, for the readers. For me this measure of success is much more immediately rewarding with teaching. When I teach fiction writing, I’m helping people think about what amounts to basic human empathy, and from my perspective that’s what we need now more than anything.


Has money or critical success influenced your creative decision making?
As is probably clear from my responses so far, money is something that I’ve always considered, because I’ve had to. It was critical to my choice of grad schools and whether or not I went; if I hadn’t been offered money to go, I wouldn’t have gone. In darker moods, it upsets me how much influence money has over my life in that having to earn it takes time away from my writing. I try to mitigate its influence by assessing my needs so that I require as little as possible. I’d say money has had more influence over the circumstances in which I write than on my writing itself—minus the fact that the book I’m working on now is largely about the corruption capitalism causes; in that sense thinking about money has had a big influence. But when I think about the type of fiction I want to write, critical success and money are pretty much the furthest things from my mind. I basically just want to write something good, and my definition of “good” is something that will have a lasting emotional impact on readers. And pretty much the bulk of what takes up the bestseller list isn’t good by this definition; it’s formulaic, the same thing over and over in a slightly different package, thrillers the reader’s going to forget all of five minutes after they put them down. To me “good” books present the type of uncomfortable problems that maybe people don’t want to think about, that they want a distraction from, hence the mass success of books that don’t make us think too hard. The type of fiction I’d have to write to have a shot at making decent money is not what I want to write, though I don’t want to write stuff that’s obtuse or inaccessible or exclusive. I want to meet my audience halfway, but I don’t want to pander to mass taste, because when I look at primetime television, at blockbusters, at the bestseller list, it depresses me more than anything else. Now, I wouldn’t mind writing a book that wins a Pulitzer, but on the whole I try not to put too much stock in such awards, and though I do think literary critics have some value, more often than not the endeavor of putting yourself in a position of criticizing the work of others rather than creating work yourself troubles me. It’s much easier to judge work than to create it, and the endeavor of this judging so often just seems discouraging more than anything else, with a tendency toward looking at what’s wrong rather than what’s right. And negative energy like that pretty much murders creativity, so you have to ignore it. The Cold War Kids have a song about this called “Harold Bloom” on their new album, and as they point out, “There will always be another Harold Bloom… to criticize your every move.”


What advice would you give to your younger self?
Something I’m always telling myself is that I should have less anxiety, that I shouldn’t worry so much because usually the things I’m worried about work out just fine, and then I get mad I spent energy worrying about scenarios that never come close to occurring. At the same time, I recognize a level of anxiety is necessary to function, that if I wasn’t such an anxious person I wouldn’t be as good at getting done what needs to get done in a timely manner. So I’d say, keep doing what you’re doing; you’ll get there eventually. Enjoy the ride. Try to apply that anxious energy on things that are actually within your control. Know that everything that happens, good or bad, happens for a reason.


What do you want to be known for?
In my grandest dreams, I’m a visionary on the terms Ursula K. Le Guin recently expounded upon in her National Book Awards acceptance speech: “Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. … Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.” I want to be a revolutionary. I think the way that we’re living our lives, which are basically structured in the pursuit of money, is fundamentally wrong, and needs to change; I want to expose our flaws, while also offering hope for change.


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