Write Now with Sarah Z. Sleeper

Who are you?

Sarah Z. Sleeper, author, poet, essayist, and award-winning journalist. I started my career in Okinawa, Japan, twenty-five years ago, and now live in Rancho Santa Fe, California.

What do you write?

After many years of writing what I needed to write to make a living — newspaper and magazine articles, corporate case studies and marketing books — I finally made the shift to literary writing. I needed to rewire my brain to get back to the literature and poetry that I had loved in college and read all my life, so I went back to graduate school at Fairfield University and got an MFA in creative writing.

That immersion into literature, surrounded by others with similar creative goals, marked the beginning of a ten-year shift. It’s been the absolute joy of my adult life to have made that change. (That, along with raising my adopted daughter — my other joy.) Because of my long career as a writer and editor, I knew the nuts and bolts of clear, effective writing, but to become a literary writer, needed to tap into my inner poet and find my creative fire.

Since 2010, I’ve been steadily surrounding myself with my “people,” creative writing peers and mentors. I’ve been publishing short stories, poems and essays, and now, my first novel, Gaijin. It’s loosely based on my time as a reporter in Japan, and is a work of fiction that combines prose and poetry. It’s my belief that in the world of writing, there’s no such thing as a final destination, just an ongoing path of improvement and exploration. I will always strive to dig deeper and write better. Writing is a beautiful art form, I feel so lucky to do it as my full-time job.

Where do you write?

For most of my career, I rented an office outside the house, so I could have privacy for conducting interviews and so on. But these days, I have an office and library in the house. It has a semi-circular wall of floor-to-ceiling book shelves and art nooks, with a large open space for my desk. But, there’s no door on that room, so I also like to write in the bedroom sometimes, especially during the pandemic.

Being in the bedroom is soothing. And I just bought a bed desk, which is the most fabulous thing ever. I can comfortably sit on my bed and work without killing my back. My bedroom has a view to the back yard with flowers and palm trees, so it’s a good spot to look at when I pause from writing.

It would be very romantic to say that I write freehand, as some writers do, but no way! I love my computer and think my brain works better when typing than when writing with a pen. Ironically, I collect pens and have many fancy types and fountain pens. But, I just collect them and don’t really write with them. Except for one Swarovski pink crystal pen that I keep in my purse to write notes. I never listen to music when I write and prefer total silence.

Photo Courtesy of Sarah Z. Sleeper

When do you write?

I prefer to write in the morning, so I try not to schedule appointments or outings then. I’m productive when I have a deadline because I try to meet it or beat it. But, these days, aside from a little column I write for the local newspaper, I don’t usually have deadlines. Most days I try to write for an hour to five hours, but I don’t set a word count or time goal.

After I finished Gaijin, it took almost two years to sell it, and I didn’t get much writing done during that time. Now, I’m working on my next novel, as well as publishing essays, short stories and poems. I’m tenacious, so I revisit stories that never found a home and try to improve them so they can be published. There’s ALWAYS writing and editing to be done.

Why do you write?

This is a hard question. I suppose it’s some combination of emotional and psychological reasons. I have things I want to say. Things that only I know. I believe that every writer has stories that only they can tell and only in their own way. I know emotional truths that I need to share. Because I write both prose and poetry, I’m lucky to have several mediums in which to express myself. Once, when I was at the Ragdale Foundation, a musician put my poetry to music and it was amazing. I’m thrilled when anyone is moved by something I write. The emotional reaction is what many writers want and I’m no different. I want to break a reader’s heart and reveal emotional truths.

How do you overcome writer’s block?

I don’t believe in writer’s block. It’s like any other skill or art, you keep writing until you write something decent. You don’t give up. If what you’re writing isn’t working, try something else. Also, physical exercise and going outdoors are key ways that I refresh my brain and creativity.

Bonus: What do you enjoy doing when not writing?

I love to do many things! I read a lot, and have stacks of books and magazines (The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poets & Writers) on my bedside stand. I also love to play tennis and do so regularly with a great group of friends. I’m an old school gym rat and love group exercise classes. I spend a lot of time with my 18-year-old daughter, especially now that her school is online, and my husband, and dogs, and cat. And, I often get together with my writer friends. We commiserate about our experiences and review each others’ work.

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