Profiles in Post-Collegiate Courage: Sara Runnels

Calling courageous post-collegiates! Our interview series is back with a vengeance as a semi-regular blog feature!  Want to nominate a courageous post-collegiate to be featured (including yourself)?  Email postcollegiateblog [at] gmail [dotcom].

When I started this blog, I wanted to have an opportunity to talk to people who seem to be kicking ass at the whole “life after college/being a successful young adult” and share their stories with you all.  Luckily, I happen to have a great group of friends who are willing to bare their souls for our enjoyment.  I’m especially lucky that, by coming of age in social media, I’ve been able to keep in touch with one of my very few friends who, like myself, chose to leave Texas and pursue a life outside the Lone Star State.   Sara is a fantastic writer who leads an envy-inducing life in New York City and somehow still manages to be self-deprecating, kind, and generous, particularly in agreeing to share a little bit about how she makes it all work.

Sara posing on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's gorgeous rooftop garden -- one of her favorite spots in the city.

To start, tell our readers a little about yourself.  

First of all, I’m honored to be featured on PostCollegiate!  (Ed. note:  We’re honored to have you!)

Secondly, brevity has never been my forte. When someone asks about my “background,” it is my nature to write 1,500 words about the day my parents met and go from there. That being said, I will do my best to make my answers as concise as they can be. Postcollegiate life is fantastically busy – no one has time to read my mini memoirs.

I spent the first 18 years of my life in Houston, Texas – a city that always felt like an eternal summer (and not in a good way). I was fortunate enough to be conceived (OMG they had sex) by two wonderfully open-minded, well-rounded, artistic parents, who constantly encouraged and applauded my burgeoning interest in reading, writing and creating. They built a solid foundation for my future investment in words as both a passion and a career. Texas A&M University is responsible for my collegiate days. There, I majored in my native language and was arguably the most liberal person on campus. I’m currently living in Midtown Manhattan working as a Senior Editor at a children’s book publisher, and just celebrated five glorious years on this fascinating little island.

This is pretty impressive stuff, considering we’re nearing our 10th high school anniversary next year!  What was your initial plan when you graduated from A&M?  

I visited New York with my father when I was 17 and became so enamored by the culture and the glamour and the energy, that I vowed to return after college and make it my home. During my last semester at A&M, I furiously applied for editorial jobs in Manhattan to no avail, but I wasn’t going to let that teeny-tiny setback stop me from purchasing a one-way ticket. My plan then became to figure it all out upon arriving – something that was risky, but something I had faith in because I wasn’t going to sit back and just let it unfold. I was prepared to do whatever it took (support myself with unfavorable jobs) to give the city a fair chance to prove what I knew to be true – that anything was possible with a little luck and a lot of hard work.  This plan, of course, became an elaborate exercise in character building – one that ultimately paid off. You can read about my first day on my blog.

It’s a very bold choice to move to a big city, especially one as notoriously expensive and challenging at NYC, without a firm plan.  You really took a chance by allowing yourself to let the next few years unfold.  What opportunities have you pursued that you weren’t expecting?

I had no idea how this next chapter of my life was going to play out, but my initial goals were simple: land an editorial job, make some friends, fall in love with the city, never stop writing. Those four basic ambitions have led me to literally every single significant (and insignificant) opportunity in the past five years – new experiences, jobs, friendships, adventures — and ultimately, writing material.

In Battery Park on the fourth of July during the first year in New York. (This was before Sara claims to have learned how to pose / dress.)

So how did you get from one-way ticket to the Big Apple to pursuing a job in children’s publishing?  It’s a bit of an unexpected leap.

After an internship at a well-revered publisher in Chelsea and a stint at a small union newspaper, I started as an editorial assistant at a mass-market children’s publishing company in January of 2007. I did not actively seek out a gig in children’s books, but I was happy to have ANY job in the industry. And it just so happened I had a knack for developing and writing licensed activity-based books. As a child who always created worksheets and word games and puzzles for her stuffed animals (I promise I had real friends too), it blew my mind (and still does) that I was doing this for a living. In the last 4 1/2 years, I’ve worked my way to the top of the editorial ladder at my company and I’ve been privileged to work on a variety of well-known licenses like Fisher-Price, My Little Pony, Lisa Frank, Smurfs, Disney, Care Bears & Hello Kitty – brands we all grew up with. There is also no greater feeling than seeing your work in bookstores around the country.

My challenge with this job is that I don’t know if I’ll stay in children’s books forever. I’d like to branch out at some point and try editing Young Adult or Real Live Grown Up Adult People fiction; however, it isn’t easy to start at the top of the chain in another genre after spending five solid years in a very specific position.

Above and beyond any career goals and challenges, my most immediate mission is to write a novel. I have the title, the plot, the outline, the characters and luckily, an entire lifetime of fantastic material; I just haven’t started it (which apparently is the most important part). I do spend a lot of time writing thoughtful posts on my blog about life in the city though, so that has served as an acceptable distraction from finally writing The Book (among other writing projects).  But I am almost out of excuses.

It might seem to some that everything has worked out fairly easily for you.  But there are always challenges to face.  What have been some of your greatest challenges and how do you face them?

My greatest challenge post-college has been something that’s followed me for years – time and money management. Like many creative types, I have a tendency to procrastinate…I like the urgency and dramatics of making a deadline, and I’m convinced I do excellent work under pressure. But the reality is, I could do even better work if I was more regimented in my writerly ways. Money is only an issue because I live in one of the most expensive cities in the world and I don’t work on Wall Street. (The discrepancy in pay between People in Numbers and People in Words makes me nauseous.) It’s true that some of the best things in life are free, but I’m sure whoever said that never lived in New York City. I’ve made concerted efforts to prioritize creatively and financially, but not enough to completely overcome either issue. (Staying out of bars is a quick remedy for both problems, but that’s easier said than done.)

Sara's former co-worker (and current bff) Michael dressed up as Hannah Montana a few years ago (for no other reason than pure entertainment). This is Sara showing "her" some of the books she wrote and edited.

As a writer, could you share a couple must-read books for quarterlifers?  I believe that books can truly help soothe the savage souls of us struggling postcollegiates.

The book that’s made the greatest impact on me personally in the last few years is Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. After devouring it one afternoon several summers ago, I had this overwhelming urgency to get over my literary fears, write like I’ve never written before and perpetuate Jong’s eternal belief in the guilt-free female writer. It is a beautiful thing for a book to change how someone feels intellectually, sexually and spiritually, and I saw a lot of myself in her twenty-something misadventures and struggles with writing (it’s fiction, but follows her life closely).

I don’t quite have a must-read list for struggling quarterlifers, but I feel like everyone stumbles upon their own Jong at some point on a quest to soothe their savage souls. After Fear of Flying, I read her follow-up novel, How to Save Your Own Life and her non-fiction hardback, Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life – and they were all earnest reminders to start (and finish) what I ultimately came to New York to do.

Many, many, many effusive thanks to Sara for sharing her inspiring experiences with us and giving some great, witty advice!  As you can already tell, Sara is brilliant, so you’ll want to follow her on Twitter and add her blog to your list of favorite sites!  As always, feel free to leave additional questions in the comments section and I’ll be sure that Sara answers them!


5 thoughts on “Profiles in Post-Collegiate Courage: Sara Runnels

  1. Pingback: Profiles in Post-Collegiate Courage: Sondra Morris « Musings on Life After College

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