Spoken word writer, performer, and eating disorder recovery advocate Caroline Rothstein has been one of my major sources of inspiration ever since I first saw her perform five years ago. It was my freshman year of college and the night of my very first poetry slam. Since then, I've seen her perform, speak, and lead workshops, and I am blown away each time. Her Body Empowerment video series has truly helped me to heal. This year, her "Fat is Not a Feeling" video (above) went viral, and her story was viewed by millions. I was lucky enough to sit down with her on a stoop in Manhattan last week to ask her about her work, her motivation, and her advice for young writers.
Lily Myers: Did you intend to make writing and performing your career? When did you begin to write?
Caroline Rothstein: I did intend to make writing and performing my career. I started writing poetry and stories and making books out of construction paper when I was 4 and 5 years old, so writing has always been part of my life practice. The first time I conceived that it could be a career was when I was in second grade. I read a book called "How a Book is Made", by an author named Aliki, and that inspired me to want to be a published author one day. As a performer, I started dancing when I was 3 years old, doing ballet, and then I discovered acting when I was in middle school, and I was in choir and singing in elementary school. Once I discovered acting, the idea of being a professional performer came to pass. In high school, my dream was to grow up and write nonfiction books and also be an actress on Broadway. Then I got to college and discovered spoken word poetry my freshman year, and that changed the game for me. So I never knew exactly how my career would manifest, and how it would all piece together, but being a writer and performer had been the plan since I was a kid.
LM: Your motto is "From Adversity Comes Triumph". What does this mean to you and why is it your motto?
CR: I'm an inherent optimist and idealist. I've been through a significant amount of trauma in my life, and often times the traumatic experiences and events were condensed into a short period of time. Sometimes it's happened over spans of months, years, decades, whatever it may be. And so this notion that there's triumph from adversity comes from the fact that I made a decision to make it to the other side and to not give up. I've used my challenges and obstacles in life to inform my ultimate healing and empowerment. It's not to say that I need to suffer in order to strengthen, and I'm really confronting that reality lately—I'm 32 years old now and it's been a long time since some of the more significant traumas in my life took place. So I'm working to let it settle into my body and into my psyche that I don't have to suffer in order to triumph. It doesn't negate this motto of triumph from adversity--however, it allows me to keep focused and so when in time there is a challenge, my intention is to ultimately persevere. My hope is that other people can find strength in challenges as well.
And I also feel that trauma is contagious, and all of the oppression and discrimination and violence and pain in the world is the result of other oppression and discrimination and pain in the world. And so, if we can all reach a place of resilience and strength, then it breaks the cycle of contagiously transferring that trauma onto other people. So, another part of the motto is sharing my experiences to help offer other people permission to let go of shame or pain surrounding their own adversity.
LM: Your "Fat is Not a Feeling" video was featured on BuzzFeed and has been viewed more than 4 million times. What prompted you to make this video and what do you hope viewers have gotten from it?
CR: My good friend from college is a video producer at BuzzFeed, and we had been wanting to collaborate for a long time. Her name is Hillary Levine-- she's a genius, and so is her team at Buzzfeed. I knew I was going to be in L.A. and BuzzFeed Motion Pictures is in L.A., so we decided to make a video. And we talked for a long time about what it should be. It was a collaborative effort to decide that it would be a 3.5-minute personal narrative synopsis of how I came to love my body. Hillary told me to bring my journals and my eating disorder scrapbook from high school; she had me bring those personal fossils and artifacts with me to L.A. She and her team took my poetry journals from middle school and high school and my high school eating disorder scrapbook and then they created the visual effects animating my story. So that was a total group effort, and my hope was to just simply collaborate with Hillary and enjoy creating something with a creative genius whom I love and respect. It's incredible to get an opportunity to collaborate in that way.
Also, back to the second question, I wanted to let people know they're not alone. That's always my goal; I think that we start to feel capable of healing from whatever adversity we've experienced when we know we're not alone. And BuzzFeed is really good at letting people know they're not alone. So it was an incredible and unique opportunity to let millions and millions of people know they're not alone. I remain blown away by and grateful for the response it had both in its YouTube post and Facebook post.
LM: What do you enjoy most about your work, and what is the hardest part of your work?
CR: The thing I most enjoy about my work is that I have no choice but to do it, so getting to do it is a gift and catharsis. When I am not focused on my work as my primary sweat equity and my time management, my soul starts to hurt. So the thing I enjoy most is when I'm actually working and I am able to let my soul thrive. And the hardest part is the same thing: finding the time and putting aside the time to do my work. That's the hardest part. And it really hurts my soul and my life when I don't. And I just sort of unravel from there.
LM: What advice would you give to young women who want to write and perform their writing?
CR: Ingest as much content as you can that feeds you and interests you, both in the media in which you work and outside the media in which you work. I spend a lot of time consuming visual art that is outside the realm of what I myself as a craftsperson do, and that's been deeply informative of my own craft. And the second part of that is to practice your craft. You learn how to do what you do. Whether that's a formal education or an informal education, workshops, books—you have to practice. You know, skill sets plateau. We have to push ourselves or we plateau. I've plateaued so many times. I plateau every day and I have to push myself further every day. The learning doesn't stop. And the moment I start to notice that I'm redundant or monotonous, I have to push myself harder.
For example, this morning I spent two hours tape recording myself reciting several poems and monologues for a show I'm doing in New York City in mid-November, called Cumming Home. My goal in recording all this is to help myself memorize these pieces. And I started to hear certain repetitive cadences, and that plateauing, that staleness, pushes me to memorize the pieces as quickly as I can so that I can then spend more time diversifying the intonations of the piece and letting the piece itself inform its presentation. If I don't take the time to put in that practice, it's a lost event. So, I'm constantly examining my skill set and pushing myself to expand. If I write five poems in a row with the same format, that's boring, unless it's intentional. But if I happen to accidentally construct five poems in the same way in a row, I'm interested in exploring: is that an intentional thing that actually informs the artwork, or is that because I'm being lazy?
Caroline Rothstein is a New York City-based spoken word poet, journalist, body empowerment advocate, and arts educator. She has been performing poetry, public speaking, and facilitating workshops at colleges, schools, and performance venues worldwide for over a decade. Her work has appeared in BuzzFeed, Narratively, Williams Magazine, The Jewish Daily Forward, and elsewhere, and she is a producer on the forthcoming documentary THE KIDS. Her BuzzFeed video “Fat Is Not a Feeling” went viral with over 3.5 million views online in a week. She is a youth Mentor at Urban Word NYC, and sits as President of the Board of Directors for Mental Fitness, Inc. She has a B.A. in classical studies from the University of Pennsylvania, and an M.S. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.