‘Joy, Not Fear’


English Teacher Sarah Sawyer discusses writing, motherhood, and her debut novel

As an English teacher for 24 years and the founder and director of Williston’s Writing Center, Sarah Sawyer has taught thousands of students to express themselves through writing. At the same time, she’s been busy writing novels herself, including The Undercurrent, forthcoming this October via Zibby Books. Set in Texas, her novel follows a new mother, who is facing the boredom and exhaustion of early parenthood. She becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of a girl who went missing in her neighborhood when she was a kid, uncovering secrets from her own past along the way. Sawyer says that publishing a book is a long-held dream, although she didn’t start penning long works of fiction until after she turned forty. Her advice for emerging writers: “The most fun part is writing the book. That excitement, hair-on-fire, typing-away feeling is the reason to do it.”

What inspired The Undercurrent?

A lot of it has to do with watching my own daughter grow up. It’s so amazing to see the number of shifts that girls go through in their lives. This kind of radical reinvention happens over and over again. Your body changes so dramatically: You’re a girl, and then you’re something in between a girl and a woman, and then you’re a woman, and then you’re possibly a mother, and then you’re perimenopausal. There are so many adjustments to your personhood.

Why did you examine the notion of boredom and motherhood?

I was so bored! I love my children, and I actually really love babies, but the hours of caring for a newborn were so long. And that, in combination with the sleeplessness—I just literally could not believe it. I thought, “Was this what my own mother did?” It feels like a form of insanity, because you’re in this weird state of solitude, but you’re actually with another person. And you have the world telling you it’s a precious, wonderful time, and that if you’re not enjoying every second, there’s something wrong with you.

How has teaching students to write influenced your own writing?

I find it really satisfying to give my students feedback and give them the tools—logic and precision—to help them express themselves. I’ve noticed that as an adult, I’m not as open to feedback as they are. Putting myself in that spot has been really interesting. What does it mean to take somebody’s suggestion, even if you don’t totally understand it or see the end point? It makes me appreciate even more when my students say, “OK, I’ll try the thing that you’re asking me to do.”

What’s your approach to writing and being an author?

I had a brief and lovely email correspondence with George Saunders about his book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which I loved. I emailed him to tell him how much I loved it, and he wrote me back, which was so kind. I was talking about writing books, editing books, and not selling books, at the time. And he said, “You have to proceed with joy, not fear.” I wrote that down on a Post-it note that’s now on my desk. I’m trying to proceed with joy, as opposed to resistance and fear and all those things that are not productive. In terms of inspiring myself as a writer, it comes from reading and thinking, “What are the places that wake my heart up a little bit? And how could
I frame them?”

What are you reading?

The latest by Tana French: The Hunter. I love me some Tana French.