Sarah Darer Littman, writer, mother, and unpaid chauffeur, is a living example of the cliché, “Life Begins at 40.” After spending much of her adult life doing things she didn’t really plan to, including such diverse occupations as financial analyst and farmer’s wife, she at long last found her true calling as a writer. Sarah teaches creative writing for Writopia Lab in Fairfield County, CT, and is an adjunct professor in the MFA program at Western CT State University. She is an award-winning political columnist for CTNewsJunkie.com. Sarah lives in CT with her family and a fluffy white writing assistant named Benny.
- Did you always know that you wanted to serve others and help today’s youth?
I’ve certainly always had a very strong sense of social justice – one of the reasons I love writing for and working with teenagers is because they haven’t lost their belief that we can and should do something to make the world a better place. My inner teen is still alive and well – although she does have to battle my discouraged, cynical middle-aged adult at times!
- Can you walk us through how you first got started in your career path?
I knew I wanted to be a writer in high school, but my father told me I’d “never make a living as an English major.” I ended up majoring in Political Science, and then going on to get an MBA in Finance. Talk about playing against type!
I’m a neurotic overachiever, so while I performed well in my various jobs (I always got particular props for having well-written analyst reports) it was so not the real me; I felt like a fraud. I then did a stint as a farmer’s wife in Dorset, England, working as the finance director of my now ex-husband’s family dairy farming and cheese making business. I’m probably one of the few people in Greenwich, CT who can converse about the lactation yield curve of a dairy cow, although, sadly, in the 15 years I’ve lived here, I’ve never once managed to successfully bring a cocktail party conversation around to that topic.
It wasn’t till I was coming up to age 40 and had my first mid-life crisis (I’ve now decided to schedule one every few years to challenge myself and make sure I don’t get into a rut) that I realized I didn’t want to be in a nursing home at the end of my life thinking “What would have happened if….?” I felt like I’d been living my entire life up to that point meeting everyone else’s expectations, and it was time to give myself the chance to explore my dream of being a writer – even if I tried and failed.
Fortunately, I didn’t fail! Recently, when I had some fantastic news about one of my books, my boyfriend took me out to celebrate and I raised a glass of wine to heaven (my dad passed away last November) and said, “Dad, remember when you said I would never make a living…..?”
The funny thing: my dad was so incredibly proud of me when my first book was published and told me he “always knew I would be a writer.” : )
- How did you handle the bumps in the road? Were there any moments when you wondered if all your hard work was worth it?
Ha! When I got my first bad Kirkus review (yes, I have had had more than one – the worst was on book that went on to win an award!) I was a sobbing, Snuggie-wrapped mess on the sofa, convinced that I should recognize that my previous writing accomplishments were flukes, and I should give up.
Fortunately, my family knows when to feed me dark chocolate and also when to tell me to end the pity party and get back to writing. Because that’s what you have to do. Allow yourself a little time to feel the feels and eat the chocolate, and then pick yourself up and write the next book.
I talk to my writing students about having to fight “The Inner Crazy Lady” with every book I write. Whenever one of my kids starts off reading with a self-deprecating remark about what he or she has written, I give them the Inner Crazy Person talk. We have to tell the ICP that whatever problem there is with what we’re writing, it can be fixed in revision. The important thing is to get the words on the page so you have something to work with.
- I’m wondering if you can help us understand what you attribute your success to.
My parents brought me up with a strong work ethic – and they also brought me up to be intellectually curious. My parents and knowledgeable, caring librarians in London, England and Stamford, CT, the places I grew up, encouraged me to read widely and well above my grade level. I wasn’t restricted to “Leveled Readers”. Don’t get me started how much I hate programs like Accelerated Reader and why I think they are damaging, rather than helping literacy, and further, killing our kids’ love of reading.
I was also blessed with some wonderful teachers who made a huge impact – I was an insecure, confused, but smart and creative kid, and they made it clear that they heard and saw me. That’s so powerful for a teenager – and that is something I worry is being lost in the “drive for data” being pushed by corporate education reform. One Hartford high school spent 59 out of 180 state mandated school days in standardized testing last year. Even the best teacher in the world will struggle to connect with a teen the same way my teachers reached me when they are also having to try to teach in that kind of testing regime. It’s utterly insane and how politicians don’t see this is beyond me. Well, cynical middle-aged political columnist me says: “Look at where they get their campaign contributions.”
I’ve also overcome some difficult challenges in my life that it’s likely I wouldn’t have being able to face as successfully if I hadn’t been able to afford health insurance, medication and therapy. So I also attribute my success to the fact that I was born with certain advantages – and that’s part of the reason I feel strongly about doing what I can for young people who don’t have the same advantages that I’ve had.
What do teens need today more than anything else?
At least one adult in their life who is there for them – who they know will be consistent with love and discipline. Who will be firm with them, but always fair. Who is honest with them in an age appropriate way. Who expects respect, but also gives it.
What would you tell a teen who was struggling?
Try to find one adult in your life that you can trust – and who can help you with strategies to get through those dark moments. Because they will pass. There is light at the end of the tunnel, even though right now the tunnel might seem very long and dark, and the light only a tiny faint pin prick. It is worth the hard work – and I’m not going to lie to you, it is hard work – to keep going. Because you will reach a better place. I am living proof that it is possible.
What else do you want to tell us about what you do and what you want to eventually be doing?
Since I didn’t start doing what I really love till I was 40, I hope to keep writing till I’m in my dotage. When you are passionate about what you do, it doesn’t feel like work. I explore topics in my books that fascinate me, and which I end up researching, so writing novels becomes a form of lifelong learning. Basically, I’m still the same geek I was in high school.
- Can you please share with all of us something else that I should have asked you?
These are some of the most powerful tools you can give yourself in the job market and in our democracy:
1: Read widely and in many genres.
2. Learn how to research – not just Google search, but real, deep research, where you have to call people and interview them.
3. Media Literacy – Don’t just get your news from one source. Don’t even get your news just from US sources. Read news from all over the world. Learn to evaluate sources. Think critically.
4. Even if you don’t want to be a writer, it’s important to learn how to express yourself effectively in writing.
And my Inner Mom feels compelled to add the following:
5. Manners matter – Saying “Please” and “thank you” don’t cost anything, but they make a BIG difference in how people perceive you.
6. Ethics matter – Despite the popular Gordon Gekkoism, greed isn’t always good. Our state is known as Corrupticut due to lack of ethics by our political and business leaders.
- How can people get in touch with you if they have additional questions?
Through my website: http://sarahdarerlittman.com
I’m also on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SarahDarerLitt
Thanks for your time Sarah and keep up the good work! Our youth needs more people like you!
Author and Speaker of the Granddaddy’s Secrets teen leadership book series.