Sara Arnell joins Zibby to discuss her debut book, There Will Be Lobster, which documents her midlife crisis and what she learned in the throes of it. Sara and Zibby talk about the resistance many feel to recognizing they are middle-aged. Sara also shares the serious tolls this era took on her mental health, how her children got involved with shaping and sharing the story, and why she hopes this book will be a guide for others who are uncomfortable with middle age.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sara. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss There Will Be Lobster: Memoir of a Midlife Crisis.

Sara Arnell: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. I am thrilled to be here.

Zibby: It’s such a pleasure for me. Memoir of a Midlife Crisis, I was just saying this to my husband yesterday, I feel like I didn’t identify as middle-aged until now. I fought it from my early forties. Now I’m just like, okay, I’ve accepted it. Now I’m embracing it. Did you feel like that happened, or what?

Sara: I felt it. I felt like I wasn’t happy with the way my body looked. I was having hot flashes that were out of control. Mid-life crisis, to me, was more of a life stage and came at that time of life where everything’s changing for you. Your kids are leaving home. Your work is looking differently. Your body is changing, and not in a good way. That’s sort of what identified it for me.

Zibby: That’s true. Actually, I should’ve said the person we were having dinner with responded by saying, “I felt like I knew I was in middle age when every morning, a different body part would hurt me,” which I also completely relate to. Tell listeners about what your book is about and when you knew you wanted to write a book. I know you’ve had a storied career in advertising as well and so much stuff. When did you know you wanted to write a book? Did you always know you wanted to write a book? That was like ten questions.

Sara: No, I didn’t really ever have an intention of writing a book. At a certain point where I went through this — the book is about this really hard period in my life, a really difficult probably four years or so in my life that were hard to manage. I suddenly felt like — maybe it was the pandemic that caused it with everybody sitting inside and talking a lot about how they were feeling. I started to feel that I needed to take responsibility for that journey that I went on. I actually wanted to really put it out there in the world to give meaning to the pain and give meaning to the growth that came from the pain. For me, that was about why I wanted to write the book. When you take responsibility for your own actions, you also take responsibility for the other people in your life that your actions affected. That’s really what I wanted to do. It was a healing process for me.

Zibby: Now that it’s done and out there, are you nervous about that? You feel okay with it? What is your feeling now that you got it all out?

Sara: I got it all out. I put everything out. I’m definitely nervous because I tell some stories that, they’re not things to be proud of. At the same time, I don’t want them to shame me anymore. I’m trying to think about this thing that I did, this thing that I put out into the world as something for self-empowerment, not shame. That’s what I hope other people will see too, hopefully.

Zibby: There’s some famous quote. Someone said it on my podcast the other day, something like, good writing is the secrets you don’t want to tell, and great writing is the secrets that you don’t even admit to yourself, or something like that. I have to look it up. It’s along these lines.

Sara: I get it. Then I spent my career in advertising, so I got really, really, really good at putting that façade — in advertising, you never tell the whole story. You only tell what you want people to hear about your brand or your product and what attributes you want to focus on and benefits you want to focus on. I think I did that to myself. I sort of just put on my advertising hat and went out there in the world and hid behind this façade. I thought it was time to just strip it away. We are in the age of transparency now. Even I was like, I need do that to me right now. I need to get transparent with everything I went through. I wasn’t going to hold back. For me, I think one of the secrets of writing, and if I ever had to give any advice to writers is, bring it. Do not hold back. Don’t hold back because you think you’re going to save it for another book. No. Don’t hold back because you think you’re going to be embarrassed. You won’t. You’ll feel liberated. There’s a million reasons why you shouldn’t hold back. You’ll be empowered. Self-empowerment is an incredible thing you get from honestly, openly telling your story.

Zibby: Great. Good. I won’t ask you that at the end, then. Thank you. I wanted to read a passage from here, which is great, if you don’t mind. You write, “I was beginning to disappear into my own head. I wanted to cover all my mirrors with black cloth and stop the clocks. I wanted to mourn the passing of the self I used to be. I promised myself that in the future when someone told me they were depressed or sad, I would never say the words ‘cheer up.’ I couldn’t think of a more useless and unhelpful suggestion. I was sick of hearing it. I felt ashamed for all of my own past lackluster efforts, the way I’d always deflected requests for help or advice from someone who is feeling down. I had been ignorant to the realities of depression and sorry for anyone that had ever come to me for assistance. I was unsympathetic and cold. I didn’t get it. I wished I could go back in time knowing what I do now, knowing how I feel now, knowing that I could never cheer up just because someone told me to. I had no reason or motivation to do anything except look in the mirror and gasp at what I had let myself become, or rather, what I would not let myself become. I didn’t think I deserved happiness or joy or contentment. I could not cheer up.” Tell me a little bit about how you felt at your low point and also what you’ve learned in that. Now you know what to say to other people, what can we all do when other people we all love and care about are going through something similar?

Sara: How many times have you said to even — I’ve said it to my children. Oh, cheer up. You’ll be fine. Put on a happy face and get out there. There’s sadness, and there’s depression. They’re really different. You have to really pay attention to the differentiation. If somebody’s just upset about something that happened, then sure, maybe you can give them that advice. Oh, you know what, cheer up. Get over it, whatever you want to say to them. If it’s not an incident that occurred that just has them annoyed and it’s this pervasive feeling of loss and low self-esteem and loneliness and people are coming to you to ask you, how do I feel better, not, how do I solve this incident that happened? then it’s something to really think about in terms of giving them the space they need to talk to you about their feelings and not just brushing it off and saying, just go away and cheer up. You won’t help anyone. It’s actually way, way too dismissive for somebody that needs that kind of help. It was really hard for me because I realized that in myself, that I did that to other people. I also realized that other people had done it to me as well. It was a real realization that it was this thing out there, that people didn’t fully understand what depression looked like. It looks different for everybody, so it’s not really easy to pinpoint.

Zibby: It’s very true.

Sara: Listening helped, really listening to someone.

Zibby: How do your kids feel about this book?

Sara: Their names are not mentioned. Did you notice? They were happy to participate, but at a bit of an arm’s length. They’re completely supportive of it. They have all read it and looked at it. They know every story that I tell about them in it where it links to my life. It’s funny because I had said to my daughter the other day, “Gosh, I’m not sure I ever realized I was going through a mid-life crisis until I wrote the book.” She just looked at me and said, “Well, you’re the only one who didn’t, then.” I was like, okay. They really were part and parcel involved in every step of the way of the writing of this book, thankfully.

Zibby: What’s the PS? What happened between the book ending and now? What’s the conclusion?

Sara: The conclusion is, you’ve got everything you need inside you to make the change that you want. I think my book, in essence, is about change, what to change. Can you change? How to change. Do you even know what you need to change? Any kind of external search — I felt like I was always out there searching for something. What I really finally realized at the end was, when I tell the story about the former Buddhist monk that I met who said — when I asked him how he left the monkhood, he said, “I just took off my robe and walked away.” That was a decision he made. I think that change starts with a decision and realizing that you have it inside you to change how you see things, change your perspective on things, being more present with yourself in the moment. Then the things around you start to change.

Zibby: What about if someone’s feeling like they’re in this place right now? Not the depression, necessarily. There’s so many of us out there, what are we doing with our lives? This is such an interesting life stage which you hit on so well in the book. It’s an intersection of all these different things starting and ending, and identity. Everything is thrown up in the air like we’re taking a basket of popcorn and, whoosh. We’re waiting for it all to fly back down and hit us. If you looked back, could you have done it any differently? What would you have done differently? Not that you have to be some sort of sage expert on this topic.

Sara: I had made such a mess in my life. I didn’t have a job anymore. My youngest child was leaving for college. I didn’t feel the way I wanted to feel. I didn’t look the way I wanted to look. I became really obsessed with being young-seeming. I really think that was a little bit of my downfall, to the point where I partied one New Year’s Eve all night with my son and his friends. It’s the opening chapter of the book.

Zibby: I know.

Sara: I would not do that again. It was this pressure I felt to feel vital and vibrant and youthful. A lot of that came with wanting to feel young. We’re such a visually driven world sometimes that I think it just — I came from the world of media and advertising. I really think I got in my own way.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about the process of writing this book and how long it took and where you were when you wrote it and all of that and then how it became a published book, the publication journey.

Sara: I was reading a lot. When I write, I always read. I started reading books. I was reading fiction. I have my MFA in fiction, not memoir. I read a ton of fiction. I love the dialogue. I love the pace of fiction. Then I also started reading Joan Didion and The Year of Magical Thinking. COVID was, again, a time of real self-reflection for me as well as so many other people. I said, I’m going to just tell this story that I went through. Maybe somebody can relate to it. I actually offer no advice at all in the book. In a way, it can still be a bit of a self-help book. There’s no tips. There’s no tricks. There’s none of that. If you can relate to some of the things I did or some of the ways I was feeling and some of the stories I’m telling, then maybe you can garner something from that and not feel so alone and feel like you can do what you need to do too to get back on track or get some sense of help and hope from this book. I approached it from the point of view of, it’s going to be my story in a self-help book, but it’s a self-help book disguised as story and anecdote, in a way, makes sense to you. That’s how I did it. I sat down, and I wrote. I read, and I read. I read this great book called The Perfect Nanny. I’m sure you’ve read it.

Zibby: I actually haven’t. I shouldn’t admit that. Yes, I own it. I bought it, but I never ended up reading it. I should. I should go back to it.

Sara: The opening line is a tough one. The opening line of the book is, “The baby is dead.” I was just like, oh, we don’t have to wait to get to the tragedy. That was one of the reasons that actually really inspired me. I’m going to start my book with the trauma, with the event that really caused me to just wake up and have to change. I took inspiration from what I was reading. I tried to structure the story more in a way of how you go through life. You do something, and then you think of something that happened in the past. I’ll jump back in time a little because it’s living in my mind. It’s influencing the present. Then we’ll go about the day a little bit more. Something else will come to me. I’ll write about it. It’s very much an internal dialogue with myself.

Zibby: Interesting. Tell me about it being published.

Sara: I finished it during the pandemic and sent it to — I wrote the book. I had a great first draft of a manuscript, I thought. I sent it to an agent who sent it around. A publisher said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”

Zibby: And that was it, all right. What is your plan in life now? Personal and professional.

Sara: Personal, I still work in advertising. I do a lot of consulting. I keep really busy. I keep very current in the field. I teach at Parsons at The New School. I teach marketing and branding and advertising, which I love because I love the students. I love working with them and understanding how they consume media and how they get their information and then disseminate it into the world. I’m definitely continuing to teach. Maybe I have another book in me soon, but I’m really not fully sure what. If it’s not a book, I’m always writing. I’m writing articles. I’m writing essays. I’m sitting down every day to continue to write.

Zibby: What do you like to read?

Sara: Right now, I’m reading Animal, which is great.

Zibby: So good. It’s intense, very intense.

Sara: Yeah, and she’s in advertising, which is sort of great. I was also reading the book by — I want to get the title right — Nancy Jo Sales’ book, My Secret Life in the Dating App, very, very, very funny. Those are the two that I’m reading right now.

Zibby: Excellent. Great. I know you’ve given a lot of advice on a lot of different topics. I’m sorry for continuing to ask.

Sara: I don’t know if I’m qualified.

Zibby: That’s okay. I like it. Actually, I’m curious about what the people in your class and their media consumption has taught you about how best to leverage social media as an author and how to use — obviously, being an author is an exercise in marketing in and of itself. Advertising a book, that’s your product. What insights do you have there? What has your experience been?

Sara: They’re skeptical. They’re completely skeptical of advertising. Most of the time, they have an ad blocker on. They block it. It gets a little challenging teaching a class called Advertising in Contemporary Culture when your entire student classroom doesn’t watch, like, or participate in advertising. What it actually really teaches you is that you have to bring them what you want them to see and what you want them to pay attention to. You have to bring it to them in the world of media that they’re participating in. It’s social media. A lot of them are on sites like Reddit. They love a site like that. They will pay attention to an ad if it’s served to them, if somehow it’s made relevant to them, and it’s not too hard of a sell. Between reaching them in the media that they’re consuming and giving them the message that they’re willing to listen to, it’s a slog. That’s how you do it.

Zibby: Interesting, wow, reaching the right people. The thing is, advertising is a service when it gives you what you are looking for. I’m fascinated. I used to be in marketing and advertising. It’s really fun.

Sara: It’s really changing, though. You have to really just be so agile in order to really be aware of all the new platforms that are emerging and how those platforms are working. There’s some platforms that you don’t necessarily have to participate in all of them if you don’t feel like they vibe with you or they’re right for you. I am not on TikTok. Although, I watch it constantly. I have decided it’s just not for me to start posting on it, at least not yet, but I’m aware of all that stuff and how it’s being used.

Zibby: Awesome. Sara, thank you. Thanks for coming on. Thanks for talking about There Will Be Lobster. Thanks for being just so open in this book about what it’s really like and what it was like for you, especially during some really awful parts of your life and everything. Thanks for all of it.

Sara: Thanks for letting me chat about it all. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: No problem. Take care.

Sara: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye, Sara.



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