Sara Schaefer, GRAND

Sara Schaefer, GRAND

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sara. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sara Schaefer: Thanks.

Zibby: I am really excited to discuss your memoir, Grand. I also took a whitewater rafting trip when I was younger with my family. Could you tell everybody listening what your book is about? Then what inspired you to even write a memoir?

Sara: Grand is an inward and outward journey. For my fortieth birthday, I went on a whitewater rafting trip in the Grand Canyon with my sister. It was an eight-day, two hundred miles, very rugged outdoor adventure. In the book, I chronicle the trip while also remembering basically what led me to the point of getting on that raft in that river from childhood with stories all the way up to that moment. I always knew I wanted to write a book from a very young age. Before I even realized I wanted to be a comedian or anything else, I thought, I want to write a book. This book in particular came about with the idea of, there’s a lot of stories from my life that I’ve never shared publicly before that felt more intimate and special to me and difficult that weren’t really working yet, I hadn’t even really tried to talk about on stage as a standup, wasn’t really the place for it. Writing this book came from wanting to share that part of my life and some of my stories in a more in-depth, intimate way and a little more sincerity to it than what I do on stage which is obviously trying to get as many laughs as possible. This book, I had room to breathe and be more emotionally vulnerable in a way that I don’t do on stage. That’s kind of the short of it.

Zibby: Was it cathartic for you to write about those times?

Sara: Oh, yeah. First, the book was going to be kind of centering around my moral anxiety which I do talk about in the book of, am I good person or am I a bad person? That’s sort of my life’s quest, is to figure out if I’m good or bad. Then much later in life, I realized that was such a flawed prison I had put myself in because no one is all good or bad. How did I get to be that way and the journey of my life up to now, it’s a pretty crazy story about my dad and my whole life changing at age twelve, my whole family’s life changing, and a journey of redemption, my dad coming forward with some pretty scandalous news and our entire status in our hometown changing, our whole lives turned upside. I, at a young age, witnessed my own parents changing their lives, taking huge risks personally, and repairing the damage, and forgiveness. All those things were drilled into me, but I was too young to fully understand it. The way I described it in the book is it was like a bone healing out of place in me of being extremely afraid of being morally wrong. I thought after the stuff happened with my dad, we were now on the right course. We were bad. Now we’re good. Before was bad. Present is good. That set me up for a real shit show later on. Excuse my language.

Zibby: The stuff with your dad, I feel like you wrote about it in such detail that we were right there with you. You had such a sense of shame over what happened and also almost detached amusement in a way. Not amusement, but like, huh, look at what’s happened to my family. Look at that. How about that? How about this guy in school telling me my dad’s a thief? How about that? It was at a reserve, almost.

Sara: Go back because you froze for a second.

Zibby: Oh, sorry. I was rambling. I don’t even know what I was saying. I’ll start again. One thing I noticed when you were talking about your dad is that you wrote about it with such clear detail and all those little memories and the day and them sitting you down and then filling in backstory that you learned later and the emotion and the uncertainty, really. Yet you also took this sort of detached view of it like you were an outside looking in, which I though was such an interesting angle. Just tell me a little more about being at that age and going through something that you weren’t sure what to make of it. Your church background, I feel like, was the frame of reference you were using for everything.

Sara: I was definitely very keen on what I was learning and discovering at church which was this concept of Christ being a source of unconditional love in all of your flawed, complicated glory. Forgiveness is such a tenet of the Christianity that I was taught, and redemption and all those things, and baptism. You’re clean now. Those things just crystalized in me like, oh, this is the answer. Church was where we were welcomed after all this. My dad and my mom lost a lot of their friends and their status in our town. Certain people took us in emotionally. A lot of those people existed at my church. They are still people that I am in touch with and have been mentors to me and to my whole family. That community was crucial at that time. It set us on a path of staying together as a family and learning to get through it as opposed to running away or disappearing or hiding. We just had to get through it.

I was twelve, though. I was a teenager. I didn’t want my parents anywhere near me. I was like, we solved it. We’re good. Moving on. I didn’t want to dwell on it because I didn’t have the emotional capacity as a twelve-year-old to really get into it. It wasn’t until years and years later, and a lot of it during writing this book because I discovered so much that I had never known talking to my father — we spent a lot of time talking. I’d never heard so many of the things that happened. We went into real detail about everything. It was really heartbreaking not being able to talk to my mom in this process. That was one of the hardest parts of writing the book, was not being able to ask her questions. It comes in phases. Forgiveness is not a simple — I don’t trust people that go, “I forgave you. I’m not mad,” right after something really bad has happened. I don’t trust that because I know that feelings change over time. Instant forgiveness is really not complete. It is a process. People’s feelings can change. My journey with my — I use the word journey way too much when I talk about this book.

Zibby: It’s okay.

Sara: But that’s what it is. The voyage of my relationship with my father has been the unexpected part of this. I wanted to write so much about my mom. I love and miss her so much. She was such an incredible person. I feel like I did a good job here, but it was just scratching the surface. I would love to write more about her and explore her story more. I didn’t expect so much healing and discovery to happen with my father, which was such a gift of being able to do this, that he trusted me enough to share with me and let me share with others.

Zibby: That’s amazing. It’s great to be able to reconceptualize things that have happened. It’s not always so clear. Not to go back into your right and wrong thing, good and bad, or whatever dichotomy. If you do something that you shouldn’t, it doesn’t make you, necessarily, a bad person.

Sara: No. Right. We always joke — there was that show Bloodline. The main character says, we’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing. My family uses that line sometimes as a joke. It’s been tough because I’m someone who’s naturally, and I got this from my mom, as being really empathetic to others. I’m lucky that I was taught empathy, and especially after all that happened. My mom working with house-less people in our town and really going there, she became dedicated to a life of service after all this happened. She felt called. I couldn’t ask her for this, was she thinking, this is how I make up for — my mom didn’t do anything wrong, but she felt she was part of it in that she blindly followed what my dad did. I would love to talk to her about it now just to revisit. We entered into a life of service as a family. I was taught to see, the way my mom would describe it is that she saw god in everyone she met. To serve someone, the lowest most vulnerable person in your community, is to serve god. That was how she viewed it.

That was put into me, a lot of lessons about empathy and not to assume you know — people say empathy is always walking in someone else’s shoes. You’ll never really be able to walk in someone else’s shoes. Recognizing that first is the first step towards empathy, is knowing you can’t assume what’s right for someone else, what their experience is like, but you can try to learn and listen and let them tell you. My mom was very good at that. She wanted to meet a need. She never wanted to tell others what was going to fix their life. She was like, what is it that you need? Then she would try to meet that need. I thought that that was so beautiful. It has led me to sometimes be unable to recognize actually really bad people at times. I’m like, everyone has a story. Everyone has a reason for doing things. Then I look at someone, perhaps a certain politician, we’re not naming names, or a really bad person in my life who’s hurting me over and over again, it sometimes has been hard for me to back off of that and go, sometimes you’ve just got to let somebody go. They’re just hurting you. You’ll never fix or save or meet their need. That was a rambling answer.

Zibby: It’s such good advice. The only tragedy to that advice is I feel like everyone has to learn it themselves anyway. It’s one of those pieces that you learn through experience. Yet even if I tell my best friend or my daughter or somebody, they’ll be like, okay, yeah, but it’s not going to stop them from doing the same mistakes.

Sara: They have to learn it from —

Zibby: — You have to learn it.

Sara: In the book, I talked about that. I think that’s a good story, a good connection to the relationship I have with my little sister of us protecting each other and wanting to fix things for the other. You see that in the book happen in the Grand Canyon, of our own little personal battles that we were having and not be able to help the other one fix it. You can support. You can listen and be there. That’s what you need to be, but you can’t force your way onto someone else’s way. I would do this. Well, that’s not necessarily what’s right for them or their way of doing things.

Zibby: It’s so true. I loved also when you had the five thousand staples, the box of staples, and you decided that by the time they were empty you had to have achieved something in your wish-list career of being a comedian. Then you finished the box and you were like, I better get out of here, basically. Tell me about that.

Sara: I used to have a day job, my job when I moved to New York City to try and become a comedian. I didn’t know at all how to do it. I’d never even seen standup comedy in person before. I’d only seen it on TV. I had no idea what I was doing. I go to New York. I’m like, I’m going to be a comedian. It’s going to take six months. I didn’t know anything. I got a day job because I didn’t have any money. I had to support myself. New York is very expensive. I remember thinking when I moved there that the salary that I was offered for my job was so much money. I was like, I’m rich. I had no idea that it was not enough.

Zibby: Yeah, that’s your subway fare. There you go.

Sara: Barely enough to live off of. Anyway, I was at this boring law firm job. My days were just spent in spreadsheets and with a really gross kind of creepy boss. All my early comedy was office humor because that was my life. It actually ended up being a great experience to write about in my early days of comedy because I didn’t know what to write about. I thought, I’ll write about what’s right in front of me. While no one’s looking, I’ll be in my cubicle working on something about this experience. I think anyone pursuing a creative career hits that wall at some point. They realize, oh, my god, this is going to take so much longer than I thought it was going to take. You’re shown examples of people who are overnight successes and young success. We value youth, 30 Under 30, all these things. For many, it is a really long journey. I think it’s really more rewarding to get there in a more organic way than some sort of overnight success, I would imagine. I mean, the money would be nice.

I hit that wall. I had these box of staples. I always made little deals. I would be like, if he’s standing at the top of these stairs when I come out of here, he loves me. I would do those deals almost like a he loves me, he loves me not. If the phone rings right now, that’s a sign from the universe. This little deal with myself about the box of staples was a motivator. Get out of here. Get out of this day job. Figure out a way to make money as an entertainer, comedian, writer, or whatever by the time this box of staples runs out. Really didn’t do the math and understand what — I knew generally how many staples I would use a week. I thought I was making a pretty safe bet. Then the five thousand staples were gone, and I was really depressed. Looking back, it was actually not that long. I actually had a quick turnaround there.

Zibby: You were using a lot of staples. You just were flying through them.

Sara: I was only at that job for five years, but it felt like an eternity at that age. In your early twenties, it was just like, the clock was ticking. How am I going to do this? I was so lucky I got this job. It was so weird. It was hosting an online show for AOL, which existed then. It was internet video. I was interviewing musicians. I thought, I’ve made it, and I did. I had made it. I got to quit my day job. That’s all I wanted, was just to not work at that day job. I wanted my job to be being in the entertainment industry, a comedian, writer, whatever. I didn’t care what it was. I’m like, just make me a part of it. That sent me on my way. I had some setbacks. I had to go back to the law firm job once the AOL thing got cancelled. It was a real journey. Again, the word journey. Let’s keep count how many times I say it.

Zibby: Then when you decide you were going to interweave your whitewater rafting trip with your family memoir of sorts?

Sara: It’s crazy because I had this trip planned. You have to book them really far in advance to get your spot on the boats. We probably had it booked over a year in advance. I was already writing my book when I went on the Grand Canyon trip. I had no intention of writing about it. I don’t seek out experiences for creative fodder. I’m pretty lucky in that I live in the moment. I separate my career from my life. I’m not going home for vacation for Thanksgiving and keeping a notebook. I’m not someone who does that. My stories that I tell from my life bubble up naturally. Years later, I’ll go, I should talk about that on stage. I’ve been telling this story to friends as just a story. I’m like, why didn’t I think about turning that — I’ve gotten better at churning out material quicker, a quicker turnaround and realizing when something funny happens, recognizing that could be something I write about. The Grand Canyon thing was just strictly a trip for my birthday. When I went on the trip, I was in the throes of getting my first round of feedback about the book. It was a mess. It was like, you got to figure this out. I was like, oh, shit, I don’t know what I’m doing. That was adding to my mental state when I went into the Grand Canyon. I didn’t say that in the book because it would’ve been too meta.

A couple months later, I was dreading going back to work on the book. My deadline was approaching for a second draft. I was dreading it. I just started thinking, god, what it needs is a really vivid story with stakes and place and all the five senses. So much memory is so foggy. It’s hard to write about memories that you’re barely sure you have a handle on. I learned how to do it. It suddenly occurred to me, what if I — I just had a little idea. I asked my editor. She’s like, “I kind of like that. Give it a try,” which is really scary when someone goes, give it a try. I feel like I wrote three books. The second draft was a complete rewrite. It was like I started over. When they got my notes back, only one chapter was like, this is good. It was rough. I gave it a try. It took a long time. What I turned in the next time was enough for her to go, “Yeah, this is working. You still have a ways to go, but the way you’re telling this story is –” The Grand Canyon stuff lightens the heavier stuff from my life. When I was down in the Grand Canyon, that is what I was experiencing mentally. All of it is connected to these stories from my past. The metaphor, it was like a writer’s delight, a canyon trip, a boat, a river, rocks. It was all so fun to write about. That part was pretty easy.

Zibby: Awesome. I thought it was great. I thought the intersection of those two experiences and going back and forth worked really well. It’s something that you might not necessarily think to do. I wouldn’t necessarily think to frame something that way. Yet it was so effective in the storytelling and pushing both narratives along through the river pushing the — .

Sara: You had to go through it. We were laughing whenever I would talk to my editor about the book. We would be finding ourselves accidentally speaking in metaphors that were related to the flow. It flows really well here. I had to pull back on it sometimes. I’m like, there’s too much. It’s getting obnoxious. I had some people really be very encouraging. I’ve never done this before. They were like, it’s okay to be on the nose sometimes and to hold our hand a little. The transitions between the canyon and the life chapters, I was very particular with those. It wasn’t too heavy-handed, but it was a nod going, and now we’re talking about this. Weaving those together was pretty challenging. It took a while. It felt like I was wrestling a bear to the ground and after a while just like, how do I fucking make this — I had to cut so much. Every time I sat down to work on the book again, I would be overwhelmed and dreading it and just sick. It was like I was going back into a Chernobyl. I don’t want to go back in there. I would thrash and not want to do it. But once you get going, you’re on your way. You have to do it.

Zibby: Now that you’ve survived this process which you made sound so enjoyable, what do you have coming next? What are you up to from the comedy side? What are you up to from the writing side?

Sara: It’s been surreal. I’ve been anticipating this release of this book for so long. I didn’t think it would happen the way it has happened at all, obviously. But I’m healthy. My family is healthy. By the way, I’ve been following you on Instagram. I’m so sorry about your mother-in-law.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Sara: I’m very much sending you love.

Zibby: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Sara: Anyway, sorry to bring that up.

Zibby: No, it’s fine. I’m very open about it. It’s fine.

Sara: I’m glad you are because a lot of people are going through this right now. You sharing helps other people. I don’t have anyone currently in a hospital suffering from COVID or anything like that. Reading about your experiences just underlines what this experience is really like. You can’t forget it. We’re still in the middle of it. It ain’t over yet. It’s very real. It’s easy to start relaxing being like, I’m not going to think about it today. Anyway, back to me.

Zibby: Yes, back to you. Go ahead.

Sara: I’m sorry.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Sara: The pandemic made it very weird. I had anticipated a book tour. Then I was planning a standup tour for the fall. I started working late last year on all new standup material, new jokes. I was going to start working on a solo show maybe inspired by the book. I was still figuring it out. That all went to shit. Now I’ve just been very lucky. I’ve been getting some writing jobs for TV shows that are in production during the pandemic. I’ve written for a few specials like a graduation special where Obama spoke. I didn’t get to write for Obama personally, but I wrote for the special. I’ve been very grateful that the kind of TV writing I’ve done has put me in the stable of writers who do comedy variety-type shows that are actually more lightweight to produce during the pandemic. I’ve been overwhelmed with work at times where I can say no to things, which is not what I expected when all this started. Hollywood shut down. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Now I’m looking forward to that this book is out in the world. It’s like a baby I’ve put out there in the little basket in the river and just sent it down the river and let it live. Now I really want to start working on just looking forward to post-pandemic life. I’m starting to really miss performing in front of a live audience. What does that look like when I get out there? I feel like this book is such a new — people have always known me to be a storyteller, but a little more sincere. I’m not afraid to get emotional and sappy and stuff. I’m thinking about making my live performance a little more to return to those roots of wanting to just tell stories as opposed to punchline, punchline, punchline, and maybe being a little deeper on stage than I have been before. I feel like after writing this book I can do anything.

Zibby: You totally can. I know you just gave some advice to authors. Maybe on more of a positive note, what advice would you have for somebody else out there who wants to write a memoir and maybe doesn’t know how to attack it?

Sara: Yes, it is very difficult to write a book of any kind. I think memoir is particularly challenging in some ways because you’re going to have to dig deep and face things about yourself and potentially have a lot of fear. I had a lot of fear around, what is my family going to think? What are people who are in this book going to think? Worrying a lot about hurting people. Some people don’t worry about that kind of thing. I did. It all worked out okay so far. As hard as it is, like I just said, now I feel like I can do anything. I do think it’s worth it to learn a discipline like this. When you take on a really big project, it requires such a commitment and a practice, which is something that I had never really done in this way before. It’s helped me figure out how to get over writer’s block. Now I trust the process more. Whereas before, I would dread things and put it off and put it off and just be in a tailspin. Now I have faith of, oh, it’s okay to write for just twenty minutes in one day. That’s all I could do, but I did something, and not to beat myself up. The next day is another day. Tomorrow, I might write for ten hours straight. Have faith that it will come.

Also what I’ve learned is discovering how good your writing can get when you open yourself up to other people’s feedback, especially when it’s personal. I’m usually a loner. I write for TV. I collaborate with other people. For my own stuff, I’m like, I don’t want anybody helping me with my jokes. A lot of comedians collaborate. They help each other. I’ve always been like, no, I’m on my own. Now I’m like, man, you’re better with the help of others and other ears. It’s worth that personal risk. If the goal is to have the book out there, you’re going to have to get used to it, so sharing it with some people early on. I shared the book manuscript with some very close friends early on. Then you have editors. Then the process, it gets into more and more hands. You’re getting more and more feedback. I learned to welcome it and love it because by the end, I was like, god, I sound so much smarter than I am because all these people helped as part of the process, which was amazing. Don’t give up. That’s my advice.

Zibby: Love it. Sara, thank you. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sara: Thank you so much. Thank you for taking the time. I know you’re in a crazy time right now. I just thank you for what you put out in the world. It’s really beautiful and authentic. I love it. I’m a big fan.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m so glad. I love doing what I do. I think you could probably tell, but this is the highlight of my day, honestly. I love my kids and we’re having a great day, but I’m just saying —

Sara: — Mommy needs a break.

Zibby: It’s great. It’s an escape for me too. Thank you for saying that.

Sara: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Sara Schaefer, GRAND