An epiphany in midlife convinced Sherry to shake up her life. She embarked on her 52/52 Project: 52 weekly projects outside her comfort zone. And published a book about her adventures!
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Toledo, Ohio and, with the exception of one year in Chicago, I remained in this way underrated area my whole life. I was the youngest of three stair-step aged girls, whom my mother in her late-life maternal soft spin now refers to as being “spirited.” I experienced a happy yet unremarkable childhood—not the atypical or dysfunctional life that leads many individuals to become writers. What did set my family apart, however, was our collective sense of humor. With a houseful of three other strong, independent, and funny females—and a father who referred to dinner time as “sarcasm hour”—I quickly realized that making people laugh was the key to forging my own role both within my family and my social circles. By the third grade, I had channeled my wit and my way with words into becoming the class clown and also an above-par writer.
My senior class awarded me the titles of “Best Sense of Humor” and “Best Party-Giver.” Oddly, neither of these accolades led to any college scholarships. Regardless, I graduated with honors from The University of Toledo with a degree in communications and then embarked on a successful journalism career—later seguing into nonprofit communications—with the last twenty-eight years working at my alma mater. Following the protocol of the eighties, I married my college sweetheart soon after graduation and started a family, resulting in two sons, now in their late twenties.
All went according to plan. Until my divorce.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
The failure of my marriage was jolting. I made the most of it by returning to my love of creative writing. On the nights and weekends my children spent with their father, I began to blog and write books, finishing four (unpublished) novels. Although this proved to be a productive and rewarding coping mechanism, most of my life remained very standard and routine. I stayed in the same house and at the same job for more than twenty years. I spent those two decades taking part in the same ordinary daily activities and living the same, ordinary life. I wasn’t exactly unhappy, but I wasn’t truly fulfilled, either.
When I turned 52, I suddenly realized I needed to climb out of the rut—or more accurately, the crater—I’d dug for myself. Perhaps it was a midlife crisis. Maybe hormonal psychosis. Or possibly I subconsciously recalled that my father died a week after he turned fifty-three.
I decided I needed to shake up my life. Rather than taking on the typical bucket list, which I didn’t feel would truly change me or my world, I chose to embark instead on an “unbucket list.” My 52/52 Project, at the age of fifty-two, consisted of fifty-two weekly experiences outside my comfort zone—which would either frighten me, embarrass me, or made me squirm in some way.
What is your next act?
I am the author of Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares, published last year by She Writes Press. My year of new challenges changed my life forever. My memoir chronicles my escapades ranging from the scary and crazy, like baring it all at a nude beach, to the frightening and enlightening, such as going on a raid with a SWAT team and vice squad.
My next act is to continue living my life with more spontaneity, less worry, and a newfound ability to laugh at myself. This has led to a number of other amazing experiences that continue to shape my life. I published my first book at the age of 55, met readers and new friends across the country to engage in more new ventures, and found myself at the red carpet at the Screen Actor Guild Awards.
I’ve found new venues for my writing, and I gradually began receiving invitations for motivational speaking gigs across the country. Me: a motivational speaker? The woman who has always been far more of a cautionary tale? Talk about a next act and a life reinvention!
It’s astounding how your life can change when you simply open the door to a world of strange newness, and surprisingly find yourself greeted by pure serendipity.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
Once I decided to take the plunge and came up with a partial list of new life challenges, I immediately dove into the first one and then began blogging about my adventures and misadventures. I decided that putting this out there in public was necessary in order to hold myself accountable. Considering my uncertainties and fears, it was the best way to ensure I’d see this whole project through. It helped build my confidence, provide me with an early audience, and assure me there was even a book in this.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family—particularly my elderly mother and young adult sons—didn’t truly comprehend or embrace my 52/52 Project for several weeks. But once they understood the scope of it, they were all in. My mother told me she was now living vicariously through me. My twenty-something sons felt simultaneously embarrassed by the stories of my more personal exploits and yet proud of my new lifestyle. Son #2, in a Facebook post, said, “OK, so here’s the latest post from my mother: who is obviously way cooler than I am.” Son #1, after watching a TV interview with the host of Jackass, told me he saw some similarities in our escapades and approach to life. “So,” he said. “I’ll bet you never thought your life would mirror Johnny Knoxville’s.” I had to Google Jackass and Johnny Knoxville. Umm… No, indeed.
What challenges did you encounter?
Challenges? Well, crashing a wedding (accidentally catching the bouquet), going on a raid with a SWAT team and vice squad, taking a homeless stranger to lunch, and going au naturel at a nude beach—with my elderly mother in tow—were challenging, no doubt. I’ve never felt so unsure of myself, so frightened, and so humiliated, as I did during this year of new life challenges. Yet… (see below)
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
… Yet, I have never felt so self-fulfilled—or had so much fun. Because pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is empowering. And learning to laugh at yourself is liberating—and it’s also a helluva survival tactic. Most of all, I learned that the anticipation of what we fear is almost always worse than the reality.
If I could do anything differently, I would have embarked on this new approach to life thirty years sooner. Just imagine what else I may have experienced through the years!
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
With a new approach to life—in my mid-fifties—I changed my outlook, changed my daily way of living, and changed my whole world. While I’ve made an effort to hang onto the very best qualities of the young woman I was at sixteen or even thirty, I’ve also evolved into someone different and new. I’ve learned it’s never, ever too late to reinvent yourself.
What advice do you have for would-be writers?
For wannabe writers, I suggest you seek out and follow online advice from professionals and at writing workshops or conferences. Write. Edit. Submit. Write, edit, submit again. Never, ever give up.
For those of you who want to reinvent yourself in some other way: Do whatever makes you most afraid. You’re likely to discover the most rewarding experiences in life are the ones you’ve been sidestepping all along.
What resources do you recommend?
For writers, my favorite workshops/conferences for learning and networking purposes are the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop and the Midwest Writers Workshop. For anyone simply looking to shake up or reinvent their life, I’ll shamelessly recommend my book, Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares. However, my most helpful advice is to live your life fully—far outside your comfort zone. It’s how you’ll learn the most about yourself and the world around you.
Some of my favorite women who write about midlife, with humor and poignancy, include Carrie Fisher, Anna Quindlen, Nora Ephron, and Elizabeth Berg. I’d recommend practically everything by these authors, but here are some to start with:
Carrie Fisher: Wishful Drinking
Anna Quindlen: Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake: A Memoir of a Woman’s Life
Nora Ephron: The Most of Nora Ephron
Elizabeth Berg: The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: And Other Small Acts of Liberation
What’s next for you?
I’ve recently embarked on several new acts, including moving (for the second time in five years), beginning to make plans for retirement from my communications career, and writing a new book. I’m seeking out every way possible to change and grow.
Connect with Sherry Stanfa-Stanley
Facebook: Sherry Stanfa-Stanley, Author
Amazon Book Link (but also please consider ordering from your local indie store): Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares