At 40, when Lee thought she was finally launching her next act, her husband left her and their daughter for an old girlfriend, after having squandered all their money. It would nearly ten years of working two or three jobs at a time for Lee to get back on her feet and relaunch her dream with a new book, where she somehow finds humor in her misadventures.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up the youngest of three daughters in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, a small town an hour east of Pittsburgh. My parents were both first-generation Americans; all four of my grandparents were immigrants from the Piedmont region of northern Italy.
My dad was the vice president of a large commercial development company and my mom was a homemaker with a great love for music and languages—and she was a fabulous cook. I credit her with passing those interests down to me. My sisters were 11 and 8 years older than I (my mother had a stillborn child in between us), so in some ways, I was like an only child because they were grown and flown while I was still in school. Even so, we were very close and they were great big sisters to me.
Honestly, growing up in Ligonier was a lot like growing up in Mayberry. It’s a beautiful small town, very safe, where most everybody know everybody else. My friends and I walked or rode our bikes everywhere and never worried about crime. Our front door key was always under the doormat! When I took my current husband there for the first time, he said, “It looks like Main Street in the Magic Kingdom at Disney World!”
As I hit my early teen years and started to feel stifled by small town life, I got to visit my sisters, who both lived in New York City by then, and see a world of sophistication and excitement that most of my friends back home had no idea of. In that sense, I feel as if I had the best of many worlds in my upbringing. My sisters took me to my first Broadway show, my first ballet, my first foreign film—all heady stuff for a young girl.
I went to the University of Pittsburgh, graduating cum laude with a degree in Speech–Rhetoric and Communications, with the goal of working in public relations or media. I also took a lot of acting and literature classes and continued my study of French and Italian. In my junior and senior years, I was very fortunate to attract the notice of several of my professors and was recommended for some excellent internships, one with Rockwell International in Pittsburgh—I worked with the VP of Communications and traveled on their private jet (I thought I was so cool!)—and another internship with a local news radio station.
I interned at the station for one day before they offered me a job, so I ended up working there all summer between junior and senior years as the morning desk assistant and afternoon producer and filled in for people on vacation when I could during the school year. The last internship I did was with the University’s news and publications department and they hired me upon graduation.
Part of my job at the University involved producing a higher education public affairs show on television and from that I was asked by the TV station to produce and host another show bi-monthly. I loved working in TV from the first instant and hoped they would offer me a full-time job.
But life had other plans. I got married—honestly, much sooner than I wanted to because of pressure from my boyfriend’s family—and very unexpectedly got pregnant about eight months after my wedding. I had my daughter and shortly thereafter began the odyssey of moving seven times in the next fifteen years to accommodate my husband’s career. He traveled almost constantly in his job and I was in many ways a single parent. I wanted more children, but he did not and honestly it would have been difficult being alone so much.
Most of the time during those years, wherever we lived, I continued to work either part-time or freelance, as a writer for educational and health care institutions, as a writer for full-service public relations firms and I hosted and produced local TV talk shows. I also, kind of as a fluke, began teaching adult education classes; I taught grammar, reading, speech, and writing classes part-time for several community and technical colleges and found that I really enjoyed teaching, but specifically teaching adults. I ended up getting certified as a literacy instructor and taught and coordinated an adult literacy program.
I also did a lot of small acting jobs for industrial films, a few commercials, and very small parts in some television films. I did a combination of these things while raising my daughter. I loved being a mom and doing all the kid-related activities, but my dream was to be able to write full time someday, for myself, not for an agency or client.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
This question really has two parts for me, what I thought was the beginning of my next act (that had to be aborted) and then, after a ten-year struggle, what really did become my next act.
In 1998, I thought, finally, it was MY TURN! My big midlife next act for ME. This turned out to be Actus Interruptus! In 1995, I was working as a freelance writer for an Atlanta PR agency (it was a fun time, preparing for Olympics and Paralympics in ’96) and also coordinating an adult literacy program two nights a week. I returned from my 20th high school reunion and was hit with a compelling need to write the book I’d been thinking about for a few years.
I credit my sister with motivating me to sit down and do it. I was moaning to her about what I wanted to do, but hadn’t done yet as I approached 40, and she cut me off and unsympathetically told me to shut up and go write a book about it. She made me so mad that I went and did it! I was thrilled to get the attention of an agent in NY (Sheree Bykofsky) who sold the manuscript to Longstreet Press and on April 1, 1998, Falling Flesh Just Ahead: And Other Signs on the Road Toward Midlife was published. It was a collection of humorous personal essays about turning 40 and the loss of perkiness that accompanies that! I crisscrossed the country that summer for book signings and media appearances.
Meanwhile, my husband was transferred to Chicago and we moved from Atlanta to Chicago at the end of the summer. With my daughter in high school and my husband firmly established in his career, I felt like it was finally my turn to do what I wanted without feeling like I was neglecting anyone else. I loved Chicago, and I found an amazing publicist who secured fantastic opportunities for me. The Chicago media were so kind to me! I became a freelance writer for Today’s Chicago Woman and Chicago Healthy Parent (doing personality profiles of local newsmakers), I appeared frequently on all the local TV stations as the “midlife” expert about anything remotely related to women and midlife, from empty nest to depression. I even taught an evening adult learning class about getting your book published at the Latin School of Chicago.
I was in heaven! And then my husband was unexpectedly downsized (more like fired) from his job of eleven years in charge of development and construction for a large restaurant company. It was a huge blow to him and his ego. Fortunately, he was well known in his industry and was offered another position as an executive with a construction/development company back in Atlanta. So, we reversed our steps back where we’d come from. I continued to travel to Chicago frequently for media appearances and to teach my class once a quarter.
Back in Atlanta, I continued promoting my book in the local media, wrote the proposal for my next book, and began teaching adult English as a Second Language (ESL) classes part-time. I had missed teaching, but I didn’t want to do it full-time (leaving no time to write) and I was burned out on adult literacy. But ESL was the perfect fit for my love of languages and different cultures and I had a soft spot for it because of my grandparents being immigrants way back when. I LOVED IT and it suited my writing schedule.
Sounds like you were off and running. What happened?
Things were moving along nicely when, BOOM, 2002 hit. My husband quit his job (without telling me until he’d already done it) and invested heavily in a new business venture with a partner—this all terrified me, but he was DRIVEN and there was no talking sense to him. Meanwhile, my dad was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, so I was traveling to Pennsylvania a lot, leaving our personal finances at my husband’s mercy. My dad died, my mom fell into a coma and, on Christmas Eve, my husband told me he’d lost EVERYTHING, plus had run up about $100,000 of debt in my name (my credit cards) and that he was leaving me and my daughter basically worse than penniless and moving to Arizona to live with an old high school girlfriend (with whom he’d been having an affair) and her five children. And, by the way, she used to be a stripper.
Instant and unexpected poverty was a game changer. With every single penny gone and mountains of debt remaining, part-time work did not cut it. Writing for fun with hopes of eventual profit was not on the survival agenda. I immediately picked up as many extra jobs as I could, at one point working five part-time jobs Monday through Saturday to try to keep a roof over my head. I had to operate in survival mode for several years and writing was not even a thought.
I also sold everything I could—(my now heavily mortgaged) house, car, jewelry, the gold in my teeth. One night I even took an inventory of everything I had two of that I only needed one of to list for sale. Things like blenders and can openers, as well as lungs and eyeballs. As a matter of fact, I believe I still have a kidney listed on eBay! I moved into a crappy apartment and took a full-time job teaching ESL and language arts in a middle school. I taught with a provisional certificate and then completed a permanent certification program while teaching.
For the next ten years, I never had fewer than three jobs at a time, including my regular teaching job. Most days, I started at 7 a.m. and finished at 9 p.m. It took a terrible toll on my health, plus I was hit with early menopause, complete with blinding migraines, inflamed joints, hair loss, weight gain, and assorted other maladies. It was just a horrible, horrible time. But the worst part of it all was that there was absolutely no time to even think about writing, and the loss of that dream, that career I’d waited so long to have that had been in its delicate infancy when the bomb fell on my life, was soul crushing. I couldn’t see any way it could come back to me.
Then, in 2010, when I was just about to turn 52, I submitted a story I had written some years earlier to Jennifer Skiff, an author and animal advocate, who was looking for stories for her upcoming book The Divinity of Dogs: True Stories of Miracles Inspired by Man’s Best Friend. A friend who was very active in animal rescue had gotten an email through her rescue connections about this opportunity, and told me about it.
When she received it, she called me personally to say how much she loved it and to tell me what a good writer I was. It had been soooo long since I’d had that kind of affirmation and it rekindled the fire to get my “dream” life back.
I had written the story about my dog years earlier and had been amazed that it had never been published because I think it is really one of the best thing I have ever written. I couldn’t believe that the media picked up my frivolous stories about my hair or saggy upper arms, but a truly inspiring story of the healing power of dogs was routinely ignored. I was thrilled when Jennifer published my story in her book; I even got to meet Jennifer in person when she came to Atlanta for a book launch party.
Shortly after that, I was doing an impromptu marketing presentation during a staff development day at the college where I teach adult ESL. The keynote speaker tracked me down at the break and asked why on earth I wasn’t speaking professionally. It was too much to explain how I’d lost that path! But I joined his speaker-training program and felt my soul coming back to life every time I presented and connected with like-minded people. I decided it was time to DO IT! I spent every weekend writing my second book and then I made the decision to take the plunge and teach only part-time) and focus on rebuilding my writing/speaking career. By then, I had gotten remarried, but I refused to let my new husband bear the burden of the financial mess my ex had left. (By the way, I never had to declare bankruptcy and I paid back everyone and finally worked my way back to an excellent credit score.)
What is your next act?
I published my second book in late 2013 when I was 55, My Pineapples Went to Houston: Finding the Humor in My Dashed Hopes, Broken Dreams and Plans Gone Outrageously Awry, and began reestablishing myself as a writer, with two books published, stories in two anthologies and many posts on other websites in addition to the blog on my own website. I love telling stories, entertaining people, making them laugh, making them reflect, and letting them know they are not alone in their struggles and challenges. I like to use humor, sometimes just for laughs, but often to make a deeper point without getting heavy handed about it.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
It was scary quitting my full-time teaching job at the end of the school year because while I was in a better financial position than I had been in ten years, I was certainly not out of the woods. I was just beginning to rebuild. I don’t suppose there is ever a good time to lose everything, but I can tell you 46 is definitely not it! I budgeted very carefully and focused on getting my book finished, hoping that would give me a calling card in the new century!
How supportive were your family and friends?
My present husband is my biggest cheerleader. He encourages me to go further and further and is there to prop me up when I fall! My immediate family members are very supportive of me and want to see me succeed. Most of my friends, acquaintances and teaching colleagues were also encouraging. A few were not. Overall, I think other writers/bloggers/creatives of any type understand best what it’s like to try to launch a creative endeavor from nothing but dust and faith!
My daughter Torrie is about to turn 34 and is very successful. She and her husband David live in Boston. She is a senior HR business partner for TJX Corporation and her husband David is a senior product manager at Biogen. She is always encouraging me and is excited about any success I have. This is a big change from when she was a little girl. I tell the story about the time one of her kindergarten classmates said excitedly to Torrie, “I saw your mom on a TV show yesterday!” and Torrie shrugged her shoulders and said, “So, it’s not like it’s cartoon or anything.”
What challenges did you encounter?
I encountered many. One was time constraints. Even after I quit teaching full time, I still worked about 30 hours/week in the classroom, not counting all the home work there is for teachers! It was hard for me to find enough time to devote to writing. I am also not the fastest writer in the world, so it sometimes takes me longer than normal to produce something I am happy with.
But, by far the biggest challenge was how the Internet and social media completely revolutionized writing and publishing. When I “left” the field (against my will) in 2002, there was no social media, I’d never heard of blogs, and the Internet was just in its infancy. I was one of the first guests on ivillage, doing a live chat about midlife and that was a big deal. Does ivillage even exist anymore? In late 1999-early 2000, I also wrote for a web site called 50 and Beyond (although I was actually only in my early 40s!) that was a casualty of the dot com bust and we kind of thought that was the end of “web sites” that weren’t connected to some kind of retail enterprise! The word “blog” didn’t exist as far as I knew. And at that time the only people who self-published were those who couldn’t get a real publishing deal and resorted to vanity presses.
When I came back to the field ten years later, everything had changed. Everyone and their mother was writing books and self-publishing them without too much of a stigma. When shopping for a publishing deal or agent, everything was about your platform (my shoes? I thought!) and how many followers, likes, shares, etc., you had. I had NO IDEA what any of that was. I am notoriously tech-impaired and I am still struggling with understanding and using all the social media platforms—and it seems there’s a different hot new must-have every day!
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Not in the last two years since getting back to writing for real, but nearly every single day during my decade of shock and awfulness. I think the only reason why I didn’t then was because I had no time to really process how desperate I felt and how heartbroken I was over so much loss. Most of those ten years, I was working a minimum of three jobs and often as many as five—always full-time and a number of part-time, evenings, weekends, just to keep a roof (crappy though it was) over my head, to keep from living in the street. I always say the only reason I didn’t fall completely through the cracks was because my hips wouldn’t fit! My daughter was in college at the University of Georgia during this time; because of her high grades, she had a full academic scholarship and she also worked part time to help with her living expenses.
I credit two factors with really getting me through. 1) I never lost my sense of humor, though the humor tended to be rather dark those days! Every time I could laugh at my situation or make other people laugh about something, I felt like my “real” self, it felt like a part of my soul was being fed—and it affirmed to me that the real me was still in there somewhere. 2) What I call learning to appreciate “the power of enough.” During this time, I certainly didn’t appear to have “enough” of anything, not money, love, or security. But I did get “enough” to get me through day by day—a helping hand, a small refund, or a few well-timed, encouraging words.
Each time I was ready to give up, when it seemed all hope was gone, a little piece of “enough” came to me. Eventually, I gave up the fantasy of a big rescue and learned to appreciate each small drop of mercy that sustained me, sometimes just enough to get me from one minute to the next. The lens of gratitude has a magical way of magnifying the smallest bit of goodness until it is enough to cover your need.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned that I am stronger, more resourceful, and more resilient than I ever realized. I found that I am able to adapt and adjust to wildly fluctuating circumstances and “do what I have to do” to get through it. I learned that when EVERYTHING else was stripped away, I still had myself and my ability to relate to and forge relationships among diverse groups of people. I learned that I am not ready to give up on my dreams despite still having obstacles to overcome and continuing challenges.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Well, I definitely wouldn’t have married the same person! And I definitely wouldn’t have trusted him to be honest, fair, and faithful. Some days, I’ll be honest, it’s hard to keep the “if only” thoughts at bay and not let them overshadow what I’m trying to rebuild now. It’s hard not to think of the time, energy, and momentum lost between the first half of my “next act” and the second half. I lost so much ground and in many ways I’m playing catch up now and I’m older, so the urgency to get it right, to make progress more quickly, is greater.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Whether it’s a change you want to make, or one that life has forced, you absolutely CAN recast yourself in a different role. I think you have to listen equally to your heart and to your head. You can’t act purely on desire without any regard for reality, but you also can’t be such a hard-nosed realist that you never take a chance on your dreams.
I think you need to take inventory of your skills, abilities, personal qualities, etc., to see if you can leverage those to launch yourself on a different path. Try to pinpoint the kind of changes you want to make—examine if it’s a “job” per se that you’re after or it’s what that job would allow you to do. In other words, do you really need a completely different path or can you find the fulfillment you’re missing by adding a class or an activity to your present life? Determine how long of a runway you need (if you need to replace income or learn new skills before you jump on the reinvention wagon) and then work backwards from that.
Research, read, talk to people who are doing what you want to do, think about getting a career coach to help you refine your vision and get you started. Create a realistic timeline and set intermediate goals that will get you where you want to go.
Most importantly, do not give up. Don’t stop believing in yourself. Don’t compare yourself and your progress to someone else’s—unless you are using that to motivate yourself, to set a goal you want to achieve. Otherwise, it pulls you down because there will always be someone further along than you. Don’t allow others to make you lose focus. Focus on YOU. Your path may take you somewhere you hadn’t envisioned at first and that’s okay!
Surround yourself with people who believe in you and encourage you, who give you moral and concrete support and constructive advice. Cut out the negative ones! I am stealing this from a friend—her hashtag on a discussion about people who try to hold you back and pull you down was #naysayersbiteme.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing a writing career?
I think the general advice above is a good starting point and then drill down from there to the specific needs that you have. Where are your weaknesses, what holes do you need to fill? I had/have so many! About the only thing I could do was write, but I’m pretty techno-impaired and I had no clue about the ins and outs of blogging or how to use all the social media platforms to promote my work. You can fill those holes two ways—learn how to do it yourself or hire someone to do it for you. You need to decide how to best use your time and money.
Then, I’d say, obviously, WRITE, continually hone your craft, and start building relationships with other people in your field. Join writer/blogger groups online, in your community, in a class, wherever, and really participate. Ask questions, and be sure to reciprocate with help, support or advice where you can. My experience has been that people are very generous with help, but don’t want to be taken advantage of. I work with someone who is a whiz with marketing strategy, but who doesn’t know a subject pronoun from an object pronoun, so we trade expertise. Don’t just take, give back–cheer for the others, share their work on your social media.
Consider getting a coach, especially if you are new to this field or have been away a long time, like I was. That can save you a lot of time spinning your wheels, getting nowhere. It can be a little expensive, but if you can afford it, it’s a good investment. If you can’t swing the cost of a coach alone, try to find a group coaching situation. You will still get the benefit of the coach’s expertise and often you learn as much from the other members as you do from the coach, so that’s a good trade off for giving up the one-on-one exclusive relationship. And that’s also the beginning of a good network for you.
What resources do you recommend?
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published—The co-writer of this book, Sheree Bykofsky, was my literary agent on my first book. If you are interested in getting published with a traditional publisher, this book covers it all, from cover letters to contracts.
Beyond Your Blog: Susan Maccarelli does a fantastic job of gathering and sharing tips, info, and trends happening in the blogosphere and she compiles and posts submission opportunities as well. She also has a podcast where she interviews editors, authors, etc., and gets the inside scoop.
The Relaunch Show: This podcast (and website) with Joel Boggess and his wife Dr. Pei Kang is a great resource for anyone in reinvention mode. Their tagline is “Starting Over with Confidence” and they have a lot of heavy hitters on the show. Joel has a tech column on Huffington Post and Success Magazine. I met Joel and Pei at a conference a couple years ago and have been in group coaching with and one-on-one coaching with Joel. If you want to know how to launch a book, a podcast or any product, they are experts. They know how to work social media and the virtual world like nobody’s business!
Speak It Forward: If you’re interested in building a speaking career, check out Kent Julian. He is a very successful public speaker and he offers a speaker’s boot camp and other ongoing speaker training programs. I met Kent when he was the keynote speaker for an event at the college where I teach. I have participated in his training events and you really get a lot of bang for your buck with him. He tells you the nitty-gritty of everything he knows, from presentation to tax forms.
For help with your website or any techy questions, Erik Blair is a gem.
Allan Dubon is another great website resource and technology guru.
A fabulous coach and teacher is Jeanie Brosius King. She is an international life coach and former Unity minister. Connect with her at
Fifty Jewels is a great website for midlife women in transition.
Making Midlife Matter is a new website with great info and resources for midlife women.
Erin Shaw is a life coach who focuses on women who want to change paths, particularly educators who are looking to use their skills in another setting. She’s been through the experience herself!
What’s next for you?
I am doing a special promotion of My Pineapples Went to Houston: Finding the Humor in My Dashed Hopes, Broken Dreams and Plans Gone Outrageously Awry that comes with a free ebook entitled Lite Whines and Laughter. And then it’s time to get started on Book #3. I really hope the time in between books is much shorter and a lot less eventful this time around!
Contact Lee Gaitan at email@example.com
I have a story in these books:
Feisty After 45: The Best Blogs from Midlife Women by Elaine Ambrose