…My years in the Air Force instilled confidence in me. As such, I am unafraid of new ideas, new places or new situations. Finally, once I’ve set my mind to doing something, I keep at it until I’ve accomplished it. This has been particularly true throughout my writing journey. Had I let the numerous rejection slips deter me, I would not have enjoyed the success that I have thus far.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50's.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carol L.Gee.
Carol Gee, M.A., a book author, freelance writer, and owner of A Feast Of Words, LLC, her one-woman writing service, is actually on her ‘fourth’ and most likely, final act. She spent 21 years in the military (active duty and the AF Reserves) to retire. She also did a short stint as a mental health counselor, before embarking on a career (twenty-eight years), in higher education, at the college/university level.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Thinking back, I’d always used humor to ward off conflicts. I definitely used it to ward off childhood bullies. An avid reader, and whom loved learning new words, I frequently used weird phrases or words, in strange ways when ‘mean’ girls teased me about my clothes, my shoes, etc. When doing so, they would look at me strangely, before leaving me alone. Better to be thought crazy, than get picked on, or even beat up, I figured.
However, when I made up stories to entertain my younger sister, and dreamed of writing as a career, I never thought that I would combine humor in my writings. That was until the late Erma Bombeck gave me the courage to do this. (Through reading her books and newspaper columns). My main goal was trying to figure out how to escape a dead-end job, find a way to go to college, and then maybe figure out how to write for a living.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are actually two. The first is “Where there is a will, there is a way.” And second, “It’s never too late to follow your dream.” The Air Force seemed the only way that I could escape my dead-end existence as a factory worker, and a way to help me to get my education. So I joined, hoping this was true. And, although my life went into a number of directions, in truth, it was through perseverance, despite a number of rejection letters, and other issues, that I finally realized my dream of writing.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
My top three qualities — -being personable and outgoing. I am a ‘people person’ meaning I enjoy meeting and talking to people. (I frequently chat with folks in whatever lines I find myself in. I believe it makes the time go by).My talking to people, and asking questions, is how I have learned of so many things in my life. Be it a new café, a new recipe, or a good place to vacation, etc. I have also learned a lot through reading books, magazines and newspapers.
My years in the Air Force instilled confidence in me. As such, I am unafraid of new ideas, new places or new situations. Finally, once I’ve set my mind to doing something, I keep at it until I’ve accomplished it. This has been particularly true throughout my writing journey. Had I let the numerous rejection slips deter me, I would not have enjoyed the success that I have thus far.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
I remember it as if it were yesterday, when my mother announced that she was retiring from her civil service position in Washington, DC, and that we were moving back to her small, hometown in Virginia. Lying in bed that night and looking up at the ceiling, I wondered how it was that I would be entering the 12th grade in a brand, new school, in a brand, new city.
Not only were the girls stuck up, (they’d long formed their friendships) the guys were a little, too friendly toward me, for the other girls’ liking. Upon graduating, with no means to go to college and limited job opportunities, I took a position at the local shoe factory. Seeing an ad for the Air Force truly changed my life.
Earning both bachelors, and master’s degree, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. One day, my masters’ degree student adviser, invited me to do a practicum at the mental health clinic where he was the director. To see if this might be a career option.
There, I did patient in-takes, and a long side a licensed therapist, I counseled clients one on one, as well as co-lead teenage group therapy sessions. Discovering I enjoyed counseling, I stayed on close to two years after completing my practicum.
I was considering counseling as a career, when a few months later, my military spouse and I, received a three-year assignment to Panama. There, I applied and was hired to teach Applied Management to soldiers who were supervisors. Getting a taste of teaching at the college level, I was hooked.
Working adjunct professor or instructor positions, interacting with other professors and students, at every base we were stationed, was highly rewarding. Subsequently, I had worked in administration at Atlanta’s Emory University for close to twelve years, when I embarked on my ‘second act’ of writing.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
It began with the publishing of my debut book, “The Venus Chronicles” sort of a spoof on the book, “Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus.” That led to my being interviewed by a campus reporter for the Staff/Faculty Magazine. Being described as a ‘woman of many stories’ I realized, I indeed had many stories. And it appeared women and men enjoyed reading about them.
This led to my writing about this ‘second-act’ and why people of a certain age, decided to pursue it, that was published in the same Staff/Faculty magazine as my initial interview. Both the reporter’s story and my own ‘second-act’ piece gave me instant notoriety on campus as a writer. This gave me to the courage to reach out to a reporter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (my hometown newspaper), who shared stories about local people doing various things to share my story.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
I was nearing my 50th birthday. Staring into my bathroom mirror one morning, I noticed a chin hair that had not been there before, had taken residence underneath my chin. Retrieving a heavy-duty tweezer, I quickly yanked it out. A few days later, I noticed that not only had it returned, but returned gray, and with an entourage of other grays hairs. All now residing beneath my chin.
That morning I had an epiphany: that if I were ever going to give this ‘writing thing’ a go, the time was well — now. Hosting one of the young women I mentored for dinner that evening, I mentioned this to her.
One of my problems? What to write about? I’d always heard folks say “to write what you know.” What did I know well enough that would interest others? Naturally, I could write about my time in the military. Like what it was like being the only woman in the entire Civil Engineering Squadron at a base, of nearly two hundred men. That would probably only cover one article, not a series, or a whole book.
My writings would also have to be something short, for busy women like myself whom probably didn’t have much time to read. It would also need to be witty. Lastly, it would need to be something that would hopefully resonate with them in some way. Finally, I decided I would maybe start with a column or blog. Again, what to write about was the question.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
Writing that first ‘staff’ piece made me aware that I had the ability to write. In fact, I was one of a few staff people to actually write a piece for the Staff/Faculty magazine, which was typically written by campus reporters, so, that helped to build my confidence in my writing.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
I am pleased to say that things continue to go well. Today, I am author of four books, and am currently working on two, new book projects. Women fondly call “The Venus Chronicles”, “Diary of A ‘Flygirl” (Cool) Girl Wannabe” and “Random Notes” ‘girlfriend’ books because of their humorous female-themed subjects. So, my new books include the fourth in that genre.
In fact, the piece that jumpstarted ‘Venus’ was the morning that I realized that I was wearing the worse bra I owned. It started when one strap slipped off my shoulder. Pushing it up, the other one slipped off. Trying to re-arrange it so it was more comfortably, the underwire in one cup poked out. Unable to push it back in, I pulled it out all-together. I was at work, so the rest of the day, I was self-conscious. Pondering if one of my breasts appeared more uplifted and separated — than the other one? And, could anyone else tell?
On my lunch break that day, I jotted down what happened in a humorous way, and emailed it to a work colleague. Laughing, she asked if she could send it to her sister. Replying ‘yes’ to her, this was repeated over and over, as more women ask to share with friends and female relatives. Not only did they say they loved it, many shared their own, ‘bra’ woes.
Seeing how women loved to laugh at my issues, I continued to write about my day-to-day issues. You know, whether I needed to purchase a good, support bra, maybe something in black lace? Or whether to take that same money and make a down payment on a Lexus (car). The cost of ‘support’ bras is outrageous. Did they charge by the cup? Pretty soon, I had enough essays for my first book.
My book, “Gilded Pearls” was different from my women’s themed ones. Reared by a mom whom survived the ‘Great Depression’, recycling and repurposing and finding new uses for everyday items (like using Christmas ornaments all year round, to decorate your home) was part of my DNA.
To repurpose your ornaments, simply clean a glass jar or bowl, and pile a bunch of assorted ornaments in it. Arrange the hanging part so they are hidden in the bottom of the containers. The ornaments can be all one color to coordinate with your décor, or mixed colors. Use as a centerpiece on a dining table, coffee table, or wherever you need ‘something’ in-expensive and pretty
Sharing ways to recycle, and repurpose everyday items to decorate your home, subsequently led to a contract to teach select craft classes at my county’s libraries.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband, women friends, numerous colleagues whom encouraged me ‘to put my essays into some kind of book,’ which was the catalyst for my first book. All of them talked up my books, bought tons of copies for stocking stuffers and other gift giving occasions. My husband kept copies in his office and sometimes sold or ‘gave’ copies to folks whom in turn bought extra copies for gifts to family and friends.
I will also be eternally grateful to Innerlight Publishing, a small local company, who took a chance on an unknown by publishing my first book. Innerlight is no longer in business as the publisher, a visionary like myself, has embarked on other ventures. Much to my surprise, some twenty years later, women are still discovering “The Venus Chronicles.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
There have been several. Publishing my first book was one. Starting my small writing service. A Feast of Words, LLC, was another. Where, my first contracted project was researching and writing a case study for a retired Three-Star General, a professor at my former university. That I was recommended by another professor familiar with my past work, and knowing that I was a retired veteran, so thought I could do the case justice, was huge.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
In the beginning, the rejection slips, enough to wallpaper my small, downstairs powder room, caused me to question whether I should simply give up on writing. You know, stick to my day job, was a constant internal refrain.
Then, a colleague, seeing me in the hallway at work, stopped me, saying, “I am glad I saw you, as I wanted to share something that happened to me.” Realizing that my stories allowed women to share their own, was validation that I was on the right track. A couple days later, a local holistic, health magazine published my “First Person’ piece that I had submitted a few weeks before. Although, I didn’t receive payment, seeing my name in print was validation that I was indeed a writer. And vow to research magazines that paid for my work.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
Raised to be independent, I have always had trouble asking for help. Upon mentioning my dream of writing there were a lot of negative comments. They included, “I hear it’s hard to get published.” “I always wanted to write a book, but I heard it was really hard.” Not wanting to be swayed from my dream, stopped me from sharing it with others.
Growing up, even the women in my ‘village’ told me that I would be better off becoming a teacher. After all, few of them (housekeepers, laundry workers, etc.) knew many women of color who was making a living as a writer. Ironically, I did later become a teacher. Or rather an adjunct instructor and an administrator. I also became a writer.
Finding my support system was indeed accidental, as well as a blessing. Being a part of my project from the beginning, these women felt a certain kinship with the book and wanted to insure that it was a success.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
By continuing to write and submit. I also subscribed to writing magazines. Where I learned that researching and sticking to writing guidelines, such as word count, and making sure the venues published the kinds of things I wanted to submit, improved my submissions, and resulted in my publishing more pieces, that paid.
Alas, many of my earlier successes were non-paid. However, they provided me with magazine clips. Every piece that was published was validation that I had finally become a real writer.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
The 5 things I wish someone had told me were:
- That I didn’t know everything about running my small writing service, that finding someone in a similar small business to brainstorm at its inception would have been helpful. I actually did this when I contacted a former professor friend, to ask how much I should charge for the above mentioned case.
- That most of us have someone they can go turn to for advice on just about anything. Like the professor I mentioned above. Today, I frequently collaborate with another publishing company on projects, and social media efforts to grow my business.
- That I could have started my small business a few years before I did. After all, I had already written a few cases to professors outside of my university that I did from home. I had also worked on my professors’ cases from home, while my husband was recuperating from numerous health crises.
- How much I would love working for myself, selecting projects that resonated with me, and working on them on my own schedule. That the flexibility was such that I could accompany my husband to doctor appointments as well as the ability to spend quality time with him since both of us retired.
- That it is okay to ‘No.’ A couple years ago, a colleague asked if I was interested in interviewing some of the women on health project she was a part of, and writing up their responses. On its face, this seemed like a simple project. It would have generated a nice piece of change.
However, having worked with this individual in the past, I knew this project would more than likely grow, the focus would more than likely change, and the project would become fairly stressful. So, I declined the project. And felt okay with my decision.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
First, find something that you love. Which I did. Then find a way to share it with as many folks as you can. Which I continue to do. The most rewarding thing about my books and articles is when a woman comes up to me to say that something I wrote resonated with her in some way.
For example, a while back, my husband gave the young woman at the clinic where he has his blood thinner levels checked, a copy of “The Venus Chronicles.” With a few errands to run afterward, I accompanied him to the clinic.
Suddenly, our car phone rang. It was the young woman calling to tell him, to tell me, that on her break, she read the essay in “Venus” where I wrote about getting up on Sat mornings to go shopping with my friend Helena. As my books are essay-driven, readers can select pieces they wish to read, and in any order.
The essay shared how we would shop various outlets for sales, to create cute outfits on a budget. We would also hit up our favorite shoe stores for bargains, and then stop someplace to have lunch. Responding that I was in the car, she told me that she loved that essay as it reminded her of shopping with her mother, and that it brought back fond memories. She added she planned to share the book with her mother once she finished reading it.
Another piece, “Mothers” I wrote about my strained relationship with my mother growing up. How her constant criticism of everything I did, made me even clumsier around her. And, how it really affected my self-confidence, growing up.
A friend with a teenage daughter at the time, shared that her daughter had read that same book, and told her that this was the way my friend made her feel. That had opened (my friend’s) eyes to the relationship between her (my friend) and her mother. Resulting in opening up a rich dialogue between my friend and her daughter about a lot of things.
Hearing these women’s stories, it dawned on me that I had found my purpose. Through my writings, a sort of ‘sisterhood’ had been founded among women. As such, they finally felt comfortable sharing their own stories. Thereby, finding freedom in their sharing.
In homage to my stint as a mental health counselor, I consider my essays and columns as ‘therapy without the couch. For example, my piece, While I May Not Be Able To Find My Way Out OF A Paper Bag, (my husband’s thoughts on my being directionally challenged when driving) I Can Make A Mean Pound Cake, shares that no one is good at everything.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
I have always, always, dreamed of having breakfast or coffee with Oprah. Over the years, friends suggested that I send her copies of all my books, which I did. I also submitted copies to her book editor for review as books for her book section in O Magazine. I have no idea whether Oprah ever received them, as I suspect she receives a lot of books, or whether she saw the value in them as readers and I did.
I believe she and I would have a great time sharing some of the humorous things that have happened to both of us as women. That we would laugh, and rejoice in the stories and memories. After all, I bet she has more than once done something and thought ‘Oprah, how the heck did you do that?” Or “girl, what were you thinking?”
I truly believe we both would agree, that now that we have matured, many of the things that would have mortified us both when we were younger, no longer does. Of course, discovering that the back of our dress was tucked into our panty-hose (like what happened to a friend, and which she shared with me), would still mortify us both.
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Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!