Writing a Humorous Book About Midlife: Mary Fran’s Story
When she turned 50, amid personal and professional challenges, Mary Fran turned to writing a blog as her outlet. Her musings about midlife hit a chord and have spawned her series of books, Not Ready for Granny Panties.
Tell us a little about your background.
I think I can safely describe myself as a middle-class American, if that’s still a thing. I grew up, oldest of four, in Northeast Philadelphia, in what fancy people call a town house, but what to us was a row house. Early on, my mom was a homemaker, eventually going out and getting herself a part-time job as a medical receptionist when I was in eighth grade. I remember being particularly proud of her; she just went out and pounded the pavement until she found the job, and she did it because she wanted to fuel her brain. Of course, the little extra money didn’t hurt, either.
My dad was a paper salesman—not a newspaper salesman, but the guy who sold the actual paper that stuff was printed on. He worked that job until he passed at age 60, way too early, from a stroke. We were by no means well off, but we never wanted for anything and we all learned the honor of work. My early jobs included babysitting, coat checking at a local restaurant, working at a fast food restaurant, and summer jobs for the Naval Depot in our area while I was in college.
My husband, Dave, and I (we just celebrated 35 years, so he’s probably eligible for sainthood now), have tried to instill our work ethic into our children: David, 31, Laura, 29, and Megan, 26. David, who is in recovery from alcoholism and heroin addiction, is happily married, the proud father of two children, making us delighted grandparents, and working in the recovery field, helping others. Laura has a Master’s Degree in Special Education and is a wonderful teacher to children with multiple disabilities, and Megan, also happily married, is an ER nurse at a local hospital.
A good Catholic girl—in Northeast Philly in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you identified yourself by your parish church—I attended Catholic school right through college, earning a B.A. on a scholarship from LaSalle University, in Education with concentrations in English and communications. Married right out of college (literally by days!), my husband and I started a recruiting company, The Bontempo Group, and have been in business for 35 years.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I’ve always been a writer, even winning contests while in elementary school. It’s been a form of therapy for me—public venting is much cheaper than therapy—and I’ve always enjoyed it. That said, it was a back-burner kind of thing while we raised our family. I worked in our business, was a substitute teacher, ran the youth group at our church, and sang at weddings and funerals to make extra money. I wrote whenever I could, but it wasn’t until my early 40s, when the kids were older, that I got the opportunity to have my own newspaper column, a lifestyle piece on the order of Erma Bombeck.
It was wonderful! Finally, an opportunity to write, and people were reading my words and enjoying them! And then, BUM, BUM, BUM…the Internet exploded. My newspapers and magazines were dying like the dinosaurs they’d become and soon I was out of pretty much every job I’d cultivated. Time for a reinvention.
The Internet was only part of the perfect storm of events that coalesced in my life at that time. In addition, I was turning 50, the economy was tanking, threatening our family business, and worst of all, my son was in the throes of his addictions.
I found myself circling the drain, knowing full well that if I didn’t do something, make some kind of move in some direction, that I would go down. In lamenting aging with a girlfriend one day, I said, “I’m so not ready for granny panties.” I meant the mental kind that I found myself wearing in my head—the ones that were aging me and keeping me stuck and close to despairing. The writer in me perked up at the phrase and I thought, I have to do something with this.
What is your next act?
I am a blogger, author, and speaker. My blog, started in 2010, led to my book series of the same name, Not Ready for Granny Panties. I published my first book, which was actually a compilation of my newspaper columns, when I was 48, in 2007. But the first book in the series, Not Ready for Granny Panties–The 11 Commandments for Avoiding Granny Panties, came out in 2012. As I got farther along in writing the blog, and in communicating with readers, I felt a book in there somewhere. The idea of writing “commandments” to help women deal with aging in a humorous came from my daughter. It was a great idea, and it worked! The second book, The Woman’s Book of Dirty Words, was a natural outgrowth of the first. I realized that most of our challenges as women come from inside of our own heads, via our self-talk. The “dirty words” idea was another humorous way of presenting a legitimate topic. I’m also working on a third book in the series—more to come!
I have always been a believer in healing through humor. Even in our darkest times with our son, my husband and I tried to find some laughter. Often, it was gallows humor, but it helped us. Once I came up with the name, Not Ready for Granny Panties, I knew it would be a way for me to reach other women who were going through similar life changes, and provide some light at the end, or middle, of their particular tunnels. It’s been a wonderful way to forge connections with other women.
An outgrowth of the books that’s come out of the process has been the opportunity to speak to women and share an empowering, entertaining message. When you can get in front of an audience, it allows people to connect to you, and you to them, in a more intimate way.
One of the things that is most important to me is having the opportunity to speak to, for lack of a better word, “everyday” women—those of us who may not be in high powered careers, but just living “normal” lives, trying to figure out our next steps and how to remain relevant, vital, and vibrant as we age. So many women are doing great things, something we should celebrate. But those of us “in the middle” can end up feeling less-than. It’s important to me to show all women that we can continue to grow and live fulfilling, exciting lives while remaining relevant. It’s not necessarily about climbing a mountain or starting a million-dollar corporation in your 60s (if you are, you go, girl!), but finding adventure right where you are and claiming it. To borrow a phrase from Oprah, “living your best life.”
I really believe that as women, we share the same story—only the details differ. We all want the same things: love, security, happiness, and health for us and our families. Our paths may diverge, but underneath, the sentiments driving us are the same. Speaking to women directly, making them laugh and acknowledge the challenges in our lives with some lightness is one of the great joys of my life.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
The plunge was forced upon me—see perfect storm of events, above! Sometimes, even though a change is unwelcome and traumatic, it can provide opportunities, as all of the changes in my life have. I knew I wasn’t the only woman in mid-life looking for some joy while trying to find my way and remain powerful and relevant. Since writing was a natural source of communication for me, it was an obvious choice. Writers are moved to write—if not, our heads feel like they’re going to explode. Regardless of the monetary outcome, I needed to write, and I also felt it was time for me to give my real passion some time after devoting decades to my family.
As for actually taking the plunge, I had to learn to blog, become semi computer literate, and immerse myself in social media, of which I am still not a fan, though I recognize the value—unless I’m watching a cat video or looking at a picture of someone’s dinner. Enough already! But I did have to teach myself how to do everything, even designing websites, to get things going. I had no money to pay anyone to set anything up, so it was all home grown. It was a huge learning curve. Eventually, though, I taught a class in blogging, so again, I tried to make lemonade out of some of the lemons I’d been handed. I also learned about publishing and self-published two books in the series, now working on a third, and I’ve worked hard to create a brand around the Not Ready for Granny Panties mission of helping women to live joyful, vibrant lives. Whew! I’m kind of exhausted just remembering all of this….
How supportive were your family and friends?
I’m a fairly introverted and private person (no one actually believes this, but it’s true!), so I never made any pronouncements about what I was doing. I just did it and let people know after the fact. My kids and husband have always been hugely supportive, regularly talking me off a ledge or kicking me in the pants when I need it.
As for other family and friends, I still keep things somewhat close to the vest, if you will. They are all most supportive, but I tend not to talk about my work too much with them. My husband says, “You can’t be a prophet in your own land,” which I take to mean that since you have very distinct roles with close family and friends, they don’t always see you the way you want to show yourself professionally. (Read—they know all of my crazy and I’d rather keep that part of my life separate.) That said, I have an amazing group of incredibly supportive women with whom I share my struggles and thoughts. They are like-minded women whom I’ve met along my journey since I began writing I earnest. I value them tremendously.
What challenges did you encounter?
The learning curve was exhausting and frustrating. As someone who wrote strictly on a yellow legal pad for years, it was enough in my mind that I’d actually converted to using a computer. But once the Internet blasted the publishing world and I realized I had to get on that bandwagon, I also knew that I’d have to educate myself about everything in the world of blogging, writing and marketing on the internet platform or the only person who would see my work would be me. I knew nothing, and I still feel that I know only a tiny percentage of what I should, but I’m pretty proud of what I’ve managed to create from a place of total ignorance.
Other challenges included the marketing of my work as well as becoming adept and comfortable at public speaking. Generally, writers, including me, are most comfortable tapping away at their computer keys, hitting send, and calling it a day. But writing anything is only a part of what it takes to declare yourself a writer. In this environment, you also have become an avid practitioner of jumping up and down and literally or figuratively shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!” via social media and other marketing platforms. It’s shameless self-promotion, but it has to be done, and unless you’re independently wealthy and can hire an entire marketing team, you’ll end up doing most of it.
The public speaking was also a challenge. I did some acting when I was younger, so I approached it like that, but given that the words and content are my own, the stakes are somewhat higher. I always go through a Sally Field moment if people respond positively—“You like me! You really like me!”
Most difficult, though, was trying to keep moving forward given the personal life challenges I was facing at the time.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Every. Single. Day.
As if trying to basically reinvent a writing life wasn’t hard enough, the challenges we were dealing with financially and most important, with our son’s addiction issues, kept me on a constant roller coaster. Living with an addict is like living in an asylum, with the crazy person calling all the shots. It’s tremendously hard to hang onto your sanity, as well as to think that anything you’re doing matters, as many days, you’re in a situation which could result in life or death, depending on the choices your loved one makes.
Interestingly enough, though, hanging onto the Not Ready for Granny Panties blog, and then working on the books, became a lifeline to sanity for me, although it was often frustrating. But it was frustrating in a way that gave me some purpose, which was sometimes to make other women feel good even when I was under crushing stress. Eventually, when my son made the decision to get well (he is five years sober, and again, has a wonderful wife and two gorgeous kids!), I realize that I couldn’t have gotten through all of that pain without my work to mentally take me out of that dark place.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I’m a helluva lot stronger and smarter than I thought I was. With aging comes tremendous self-doubt—Am I too old to learn anything new? Will anyone care what I have to say? Am I even relevant anymore?—but I now know unequivocally that not only am I not too old, yes, people care, and I am relevant, and mid-life is rich ground for reinvention for all of us, especially if we’re willing to delve into new territory. I once looked at the Internet with resentment and fear, and now I see nothing but opportunity. Learning something new is always invigorating.
Also, as our kids grow into their own lives, it becomes more and more obvious that they are the makers of their own destinies through their choices. I’ve learned to be there for them, but to let go of any feeling that I have to “fix” stuff. I made my mistakes, and they will make theirs. It’s not my job to police their lives. And whew! Is that a relief! It’s allowed me to embrace my own dreams and give them the time they deserve.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I’d have told the negative voices in my head to “Shut up!” a lot sooner. The greatest roadblock to my doing this was always me. Or rather, the voices inside of me that spewed the “You’re not good enough” venom in my ear. I’ve always been my own worst enemy. I would have jumped into this career sooner and with more conviction.
Then again, this is all about hindsight, which we all know is 20/20. I genuinely believe that I am right here, right now, because this is where I’m meant to be. The sum total of all of my experiences has led me to this place. If I could go back and pick and choose, I might have tamped down some of the drama, and perhaps chosen a different path for my son, but even that has allowed me to reach women in ways that wouldn’t have been possible had things been different.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Scare yourself. On purpose. One of the commandments in Not Ready for Granny Panties–The 11 Commandments for Avoiding Granny Panties is “Thou Shalt Scare Thyself.” Reinvention is scary. We’re talking about recreating ourselves after defining ourselves in a certain way for decades. And as women, we avoid anything that scares us. Yet, fear can be liberating and fun. Think about roller coasters and haunted houses—the things you loved as a kid. Scaring ourselves, just a little, can be exciting and make us feel alive. Jumping into our fears leads us to new opportunities.
Take a step. Any step, in a direction to do something different. When I first started the blog, I had no vision of writing books in a series or of becoming a public speaker. Those things grew organically out of what I’d started with the blog. I was afraid each step of the way, until I became exhilarated. I’ve learned to use fear as an emotion to propel me forward instead of one that keeps me rooted in place.
What advice do you have for those interested in writing?
First, everyone has a story to tell, and the Internet makes it easy for anyone to tell their story. But we need to respect the medium and make certain that, if you want to call yourself a writer, you’re writing well. Read a lot, research the kinds of books you want to write and the authors you enjoy. But, and this is important, don’t try to be someone else. Find your voice; it’s the only one that can authentically tell your story. And take a writing class. Share your work. Get an editor—extra eyes are essential in making sure your story is well told.
Be aware of your goals in writing and speaking. We write and speak every day as humans, but just because we do it all of the time, doesn’t mean we can wing it. You need to respect your audience and recognize that their time is a gift to you, whether they are reading your work or sitting in front of you listening. Prepare, be thoughtful, and respect your audience.
You can also jump start your credibility by guest writing or posting for established writers who have blogs on the topics you’re interested in. Well-written content is always welcome on the content-hungry Internet. It’s a way to begin to establish yourself as a voice on a topic. Create a blog of your own and establish social media sites for yourself on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I can’t over-estimate the importance of social media in marketing your work, which is almost as important as writing it in the first place. That visibility will be essential in establishing you as a speaker and expert on your topic.
All of this comes round to the reality that you are creating a brand by your writing and any presence you put out there for the world to see. Make certain it’s the one you want out there.
Finally, get out from behind that computer and network! You must make people aware of who you are. Also, you can get a little squirrelly sitting behind a computer all day. You need to actually see people.
What resources do you recommend?
My absolute favorite books on writing:
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Ann LaMotte and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I re-read both regularly.
For those interested in self-publishing a book:
The Fine Print of Self-Publishing: A Primer on Contracts, Printing Costs, Royalties, Distribution, Ebooks, and Marketing by Mark Levine is a must read.
To start your own blog:
Get step by step instructions on a video like this one: Build Your Own Blog
Or try this book: WordPress To Go: How To Build A WordPress Website On Your Own Domain, From Scratch, Even If You Are A Complete Beginner.
Any book to move you towards your dream, like The Desire Map: A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul by Danielle LaPorte
For public speaking tips:
Book: Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo
Podcast: The Big Talk with Tricia Brouk. This is an innovative approach to speaking through short, impactful podcasts. Definitely worth a listen!
To build your brand through social media:
What’s next for you?
Part of the beauty of all of this is that it’s grown organically into something I hadn’t expected. I’m eager to see where all of this takes me. I hope to grow as a speaker, eventually do a TED talk, complete the third book in the Not Ready For Granny Panties series, and possibly even get into merchandising with some NRFGP items. Who knows—maybe I’ll start an underwear company for women! Great undies are so hard to find.
I think I’d like to leave you with this: Our next act is nothing short of a miraculous gift for we as women to explore our hearts and passions, after decades of putting others first. If you’ve done your job as a mother, it’s time to let your kids live their lives so you can live yours. You’ve earned it, but the only person who can give you this gift is you. Take it, with both hands, and don’t let it go!