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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Freelance Success Story

From WritersWeekly.com, July 6, 2000

On May 29, 1993, I returned to my Potomac, Maryland home from my retirement party at HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). The next day I would turn sixty-five. When the euphoria of the party wore off, I became dejected. I realized that everything that I'd worked for my entire life--from elementary school to high school to college to law school to thirty-six years of work experience--was over.

During my career, I had served as the first woman attorney in the General Counsel's Office at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and as the highest-paid woman executive at the headquarters of two multinational corporations: GTE in Stamford, Connecticut, and TRW in Cleveland, Ohio. I was also a founder of the Second Wave of the women's movement, having been a founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL), and Federally Employed Women (FEW). Now all that was behind me.

At work, I had had a structured environment: I left my house each morning by car and metro; worked from 8:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.; frequently met friends for lunch and dinner, followed by a movie, lecture, concert, or theater performance. What would I put in place of all those activities now?

Then I remembered that I had a plan for my after-retirement life. If accepted, I planned to work as a volunteer mediator in the D.C. Superior Court mediation program, one of the best such programs in the nation. I had always heard that one should plan for retirement while one was still working and I had done just that.

Now that I was retired, I had time to go to the orientation and training sessions the mediation program required. I applied to the program and made the first cut: I was asked to attend the orientation session. I had opted for Domestic Relations work. My daughter and friends told me that I might find Domestic Relations distasteful, but I pooh-poohed their warnings. What could be more interesting than Domestic Relations?

I enjoyed the first few hours of the orientation, which consisted of a general overview of the program and a film. Then, I was assigned to participate in a mock arbitration between a husband and wife who were fighting over custody of their children. The tension and hostility between the couple were palpable and the session got increasingly ugly. Husband and wife were screaming at each other. I was in the midst of it all. All I wanted to do was leave the room and return to my peaceful home. At the end of the day, that's just what I did. I went home and wrote the Superior Court asking them to remove my name from the list of prospective mediators.

What to do next? The problem was I had almost limitless options. Did I want to travel? To take college courses? To work as a volunteer? To move to another location? To find part-time or full-time employment? I had enough money to see me through just about anything I wanted to do, within reason. But what did I want to do?

There followed a year of total confusion and a series of trial-and-error experiences, none of which worked out. I spent several months training to be a volunteer with the Smithsonian Institution and even worked at the Museum of Natural History for several weeks. Then, I quit when I didn't feel like going to work one day during a snowstorm. I tried finding part-time employment and full-time employment: I answered help-wanted ads, attended Job Fairs for seniors, and contacted employment agencies in both the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, areas. I did not receive a single job offer.

I became depressed and began seeing a therapist regularly. It appeared that my life was over.

I did take a volunteer position on a one-day-a-week basis with the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission, doing on the county level without pay what I had done on the federal level with pay.

While I was working at the Montgomery Commission, I began to think about commemorating the historic role I'd played in the women's movement. But I didn't want to devote the time needed to pour through all my papers and write a lengthy tome. I wanted the book written, but I didn't want to write it, at least not alone.

So, I embarked on a search for a writer to work with me. I spent a year in libraries, talking to friends, writing to publishers and writers' organizations, and meeting with writers. What I learned was that a writer would work with a non-celebrity only upon the payment of thousands of dollars. I was loath to invest that kind of money in a project that might never result in publication.

A friend suggested I go to the library of the Foundation Center, a nonprofit organization that focuses on foundations, in Washington, D.C., to research information on grants. There I could learn how to apply for a grant, which I could then use to pay a writer.

When I contemplated going to the Foundation Center, I knew I had come to the end of the road. I had tried to get a book written for a year, with no success. I decided that if my trip to the Foundation Center didn't produce results, I would give up the idea of writing a book. So before I left for the Center, I spoke to God, something I rarely do. "God," I said, "if you want this book written, you'll have to make it happen. I've done all I can do."

At the Center, I found that applying for grants was a world of its own. It was, of course, a world one could learn about through attending seminars and reading the literature. But I was not prepared to spend the time needed to familiarize myself with this field.

Mixed in among the brochures on grant seeking were a résumé and business card from a woman named Sara Fisher. She described herself as "Writer, Editor, Proofreader." Although her résumé indicated that her specialty was fiction, I decided to call her. This was, after all, going to be the end of my efforts. We agreed to meet for coffee at Zorba's Café in Dupont Circle.

At coffee, Sara and I exchanged biographical information. She had been raised as a Catholic and was, on a part-time basis, serving as the managing editor of the publication of the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association. Her other part-time activities included writing fiction and book reviews, editing, teaching freshman composition at the Northern Virginia Community College, and serving as a tour guide in Washington, DC.

"It's obvious, we have nothing in common," I said, after hearing this. She ignored my comment and continued the conversation. After we chatted some more, she said something that changed my life. "That's not the book you want to write," she said, speaking about my efforts to write a history of my involvement in women's rights. "You want to write a book of humorous stories about your parents, the kind of stories you've been telling me. And you want to write it yourself. I'll help you with the editing."

Her words reached me, and I decided to follow her advice. After all, I'd always wanted to be a writer. I just hadn't wanted to write. I left the Montgomery Commission and embarked upon the writing of my memoirs. I would include both my activities in the women's rights movement and stories about my parents' lives and my own. Many of these stories I'd been telling and writing all my life; I simply had never put them together before nor made a serious effort at getting them published.

While this was going on, I took a vacation to Sarasota, Florida. Ever since childhood, I'd been spending time during the winter months in Miami Beach. I'd even attended law school at the University of Miami. But I had never liked Miami Beach and during the winter of 1993-94, I determined never to stay there again. I did, however, want to avoid the snow and ice of Washington's winters. What to do? A friend who'd moved to Sarasota had been urging me for years to visit the city. In the winter of 1994-95, I signed up for a week at an Elderhostel in the Sarasota area and rented an apartment there for five more weeks.

I fell in love with Sarasota at first sight. It is a small town with big city amenities--and it is a cultural center. It has a symphony orchestra, an art movie theater, other movie theaters, opera, and lectures and restaurants galore. I rented an apartment there for every winter from then on and created a second life for myself, with a new environment, new friends, and new activities.

I spent the next 5½ years learning my new craft and researching and writing my book, both in Potomac and Sarasota. I joined the International Women's Writing Guild (IWWG), the National Writers Union (NWU), and local writers' groups in both the Potomac and Sarasota areas. I subscribed to the Writer's Digest and read books on writing. I took a course on writing a book at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and attended a two-week Elderhostel memoirs writing program at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. I hired a lawyer who specialized in literary matters to review my book for possible invasion of privacy and libel issues.

Fortunately, I did not know when I started what an all-consuming endeavor writing, publishing, and marketing my book and excerpts from it would be. At the same time that I was doing research, writing, and learning my craft, I was constantly marketing my book--writing to magazine, e-zine, and book publishers and literary agents. Once I had a sizeable number of stories, I began to contact libraries, colleges and universities, bookstores and book festivals, and women's and Jewish organizations to set up speaking engagements and memoirs readings.

All that began six years ago. Since that time, I have purchased a condo in Sarasota, Florida, and completed my memoirs, which I called Eat First--You Don't Know What They'll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter. The book was published November 24, 1999, and the results have exceeded my wildest expectations.

I have received accolades and recognition for the work of a lifetime that had previously gone unnoticed except by feminists and a few friends. Excerpts from my memoirs have been published in newspapers, journals, and magazines in the U.S., Canada, and South Africa; many are running online. A university teacher, learning of my work, offered to create and maintain a website about me. Click Here

In October 1999, at a gala reception and dinner-dance at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., I was given the Women at Work Award by Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW). WOW is a Washington, D.C.-based nationwide organization that works with lower-economic women to help them achieve economic self-sufficiency. Prior awardees include Katie Couric, Jane Fonda, Linda Ellerbee, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On March 21, 2000, I was one of five women inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame for the year 2000 at a ceremony in Annapolis, Maryland, with the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and the First Lady of the state, followed by a reception in the Governor's Mansion. On April 11, I traveled to my alma mater, Cornell University, fifty years from the date of my graduation, to address two classes, one of which was using Eat First as a textbook. Next semester, Eat First will be used as a textbook at the University of California, Davis, and it will shortly be published in the U.K. by Planetree Publishing Ltd.

At the age of seventy-two, I am in constant demand for speaking engagements and memoirs readings at colleges and universities, book stores, libraries, genealogy societies, and Jewish and women's organizations. This past April, I did a memoirs reading at the National Archives. My cup runneth over.

Nothing I planned for my retirement worked out. When I gave up and opened myself up to new experiences, I entered the richest phase of my life.

©2000 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes