Authors Give Tips On Surviving Economic Meltdowns

Mary Lee Gannon was living an upper class life in suburban Pittsburg. Then she filed for divorce. A few months later, she and her four children were homeless and hungry. Gannon tells her story in her new book, "Starting Over: 25 Rules When You've Bottomed Out." Writer Debra Dickerson has been telling a similar story on her blog DebraDickerson.com. As part of this summer’s reading series, the authors talk about fighting depression, looking forward and starting a new life.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, former White House doctor, Connie Mariano, tells us what's currently topping her personal playlist for our segment called In Your Ear.

But first, we continue our Life's a Beach summer reading series. During the summer, a lot of people like to dig into the latest fiction. We're no different. But this summer, we figured a lot of people are having a tough time economically, so we've been taking a look at books that help to aim that aim to help us get through those tough times, and we're talking really tough - big financial trouble, serious illness, devastating personal loss.

Today, we're visiting with two women one who has bounced back from homelessness and joblessness, and the other who is making the journey now. The first, Mary Lee Gannon, tells us she was in her mid-30s, a stay-at-home mom of four young children, married to an entrepreneur. Then she says she filed for a divorce, and within months, she said she went from resigning in the most exclusive suburb of Pittsburgh to being homeless, carless and hungry.

But she says her story is living testament that anybody can turn his or her life around. She writes about it in her new book. It's titled "Starting Over: 25 Rules When You've Bottomed Out." She joins us now from WQED in Pittsburgh.

Also joining us is the writer Debra Dickerson. She's the author of many books, including "An American Story." She was a frequent contributor of attention-getting articles for magazines like Salon.com and Mother Jones. But more recently, her work has gotten attention for another reason. Her difficult divorce has left her financially devastated and also without a permanent home of her own. She's been writing about all this on her blog: DebraDickerson.com. And she's with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. And I thank you both so much for coming in.

Ms. DEBRA DICKERSON (Writer, Blogger; Author, "An American Story"): Thank you.

Ms. MARY LEE GANNON (Author, "Starting Over: 25 Rules When You've Bottomed Out"): Thank you, happy to be here.

MARTIN: And obviously, we brought you two together because you share some difficult, similar circumstances. So first I just want to start by thanking you both for being so open about talking about these kinds of things, because this is very difficult. Mary Lee, obviously, you've started on this road. You've already, you know, told your story in your book. And if you'd just sort of set the stage for us, a lot of people have trouble believing as they do in Debra's case, because she's been writing about this, that you could go from being that well off to being that flattened.

I would like to ask you, Mary Lee, how is that you got so flattened?

Ms. GANNON: It's a very good question, Michel, and I think one a lot of people share. I was a financially dependent spouse. So I think I probably had this fairytale perspective that I would file for divorce, and the only thing I expected to come away with was my four children and someplace to live. I anticipated that I would have to work, but I didn't understand that it would avalanche on me right all at one time, and I would have to be the full-time provider and parent these four children all at one time, immediately.

MARTIN: Debra, I'm going to ask you this - and you've written on your blog about this. But I have to say, in addition to being an attention-getting writer, you're also an attorney with a degree from Harvard Law School.

Ms. DICKERSON: Irony of ironies. Yeah.

MARTIN: And as you've been writing about this, there are a lot of people who just don't see it. How is it possible?

Ms. DICKERSON: You know, well, I never practiced law, and I just knew that that would open doors for me. And it turned out I started writing while I was in law school. And I think people think you learn a lot of practical things in law school, but you don't. So it's ironic, but having a law degree didn't help me. And then we all know what the Internet has done to publishing and journalism and all that.

And then the one thing Mary Lee left out was the lawyers' fees. We spent, easily, $150,000 in lawyers' fees over the last five-and-a-half years. So if I'd had a job, I probably would've lost it. We were in court so much.

MARTIN: And I want to ask each of you this: When you say homeless, you mean -what? Mary Lee, what do you mean you were homeless? You mean...

Ms. GANNON: For me, my home that was practically paid off, sold in a sheriff sale for pennies on the dollar, and I had no place to live. I had school starting in two weeks. I was renting a car. I was down and out.

MARTIN: And, Debra, when you say homeless, what do you mean?

Ms. DICKERSON: This whole legal process is so protracted. We fought in court for longer than we were married. And it never ended. The court dates just kept going on and going on and going on. And I was so poor, I couldn't pay my landlord. You know, you use you're trying to figure out, okay, this is definitely going to be over by January.

January came, it wasn't over. February came, it wasn't over. And there was no end in sight. So I had to get out this woman's house. I was three or four months behind in the rent. So I had to go begging to my friends. And they loaned me money. I was moved into a hotel. And if friends hadn't loaned me that money, the next step was the homeless shelter. And we're living with a friend now, and she can't do that forever. So we are on the knife edge of homelessness.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about fresh starts. It's part of our Life's a Beach summer reading series. We're talking about how to face serious challenges, like serious financial problems, serious illness.

Today, we're speaking with author Mary Lee Gannon. Her new book is called "Starting Over: 25 Rules When You've Bottomed Out."

We're also speaking with author and blogger Debra Dickerson, who has been writing about her journey through some serious challenges, financial and emotional, I think it would be fair to say...

Ms. DICKERSON: Fair to say.

MARTIN: ...in her blog, DebraDickerson.com.

So Mary Lee, let's start over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What do you do first, second and third?

Ms. GANNON: You know, the very first thing that was helpful to me is I didn't look at what I wanted my life to look like tomorrow. I looked at where do I want to be in five years. And I sketched it on paper. I knew exactly where I wanted to live, what kind of a place I wanted to work in and I drew it on a little index card and I put it right above my desk.

The second most important thing that I did is I sought out mentors, and not high profile people, but people who had overcome challenges and were interested in helping me. They could see that I wasn't acting like a victim. I was progressive. I was trying as hard as I can to advance myself and we own that success and celebrated it together.

MARTIN: How did you deal with the depression? I don't know what else to call it, but the depression the stasis that sometimes comes from this...

Ms. GANNON: Yes.

MARTIN: ...how did you deal with just the emotional turmoil?

Ms. GANNON: Everybody that has gone or will go through something like this will experience the why me. And I did enough of that and I can tell you that all of the time I spent doing that left me absolutely no power over controlling my destiny.

People also will not help you when you're in that mode. It's when you take one step, one thing, just one thing that you're going to do to move you forward and that's go to a networking event, it's sit on the floor of a bookstore, if you can't afford to buy the books, sit and read them. One thing one day at a time and honestly, I really do believe that that is where your faith comes to bear. If you have any faith at all this is where you're going to rely on it because the opposite of fear is faith. Have faith in yourself. You have to see that you can get there and you have to believe it.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask one more question and then I'm going to let Debra ask a question if she's got one. I'm curious about how you both of you have children.

Ms. GANNON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And to me, this is the hardest part of the whole thing. I mean it's one thing if you're flat.

Ms. DICKERSON: Right.

MARTIN: But here you are responsible for the emotional and physical well-being of these other beings.

Ms. DICKERSON: Right.

Ms. GANNON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Right.

MARTIN: So I'd like to ask you Mary Lee, how did you manage your own situation while trying to keep your kids straight, you know.

Ms. GANNON: It was hard. Yes, it's a good question and it was very hard. What I will tell you - and that was my biggest fear Michel, through the whole thing is my kids will be scarred for life. They're going to come out of this having been on welfare and food stamps and medical assistance, lost their house in sheriff's sale, and I never had them believe that that was shameful.

We were always focused on look at what we've succeeded at. They were standing next to me in the grocery store when we were paying for food with food stamps. I never hid it like it was something to be ashamed of. This is a grateful thing that we have. And so when you think your children are going to be devastated by this, they will come out of it the way they watch you lead them out of that.

MARTIN: Debra, do you have a question or a comment or something you wanted to talk about? Or you could just tell us where you are in your journey and...

Ms. DICKERSON: Well, I'm thinking that the question you asked about the depression, the power is so taken out of your hands. And the depression that comes from that and not being able to find a job and not being able to protect your kids in ways that you think they need to be protected, the depression was the really the hardest part for me.

It is a constant battle against depression. And Mary Lee's absolutely right. If the kids see you laying on the couch drinking during the day or you're sleeping around the clock, you know, it's but at the same time, sometimes you just have to lay on the couch and say today is a pity party day and you try to do it when the kids are in school because I'm just nor super woman. And after five and a half years of this warfare, there were times when I laid on the couch and said I can't do it. But the depression, dealing with the depression and with the economy right now, I think so many people can deal with this. Let yourself feel bad for a while, but for the most part, pull your socks up, get out and do what you can do.

MARTIN: Can I ask a question, and I'll ask Mary Lee this. I want to get through in the time that we have as many of your rules as we can.

Ms. GANNON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Particularly, I want you to take from the vantage point of really starting over. I want to take the title of your book seriously. You are starting over. You are flat busted and you've got to dig in. So the first thing, you talked about visualizing the ultimate goal.

Ms. GANNON: Sure.

Ms. DICKERSON: Right. Because Mary Lee, I'm where you were 25 years ago. What do I do right now?

Ms. GANNON: Reading is very important. Read how other people have gotten themselves out of difficult situations. Read about strategic thinking. I was a sponge for knowledge and I became acutely aware of your niche in society is solving problems. So if you're going on an interview, you want to say what's the problem in this company and how can this position help solve that problem? You're a problem solver. If you can name a company's pain and you can solve that pain, you eliminate the risk in them hiring you. You want to get the red flags down and all the hands up.

MARTIN: Debra, can I get your feedback on that? How does that strike you, this idea that even in the midst of your I don't want to call it despair. In the midst of this very difficult time in your life, how does that advice sound?

Ms. DICKERSON: There have been moments of abject despair. I'm listening to this and I'm very much open to suggestion. But, so I'm applying for jobs as a media person and as a PR person and but what I want to do is make a living as a writer. I don't expect to make a fantastic, if you're not Stephen King or Sue Grafton, you have to do this because you love it. But right now, where the economy is and where the business is it's hard to make a living as a writer. So I'm listening to you and wondering, and I hear you, and I'm thinking okay, what's the index card that I pin over my laptop screen...

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, let's let her answer. Mary Lee, what about that?

Ms. DICKERSON: It's a really good question because believe it or not I was a writer. But I knew that I could not carry five people on that salary. And communications skills are very transferable skills and they transfer well to sales. And you may say I don't like sales. Okay, is there some way that you can write persuasive copy? Can you say to a corporation, you may not need a full-time writer but here I am ready to fill in the gaps wherever you need them without you having to pay me benefits and a full-time wage?

So you're trying to find the company that needs your skill that maybe doesn't need it on a full-time basis, so then you've solved some problem for a company by taking the skill that you love to perform and putting it to good use so that somebody else can make more money with that skill.

MARTIN: Debra, you have questions for Mary Lee while you're...

Ms. DICKERSON: Not yet. I haven't been able to spend enough time with the book, so I will...

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask how you feel? Do you feel you're going to make it?

Ms. DICKERSON: I have at my very lowest points, like moving into the hotel and all that, and I used to spend time just trying to figure out a way to give up, you know? But there is no way to give up that doesn't hurt my children. And it's weird, I think when you hit the real bottom, and then you kind of it's really kind of liberating.

MARTIN: Mary Lee, if we could get a final thought from you. Give us one more essential thought to take away from when you really think, you know, I can't do it. I'm at the bottom.

Ms. GANNON: I'd say look inside yourself. A lot of people will tell you passion is all you need in order to get to where you want to be. I think that's an important component. But I think there are two other really more important components and that the first one is to be fearless. And fearless is not reckless. Fearless is I will do this and I will succeed and if it doesn't I will try something else.

And the other is, how do you get there? And that is to ask questions or figure it out. Of all the people I interviewed in my book, every single one of them had those two qualities. They were fearless, not reckless, and they asked a lot of questions or they figured it out on their own. And those are two empowering things that anyone can do I think to move their life forward. That's what I did and it worked for me as well as these other people.

MARTIN: Mary Lee Gannon heads the Gannon Group. It specializes in turning around organizations. She's the author of the book "Starting Over: 25 Rules When You've Bottomed Out." And she joined us from WQED in Pittsburg.

Also with us is Debra Dickerson. She maintains her blog DebraDickerson.com. She's the author of "An American Story" and "The End of Blackness," and she's working on her third book currently, and she joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Ms. DICKERSON: Thank you.

Ms. GANNON: Thank you. Michel.

MARTIN: And good luck to you both.

Ms. GANNON: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you want to read previous conversations in our summer reading series, please go to our website, just go to the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.

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