If truth is stranger than fiction then Janee Pennington, two-time breast cancer survivor and 20-year-veteran-of-the-hospitality-industry-turned-author, should certainly know. Pennington has scribed a funny, fast-paced fictional novel, Meeting Eve, loosely based on her own experiences as a sleep-deprived international event planner, juggling crazy client demands and friends in crisis, all the while trying to figure out her own future. While the fictional Eve might entertain and distract you from the day-to-day drudge, the real-life Janee will inspire you to do what you love, follow your dreams, and live passionately.
“There are so many people working for the sake of the salary but they don’t love what they do. I hear all the time, ‘I don’t know what I should be doing’ but I encourage them, ‘You do know what you should be doing, you just need to dig deep in order to find what it is.’ Writing proved to be the prescription that kept me moving forward and excited to wake up each morning,” she says.
Pennington grew up east of Los Angeles and was on track to study business in Pasadena when her father became ill with heart failure. Knowing he would not pull through, he told her she would have to take care of her mother, brother, and sister. So when he died, the 19-year-old did just that, her part-time business became full-time work: a “surrogate wife” service, picking up kids from activities and school, cooking meals, cleaning, planning parties, and even doing a little home decor.
At 23, Pennington was recruited as a service manager by California Leisure Consultants, a destination management company in Southern California, working with meeting planners to organize events in the Los Angeles area. In less than two years she became director of sales and marketing. Pennington stayed with the firm for a further five years. She then moved to Seattle with her fiancé in the early 90s.
Rather than returning to California when the relationship collapsed, the 30-year old decided to open her own meeting and event-planning business in the Emerald City. “I boarded with a friend for a while, lived off peanut butter and rice, did some temp work to keep the bills paid, and managed a few events for a local builder. I saved every penny I could and racked up about $40K on my credit card before I started to see some payback.”
She snagged a lucrative New-York-based client with whom she had worked in the past and thanks to her reputation was soon attracting corporate clients, organizing CEO events around the globe from her base in Seattle. By her mid-30s, Pennington’s business was booming. “I was on the road constantly. It was a brutal work schedule. Highly demanding clients combined with lack of sleep and my inability to say ‘no’ was not a good mix. That was my life day-in-day-out.”
But then Pennington’s health started to take a hit as she neared 40. Suffering from borderline Addison’s disease, which is characterized by chronically low energy levels, she started to fall apart physically, “I was completely and utterly exhausted. My doctor told me my adrenal glands were shot and if I wanted to recover, I would have to shutter my business immediately and take a year off. That was scary!” she laughs, with little irony.
So Pennington found herself at a crossroads but with little choice over which path she should take. “I didn’t fully heed my doctor’s advice but definitely slowed the pace a bit, still consulting but cutting out the road trips. I kept hearing my father’s voice telling me I had to keep going. Even though I was financially fine, I was unfortunately just not able to stop working completely.”
But enough time was freed up that there was more room to think about that book – the book that has been writing itself in her head the past couple of years but for which she never had time. “So many friends had loved hearing my crazy work-related stories. You’d understand why I got so exhausted … always having to top my last event, being given short lead times for epic blow-out parties in foreign destinations with guest lists topping out sometimes in the thousands. Working with eccentric personalities and having to deal with bizarre requests. My mother, who was living with me by then, was a particular fan and always encouraged me to put pen to paper and turn my adventures into a novel.”
With her events management business reduced to consulting, Pennington decided to throw herself into her novel but didn’t know where to begin. “I had to think of it this way, the many proposals I had created over the years were merely short stories which I made come alive. I needed to take on this massive task of writing one chapter at a time.” She also got married. It was all going well for some years as she dabbled in some real estate ventures until, once again, her health got in the way of her ambitions and happiness.
“After I started to feel so much better, so healthy, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. They gave me four months to live if I didn’t have surgery. I wanted to take the most natural route possible but that was not meant to be so I had the tumor removed. I thought I was in the clear afterwards but it turned out I was allergic to the radiation and had to undergo chemo. Within nine months, the tumor reappeared and I underwent a double mastectomy. It was a three-year ordeal.”
It’s been five years since the procedure and so far, so good. The 52-year-old Pennington exercises a lot, juices, eats well and is a firm believer in having a positive attitude. In fact, while writing her book and suffering from cancer, she gave (and still gives) passion talks. “Like with events, I am making people happy. I love to help others find their happiness, their ‘a-ha’ moment. People come to me by word of mouth. I don’t charge for it, it’s just something I like to do.”
The first novel in Pennington’s planned trilogy, Meeting Eve, was published in December last year. “I was in a state of fear when I got a diagnosis. Eve was my inspiration. Writing the book gave me a reason to get up in the morning. Her adventures are loosely based on mine but she is not me. If you had told me seven years ago I would be working on my second book, I would have thought you were crazy. I didn’t even know how to write but I worked with a writing coach and have a great editor,” she explains.
In addition to working on a sequel to Meeting Eve, Pennington, together with her husband, is an executive director of two films: Chlorine, a short psychological thriller, and a documentary on Karen Thorndike, a 56-year-old woman who sailed the world solo over three years. “It’s funny how I ended up getting involved in all these great projects. In an effort to lift my spirits while I was sick, my husband took me to the set of one of my favorite television series, Drop Dead Diva, where I met a young man working on the production team. He called me afterwards and asked if I would be interested in working on Chlorine with him. I jumped at the opportunity and in the end we had a great time, getting involved in the whole production process.”
Unlike the character from her book who struggles to come to terms with a personal life in shambles, Janee embraces her inner voice, the one begging her for a different life, a life outside work, and has found happiness in the slower paced life of an author, something that most definitely has contributed to her improved health and positive attitude: “I want to encourage everyone going through a tough patch to plough ahead; I hope you glean something from my story that lets you smile, brings you laughter and warms your heart.”
- Find your passion even if you need to work with someone in order to discover it. Learn as much as you can so you can be the best at what you do. This way you are doing what you love and it won’t feel like work.
- If I had only known then what I know now… I would have taken more deep breaths and found more balance.
- Communicate – So many misunderstandings and bad feelings can all be solved by the power of the verbal word.
- Be positive and surround yourself with like-minded people.