But I hoped it would be helpful to share this with you all now because these experiences we have as writers are cyclical, and certain themes and situations emerge again and again. And, recently, I found myself thinking about one theme in particular as I was chatting with an aspiring writer friend -- someone I care about and hope will finish her first manuscript. We were talking about the difference in verb tense between wanting to do something and wanting to have done something.
For instance, I’m not much of a runner these days. (Read: Only when I go out to the mailbox and it’s raining. Not sprinkling, but seriously downpouring.) I was sort of into it at one time, though. Pre-motherhood. For about a year, I actually ran for 3 – 5 miles a few times per week. Even got up to 7 miles on a handful of occasions. So, I’d experienced enough of the sensation of lean, stretching muscles — toned by high-cardio exertion — and fully oxygenated lungs working to capacity, etc., to understand the concept of a long-distance race and to even imagine myself running one.
My brother, however, wasn’t just imagining it. He ran scores of races, including the Chicago Marathon** three times. It was so inspiring to watch him in action and hear his stories about these events. For one thing, he finished fast. He's not a professional athlete either, or any kind of a personal trainer. (He's a math/stats guy.) Even so, in his first year of racing in Chicago, he came in 599th place out of 31,200 finishers and about 45,000 total runners — so in the top 1.5%! I had, right before my eyes and in my very own family, a model for real running success. Furthermore, my brother is an incredibly cool dude, and he openly, enthusiastically told me all the things he did to train and prepare for the big event.
And THAT — my friends — put a dramatic end to my racing fantasies!
Turns out, I didn’t want to run a long-distance race. I wanted to have run one. I wanted the end game only — the podium, the handshakes, even the Gatorade. (I like the grape flavor.) I did not want to wake up at 4:45 (A.M.!!!) to go to the gym for strength training every day before work. I did not want to limit my chocolate intake in any way or learn how to regulate my diet for “ideal athletic performance.” (Huh?!) And I really did not want to run outside in all types of nasty weather conditions — rain! snow! heat! — for mile after mile, month after month, just so I could get ready for that grueling course. No way! I wanted to run for fun — short distances and at a leisurely pace (with my iPod blasting Bon Jovi), amusing myself with daydreams about first-place ribbons and Olympic gold. That’s the unvarnished truth.
Any of you ever have a fantasy like that? To win “American Idol,” for instance, or to be an Academy Award nominee or a jujitsu black belt or a star figure skater? I’ve imagined all of these at some point or other... I was willing to do exactly zero work for any of them, but they provided some entertaining daydreams, LOL. Writing a novel, however, was — quite literally — a different story.
So, for example, when somebody strolls into a bookstore, scans the shelves and dreamily says to the person next to them (i.e., me), “I always wanted to write a book,” I have to wonder if their desire is like my idea of being a long-distance runner — a totally fun fantasy — or if it’s like my brother’s idea of being a long-distance runner — years of work, dedication and sometimes pain.
And I’ve found myself more than once kindly and gently trying to explain to that person the difference between wanting to write a book and wanting to have written one. I’ll ask them many of the same questions I've had to ask myself:
Does the prospect of getting up early every morning and/or staying up late every night to work for hours on a manuscript fill you with an unusual sense of excitement?
Will you draft, revise and persist no matter what the weather is like, how you’re feeling (tired, sick, unmotivated), the number of rejections you get or what’s on TV that night?
Do you enjoy studying the necessary aspects of the writing craft, the ever-changing publishing industry and the market to improve your skills and understanding as a novelist?
And are you already doing this — if not every single day — on most days, whether or not you have any guarantee of success or fame or fortune in the end?
Whether the other person’s answer to each question is a yes or a no, I’m happy for them. Self knowledge is power! But I know from both my experience at the track and my experience in front of the computer screen that, oh, yeah, the difference in verb tense is a BIG one. And, at a certain point, one of the marks of adulthood is being able to be honest with yourself about when you’re willing to pursue a passion with all the time, energy and effort it requires vs. when you’re not. That a particular fantasy may be delightful (and fantasies should be!), but be sure to recognize it for what it is.
As for those activities that you are willing to do all the necessary hard work to pursue — please give yourself some extra kudos for the uniqueness of that commitment. Because it’s rare and it should be honored.
Marilyn Brant is the national bestselling author of seven novels, including A Summer in Europe (women's fiction) and Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match (romantic comedy). She lives in the northern Chicago suburbs with her family where she walks a lot.
**Thoughts and prayers to the people of Boston and to everyone affected by the explosions at the Boston Marathon yesterday. Couldn't believe this happened...sigh.