Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Learning to Follow a Passion

I wasn't supposed to be a writer. I was supposed to be a scientist. That was the occupation my parents and extended family members had agreed upon for me from about 3rd grade on. They took a long, practical and rather somber look at what I good at in school (science and math = yes, sports of any kind = no) and immediately started suggesting a career path that would lead to my becoming their favorite kind of scientist: a doctor.

Thankfully, they were somewhat flexible on this. When I turned out to be squimish about things like blood...and needles...and medical procedures of all varieties, they were just fine with me channeling my academic efforts toward the bloodless sciences of geology, physics, astronomy or botany. My father, as I recall, was especially keen on the idea of pharmacy as my future occupation for a time, and I had to admit I was initially taken with the notion of grinding up tablets with a mortar and pestle and mixing chemicals every day like some kind of mad scientist -- never mind that most pharmacists don't actually do a lot of that. (I was geeky enough in the '80s to think the white lab coats were pretty cool from a fashion standpoint, too.) There were tons of possibilities, almost all of which would have made my parents happy.

But, see, I had a secret.

Although I really liked and respected the sciences, I loved the arts. All of the arts. Passionately and with my whole geeky heart. I did not dream of becoming Gen X's answer to Marie Curie. I dreamed of becoming Pat Benatar. I wanted to sing, write poetry and lyrics, play my electronic piano, be in a stageplay or two, paint huge canvases with watercolors and oils, and dance, dance, dance -- tap numbers and jitterbug and the occasional samba. (Don't laugh, Latin styles are fun.) More than anything, I wanted to do something artsy and creative every single day. Something that had meaning for me. Something where I could try to make sense of this crazy little thing called life.

But making a career in the arts requires more than dreams or hopes or passions...it also requires courage, and I didn't have a lot of that at 16 or even at 26. Part way through college, I changed majors from biochemistry to teaching -- working with 2nd and 3rd graders would be both creative and meaningful, IMO -- but I knew there was still an important element missing for me.

After eight years, when I was expecting my son, I took a leave of absence from the school district. I'd already gotten a master's degree in educational psychology (where I'd spent my grad years studying other people's creative efforts...), and I'd been working on adding an art certification so I could teach that subject, too. But a very strange thing happened during my time away. The courage that had elluded me for decades on my own was present in full force -- possibly doubled, even tripled -- when I held this new little being. I felt overpoweringly protective of him. Conscious of my need to do for him what I never would have done just for myself: To be the daily example of someone who put aside her fears long enough to follow her true passions.

I knew how easy it was for parents to get caught up in having their children fulfill their dreams for them. I'd seen it. Lived it. Didn't want to make the mistake of pressuring my kid into becoming a painter or a writer or a musician (if, say, he was wild about the sciences and dreamed of being a doctor instead...) just because I'd wanted those arts opportunities and had been too afraid to take them.

So, I started by writing poetry, articles and essays and sending them in to magazines. Some of them -- to my shock and delight -- even got accepted and published. I wrote my first women's fiction manuscript by hand on lined paper when my son and husband slept, having never read at that time so much as a single book on the craft of writing fiction (yeah, it showed), but then I wrote a second, third and fourth manuscript with the tremendous support and advice of Chicago-North RWA and my family behind me. And when I wrote the fifth one, According to Jane, I not only got an agent for my efforts, but that book went on to win the Golden Heart Award for "Best Mainstream Novel with Strong Romantic Elements," sold to Kensington and was released in October 2009.

Since then, I've sold two more novels. Friday Mornings at Nine, just came out three months ago and was chosen as a Doubleday Book Club and Book-of-the-Month Club featured alternate selection. And my third book, A Summer of Europe, will be out this year in late November.

Beyond that, though, I don't know.

I'm working on a fourth and a fifth novel -- and I'd love to sell them, of course -- but I'm taking it one story at a time. The writer's path is an interesting one and I'm curious to see where it leads. As for my son, he's now 12 and really fond of stargazing, coin collecting, Blackhawks hockey games, playing clarinet and his Nintendo Dsi. I have no idea what this motley assortment of passions might mean for him career-wise or what skills he's building toward exactly. (He swears his videogame playing is educational -- LOL.) But that's for him to decide, not me.

What I'm proud of most is knowing he's been a firsthand witness to my writing journey for as long as he can remember, and that he's come to understand that following a dream takes thousands of hours of time, a relentless work ethic and enormous levels of courage. I'm so glad I was able to give him the gift of this insight. It was very hard won. And for all those writers out there -- both published and aspiring -- putting endless hours of work into drafting, revising and submitting your stories, without knowing what the outcome will be and wondering constantly if it's all worth it...stay the course if you can. Because, yes, I think it is.

Question: Did you always know what your career would be? If not, what were some of the occupations you considered on the path to where you are now? Any career you still hope to try? (I'm still working on that Pat Benatar thing. ;) I'll give away one signed copy of Friday Mornings at Nine to one commenter -- I'll draw on Friday morning (not a coincidence!) and post the winner's name in the comment section. xo Marilyn


  1. I read and LOVED Friday Mornings at Nine! I am so glad you pursued writing--I'm sure you would have been great at grinding tablets--but then we'd never have the worlds you create in your books for our reading pleasure. I can't wait for A Summer In Europe! Very inspiring post.

  2. Great post, Marilyn. I especially related to the last paragraph. If nothing else, I hope my kids see that perseverance pays off! Looking foward to your new release!

  3. Lovely post, Ms. Marilyn! So happy you found your niche and didn't turn into a scientist (although there's nothing at all wrong with that!). Funny because I always hated math and science and loved words, so I knew I'd do something with them. Initially, I thought I'd be a lawyer or a teacher! Somehow, my guts over-rode everything else (like, my dad pressing me to be a business-woman, good IBMer that he always was!). Looking forward to A SUMMER IN EUROPE (hey, as it turns out, we'll have new books out at the same time! Must get you back to St. Louis!). :-)

  4. Beautiful post. I didn't always know what I wanted to be--it kept changing. I knew I wanted to be a mother and I wanted to be creative. I wrote stories for fun but never expected to do anything with them, at least not the creative ones (I did major in Broadcast Journalism and had to write news stories often but those don't count lol). Now I'm a homeschooling Mama working on her second novel and loving it! Thanks for the inspiration to make sure I continue to let my children find who they are, not what we want them to be. Blessings

  5. Oh, Marilyn, I LOVE this . . . and what an incredible model you've been for your son. I felt the same way about demonstrating to my sons that dreams are worth pursuing and hard work has value. When I wrote the first draft of my book, my sons were 12 and 14. When it was published, they were 18 and 20. And I loved that they didn't want one of my free copies. As my older son told me, they wanted to walk into the bookstore (with all their friends) and buy their own copies. Can't wait for A SUMMER IN EUROPE!

  6. The career I still want to try? Mayor of Danbury!

  7. What a touching story. Your son is lucky to have you as a mom.

  8. Marilyn, your post brought a couple of tears to my eyes. First with laughter at the thought of a white lab coat being considered fashionable, but being a teenager in the 80s myself, I'm sure we can agree we didn't know a lot about fashion (our music still rocks, though). And secondly, with your words about your son. I have been working on my first manuscript for almost three years and the lessons I've learned and those learned by my children are priceless, truly life-changing ones. I'm so glad you chose to dream...and dream big. Wishing you continued success!

  9. You're the 2nd scientist-cum-author I've "met" and I thank you for your story.... you give the rest of us working on our "actual" dream (instead of the one thrust upon us) irl hope. :) Warm regards!

  10. Yes, the path. We never know quite where it will turn..and what doors will open. And that's part of the joy. You are such an inspiration!

  11. Good morning, everyone! It's pouring down snow here today (I know, I know, it's January in Chicago, what did I expect?!) and that son of mine has managed to come down with a bad cold, so he's at home being uncharacteristically disagreeable. Clearly, we are off to sparkling Tuesday -- LOL.

    Cindy, thank you ;). I'm so glad you like Friday Mornings! You know how much I'm looking forward to your wonderful Austen-esque debut this spring!!

    Thanks so much, Laura -- and, yes, perseverence is such a huge part of this industry -- both in making that initial sale and staying published! (Sigh. I wish it weren't so difficult...)

    Susan, I LOVE how your guts overrode everything else!!! All the more reason why I wished I'd have known you years ago -- you would have inspired me then, but you still inspire me so much now ;). And, yes, we will *definitely* have to celebrate those releases!!

    Rachel, I have a few friends who've homeschooled their children and I've seen firsthand what a challenging job it was but, also, what amazing things it did for their kids. Hats off to you for doing this for your family and for writing fiction, too!

    Oh, Judy, that's so touching that your sons did that!! It shows how incredibly proud they were of you... And, btw, I got ALL THE NUMBERS last month and am only waiting for some free time to final get to read it!!

    LOL, Lauren!!! I think you'd make a wonderful mayor :).

  12. Karin, thank you -- although he's rather annoyed with me right now ;). If someone is not too sick to play Nintendo for an hour, that same someone should not be too sick to read for just as long, right?

    Jill, wait -- are you saying legwarmers and ginormous hairbows aren't fashionable?! Hmm, reviewing wardrobe... (Many scenes in my debut book took place during the '80s, so I had fun referencing all of our 'totally awesome' music. ;) I wish you the very best as you continue to write -- I don't think there's any step as big as just committing to keep working at it -- and I look forward to getting to see that book of yours on the shelves someday soon!

    Brenda, thank you so much ;).

    Shannon, if I helped a little, I'm so glad... Some lucky people are so sure of who they are, even as preschoolers (!!), and they know what they want but, for the rest of us, it can take time to be confident about our path -- whatever it may be. I wish you all the best as you work on that "actual" dream!

    Hank, thank you {{hug!}} for saying that and, also, for always being so generous and supportive of other authors. I really appreciate you :).

  13. Beautiful post:) I would love to be a writer.

  14. Terrific post, Marilyn! I'm glad you decided to write.

    I didn't know my career, but I've always loved books and when I decided to write fiction, it felt as if a missing piece of the puzzle that's me clicked into place.

    I have both your books, so don't include me in the giveaway. And it's snowing by us! It's pretty but I hope it stops soon.

  15. You have such passion, Marilyn! It comes through in everything that you write, and it's fantastic that you are following the path that gives you so much joy in life! It's admirable! I'm sure you are an inspiration to your son (and other people in your life) to go in the direction that really lets them express their true selves! Kudos (covered in chocolate) to you! :)

  16. Great post, Marilyn! I thought I'd be an attorney and then run for office...even interned in DC while in college. But that writing thing...it too started early...2nd grade and just never ever left. The writing was alway there waiting for me to find the courage to just do it!

  17. Hi, Marilyn! I wanted to say "Hello", and let you know how much I enjoyed your post. You are a thoughtful, respectful person who shows her love of family. You've set a great example for your son : ) Like you, I made excellent grades, and that led to the expectation that I would "make something of myself". I skipped the second grade, and I was always the youngest person in my class. My family thought that I would be a teacher or a nurse. I sort of fooled around with the idea of studying library science. However, I've always been a dreamer, and my childhood dream was to be a movie star : ) These days, only my cats think of me as a star, and that is only when I am operating the can opener! Still dreamin' though ; )

  18. Thank you, Sarah!! I wish you well with that dream ;).

    Edie, I love the way you phrased it: "a missing piece of the puzzle that's me clicked into place." Lovely! As for the snow -- I share your desire for it to END!!

    Brett, any kudos from you (with or without the chocolate :) are always so appreciated! Thank you so much, my friend.

    Maggie, I'm always in awe of people who have strong leadership skills and the vision to want to make the world a better place. I bet you channeled some of those talents into your writing, too ;).

    Hi, Virginia, it's great to see you here! And *grin* about that movie-star dream -- you know I can relate!! (Never mind that I have terrible stagefright and curl into a ball of anxiety before any kind of a performance. :) I imagine your cats think you're the best no matter what!! Plus, I know from reading your recipes that you're a fabulous cook -- definitely the star of the kitchen!!

  19. Definitely have to go story-by-story. I'm using you as my inspiration to not leave Austen but expand into other genres as well.

  20. I'm 29 and I STILL don't know what I want to be when I "grow up". I drive a school bus right now so that I can stay home with my three boys, so I guess I am doing what I've always wanted to do: being a mom. (Even when they drive me crazy, I'm pretty sure that's what I want to be).

    As for the future, I would love to write or work with books someday, I'm just working on those pesky details ;)

  21. Although you would have made a perfectly lovely doctor or pharmacist, I'm glad (and the rest of your fans as well) that you followed your dreams to become a writer!

  22. a wonderful posting...thanks for the chance to read your masterpiece...

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

  23. Marilyn, very nicely said. One story at a time - a lot like one day at a time, isn't it? Some days I can't see past the dishes in the sink! I'd hate to think of where we'd be if arts went away! *standing O for artists, everywhere*

  24. Lovely post! I always knew I wanted to be a writer (though I briefly flirted with becoming a lawyer, mostly because the female lawyers got such great clothes on "LA Law"). Sounds like you have the perfect job for you - and a pretty great son, too.

  25. Susan, I think an Austen sensibility manages to worm its way into everything we write ;-). I look forward to reading all of your books -- whether they're directly inspired by Jane or just a little bit so!

    LOL, Jonita -- boy, do I know that feeling!! If it helps, I'll tell you that I was 3 years older than you before I even started my first (really dreadful :) manuscript so, IMO, you've got time!

    Maria, you're so kind to think I wouldn't have been a Very Scary Doctor ;). I'm afraid I would've been shrieking louder than most of the patients every time someone needed a shot or stitches... xo

    Karen, thank you very much!!

    Malena, definitely like "one day at a time"... With every new manuscript, I feel as though I'm battling the fear all over again. And I'll join you in that standing O!

    Sarah, thank you. I wish I knew enough about fashion to pull a few great outfits together like those "LA Law" ladies! For me, one of the great draws of our occupation is that I can get away with living in sweats most of the time ;).

  26. Melissa Keller (mkeller5236@charter.net)January 12, 2011 at 10:25 AM

    Sometimes your true calling takes an odd path to get to doesn't it?! Your son is lucky to have such a positive roll model in his presence and I am sure that no matter what road he takes in his own future, you will be right there behind him all the way.

    At 44, I work as an office administrator a far call from the idea of being a psychiatrist which I had started with back in college. Now that my daughter is now an adult (20) maybe I will find the time to go and pursue a dream that I had left unfinished. It's nice reading other stories of women who have succeeded in areas they never expected to be dabbling in.

  27. I was always open to where my career would take me. When I was younger I was more ruled by ambition but now I realize it is better to be happy rather than stressed at your job.

  28. I have heard a lot of wonderful things about these books and I look forward to reading them.

  29. Melissa, thank you so much. And all the best to you as you pursue your own unfinished dream. The twisty path to get there makes the journey a whole lot more interesting ;).

    PoCoKat, wise words! I'm aware that what I'm doing now is actually (for me) far more stressful than my old teaching job -- which I'd considered to be quite a lot of work, too! But, as chaotic and overwhelming as writing can be sometimes, there's a lot of joy in it, too. So, yes, in the end the happiness definitely trumps the stress.

    BRN2SHOP9~I am so glad you've heard good things! I truly hope you'll find the stories enjoyable, too... :)

  30. I always wanted to be a veterinarian. I am a SAHM. LOL!!! I love my job :)
    Thanks for the great giveaway!

    mrsjohnson1982 at yahoo dot com

  31. missreneer~I so loved being a SAHM, too ;). As for being a vet, what a great profession that is, too! The vets who helped us when my son's pet was sick were just amazing and compassionate people...

  32. Hey Marilyn

    I always thought you were going to be a french major !!! Being a childrens librarian is what my dream would be. Always thought it would be fun - but wouldn't want to deal with the burecratic stuff or disipline of the kids. I also am glad that you choose writing over being a doctor, though you would have had a wonderful bedside manner. Keep up the writing we know that your 4th and 5th book will be picked up and published. But most importantly keep having fun doing it.

  33. LOL, Erika!! I can just imagine "Madame" Liefke's horror if I had tried to major in French. I did well enough on the written work but, oh, the actual speaking... ;)

    You're wonderful with kids and I know you love reading -- I could easily see you as a children's librarian. But, yeah, there can be annoying administrative issues at play in both school districts and public libraries. That can lessen the fun.

    Thanks so much for the vote of confidence on books 4 and 5 (I *really* hope you're right ;) and for taking time to visit me here. We need to talk again soon! xo

  34. Hi, everyone!

    It's Friday morning here (more like 10:30 than 9:00, though ;), and I just did the random.org drawing. The winner of the book is: Jill Thomas -- congrats!! Please email me (marilynbrant AT gmail DOT com) with your address and I'll get the book in the mail to you within a week.

    Thanks so much to ALL of you for visiting me and leaving comments. I loved reading them!