Tuesday, April 16, 2013

To Write vs. To Have Written

by Marilyn Brant

Last week, as I was getting ready to write this blog for today, I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room, making a few notes on scratch paper about what I really wanted to say. After jotting down 4 or 5 sentences, it occurred to me that I'd actually already written the post I wanted to write, LOL...I just had to find it. Which I did. (A modified version of these thoughts appeared on Magical Musings about 2 years ago.)

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.

I loved the mental image of it. I could so easily picture myself having crossed the finish line, striding — exhausted, but proud — to the winner’s podium (Gatorade bottle in hand) to get a medal, a certificate or even just a few congratulatory handshakes.

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?

Would you rearrange your hobbies, your work hours, your free time, or whatever you need to do, to accommodate the writing whenever possible?

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.


  1. Hey Marilyn! Love this!! I used to always tell my writing students: everyone has got at least one book in them, but most people won't actually sit down to write the darn thing.

    Extra kudos to those of us who do!!

    1. Brenda,
      Thank you! And you gave great advice to your students... I know there are a lot of days for me when just *sitting down to write* is the hardest part of the whole process!!

  2. I often tell people that I'm certain there are better writers than I in the world. The difference is I didn't give up.

    There are times, especially in the middle of wrestling a manuscript into submission, that I want to be done with it. Finished. The end.

    What I didn't fully realize until I actually pursued publication and was ultimately contracted is that even when I'm not writing, I'm writing. Or I'm reading about writing. Or I'm enrolled in workshops or attending conferences. I guess, like runners, we it's not just what we do. It's what we are.

    Great post!

    1. Christa,
      You wrote: "...it's not just what we do. It's what we are."
      Thank you! I loved that!!
      My writing prof in college (and one of my favorite teachers ever) used to always say, "Writers write." Simple and, yet, so true.

  3. Marilyn,

    Your post reminds me of the Dorothy Parker quote:

    I hate writing, I love having written.'

    I too 'love to have written'. I know I 'should' embrace the process but there are a lot of days when I do not want to put my butt in the chair! My pre-pubbed self would not (did not) listen or hear about the struggle--I remember hearing the words 'it takes 10 years to get published' from already pubbed authors and absolutely not listening. Maybe that blind willfulness is the key--when you want something so so much that you can't hear the words of adversity and struggle. Instead you keep pursuing your dream because you have to pursue it--even on those days when you absolutely don't want to.

    1. Maggie,
      So much wisdom in what you just wrote!! Yes...that way we have of ignoring "the words of adversity" is such a powerful gift. I was really stubborn in my aspiring days, too, and not about to let anyone tell me I shouldn't follow my writing dreams. Some days, I'd love to be able to focus again with all the passion and tenacity of that time :).

  4. Marilyn---what a thought provoking post. What finally made me commit to writing a book....all the way to The End...was not wanting to be one of those people who just talked about what they would do "some day".

    I also like the writing and marathon comparison. It is tons of hard work and sacrifice just for the hope of one day crossing the finish line.

    It would be nice of writing burned just a few more calories, though. :)

    1. Violet,
      I'm thrilled you enjoyed the post and delighted to hear that you've made a commitment to finishing your book. I think that's one of the biggest steps there is!
      As for the calories NOT burned during writing -- sigh -- I am ever envious of my brother's choice of passion when it comes that, LOL. The last time he ran a marathon, he had only 6% body fat...impossible for me to even imagine!!

  5. Wonderful post, Marilyn! Writing is hard work. No if or buts about it :)

    1. Ahh, Maria, I know! Never stops being a challenge, does it?!
      p.s. Still so excited for you on the RITA nom!! Wish I could be in Atlanta to cheer you on in person :). xox

  6. Great post! You really have to know what it is you want to be successful. And I actually do want to write, not just to have written :)

    1. Tiffany,
      Thank you!! I'm thrilled you enjoyed the post and really glad to hear that you want "to write" ;). Best wishes to you on your stories!

  7. Loved this post, Marilyn. Your words are particularly timely. I would so like to put my current work in progress in the 'have written' column!

    1. Laura!
      Wonderful to see you here -- thank you for visiting me. Wish I could also see you in person :).
      You know how much I loved ONCE TEMPTED! I'm hoping you'll get to put the next book from the trilogy into the "have written" column soon, too, so I can start ordering copies!!