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Well, the honest answer to “what Michael Phelps and I have in common” is, practically nothing.  He’s a young, strong, elite athlete with a whole slew of resources at his disposal.  I’m a dumpy, almost-past-middle-aged woman with a teeny-tiny safety net that I was able to cobble together over my 30 years in the work force.  He’s an Olympic champion caliber swimmer.  I’m a writer who’s never gotten paid for anything I’ve written.

But I think we’re both really happy where we are in life right now.  We’re both living the dream.

That’s not really what I want to write about, though.

Recently, a friend on Facebook posted the new Under Armor ad featuring Michael Phelps.  I clicked on it with a bit of trepidation because I’m not really into ogling guys in the skivvies, but Under Armor has a reputation of treating eye candy with a bit more respect than other merchandisers.

Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised with how the commercial focused on the determination of the athlete rather than his physical form.  It’s very evocative for all the right reasons, showing the sacrifice a serious athlete must make, allowing a glimpse of the hard work that goes into a championship performance.

We can all mentally understand this.  We know that most elite athletes, regardless of where they come from, will have to give an extraordinary amount of work and effort to get to the world stage; very few are imbued with such tremendous skill that they can simply waltz in, take center stage, and walk off with medal or ribbon in hand.  And very few of us think, “Hey, I could do that!”  We may believe that perhaps we could have done that once upon a time, but most of us know that, even with the most dedicated regimen, the most single-minded desire, the most voracious appetite for winning, we simply could not become the next Nadia Comanechi, the next Usain Bolt, the next Michael Phelps.  We can dream, but if we do hit the gym it’s to improve our health or our looks, not to bring back Olympic gold.

In that same vein, it’s amazing how many folks don’t think this same way about writing.

When people learn that I read books, write reviews, and do some editing gigs for a living, many say, “Hey, I have a manuscript (or I’m in process of writing a book, or I’ve written something that I think could turn into a book) and I’d love it if you would read it over and tell me what you think.”  I’m often reluctant to take on such a request, not that I don’t want to help out a friend or an acquaintance, but, more often than not, they’re not looking for honest feedback.  They’re looking for me to tell them that they have written the Next Great American Novel.  That they have talent spilling out of their fingertips.  That they should give up their day jobs, because they have what it takes to become a best-selling novelist.

Sound silly?  Believe me, it’s not.  Almost everyone who gives me something of theirs to read honestly believes that they are the next J.K. Rowling, the next Vince Flynn, the next Cormac McCarthy, the next Stephen King.

And you know what?  They might be.  Some are close, honestly.  But others have a ways to go.  Those writerly hopefuls will have to put in a bunch of hard, hard work before they can get there.  Exceptionally hard work.  They will have to get folks to read their work merely to get brutal feedback, and they will have to listen to that feedback and take positive criticism from it.  They will have to rewrite.  And rewrite.  They will have to rethink plot points that don’t work, abandon weak motivations even if their main character’s actions depend on them, flesh out any characters that are too shallow, do deep research to parse out what can be and what shouldn’t be in their literary worlds.  And then they will have to rewrite again.  And after all that, be ready for an editor to pull it all apart.

Just as there are few athletes who can walk up to a starting line without hours of brutal training and expect to factor in the medals, so too are there very few writers who can simply sit down and write a damned good novel without hours and hours of work in advance of the finished product.  And yet so many think this is how writing works – “just sit at the typewriter and bleed.” (Gee, thanks Ernst.)

I discovered this for myself when I wrote a working draft of a novel in last year’s National Novel Writing Month challenge.  Not only was I amazed that I had a hefty start on a first draft, but parts of it were downright good!  However, to take it to the next level, I need to purge parts that aren’t good, write parts that are missing, do research (even when I don’t know what questions to ask), fill out parts where I put in placeholders, and finish the dang thing!  Plus my ending – the one I haven’t even written – doesn’t really work, and I’m rethinking a major part leading up to it.  I mean, a major part.  Like, I may have to rewrite the heart of the thing.  This is going to take an extraordinary effort and a heckuva lot of time.  To be honest, I’m not sure I have the tenacity, the drive, and the desire to put that much work into it.  Not that I’m a wimp, but it just is so darned daunting, and even with all that hard work, the outcome is not guaranteed.

So I, like Michael Phelps, realize just how much someone has to work hard – damned hard, harder than most people realize, more than what the average person regardless of talent is willing to undertake – in order to even have the chance of success.  But there’s a reason he’s on the Olympic podium sporting gold while I’m sitting in my living room watching him.  He’s got the talent, and the conviction.  He’s willing to do what it takes to achieve his dreams; I’m okay with daydreaming, instead.

Maybe while I’m waiting for his next race to be broadcast, I’ll pull out the first draft of my potential novel and take a look at it again.  Maybe actually tinker on it a bit.  Make some decisions.  Or maybe I’ll just pull out a book to read, write a review, or maybe write an essay.

And with that, Michael and I will be alike – we’ll both be living the dream.

~ Sharon Browning

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