i hope you dance

(no idea what happened to the code to make it unreadable this morning, yikes)

When I was twenty-two, a woman ran her red light as I was going through the intersection, and there was no place to go. I managed to turn the little truck I was in so that her engine didn’t plow directly into my door, but I can still hear the squealing of the tires as we slid toward one another, the screaming of the metal as our world collided and everything went black. I came to with a crowd gathered around my totaled truck; my doors were locked and no one could get in. The paramedics were on their way and my two-year-old son screamed from his mangled car seat. People told me later that I destroyed the metal of the safety bar that held him in place–just ripped it apart with my bare hands. I only remember checking to make sure he wasn’t pierced or cut, and he seemed fine, though it would take the emergency room doctor an hour to reassure me.

I wish I could tell you that I completely changed that day, and that I lived life as if every day was my last, but I’d really prefer to not have lightening strike me dead and give me bad hair.

It did, however, make me go ahead and start submitting my writing for publication. I sold not long afterward, my first article to the local newspaper. When no one crucified me for thinking I had some sort of ability to write and, geez, get paid for it, I did it again. And after that, I was completely hooked, no matter how difficult the target.


We can’t be writers without them. We can’t put words and stories together without risking failure.

Later on, my screenwriting professor (I’d gone back to school by then) had a pet saying about criticism that used to get on my nerves. It was, "They can kill you, but they can’t eat you." I pointed out to him one day that of course they can kill you and they can eat you–just as long as they do it in that order, though, I’m fine.

This year, I’m going to write in a second genre, and that feels like a risk. (I’ll also be writing the third Bobbie Faye book as well.) It scares the hell out of me, because I don’t know yet if I can pull it off. But I do know this: I’d regret it later if I didn’t try. I want to set the bar higher, quality-wise, for both books, and I want to learn. The whole prospect is terrifying, because what if I just fuck it all up? What if I aim higher and fall appallingly far?

Well, it won’t kill me. (I think.)

And the potential growth is worth the risk. Like the song lyrics say:

"If you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance."

This summer, I stood in the back of a little country church, the white walls a stark contrast against the summer green woods surrounding it. My aunt was laid in front. Most of her life, she lived in cranky desperation. I don’t think I ever knew her to be happy.

She was funny, though.

It was listening to her and my mom tell their funny stories that taught me the cadence of humor. When we visited and stayed late into the night, I used to pretend I was asleep so I could stay in the room long enough to hear the grown-up stories of the people they knew. My aunt could make a phone book funny. It is very hard to pretend you’re asleep when you have tears streaming down your face from laughing.

She loved those paint-by-numbers kits. When we visited, there would be a couple dozen completed pictures leaning against the kitchen wall, surrounding the room. She never framed them, and seemed to have no appreciation for them once she was done. I think she liked doing them in about the same way others will do a crossword puzzle. Everything she chose to do, though, was low-key, without risks of being critiqued on ability. That was reflected across her life, and I wondered if she’d risked a little more, tasted something extraordinary, would she have found more joy?

She had a gift for making people laugh, for seeing the absurd.

I wish she’d taken more chances.

What I finally learned is that, for me, I can’t regret the things I tried and did my best for, even if I fail. I can’t allow myself to worry what other people think or if it’s the right choice. Like anyone else, I am a champion at wondering what the hell to do sometimes, industry-wise. When careers are on the line, risks can seem gargantuan. But really, in the long view, they’re not. We probably won’t die, and with that, there’s always a chance to try again. It may be painful as hell, but we’d never know the joy if we didn’t try. Cram as much living into now as we can, because this is it, this is all we have.

So how about you? What are you going to try to do this next year? What’s worth a risk to you?

18 thoughts on “i hope you dance

  1. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Beautiful post, Toni.

    Risks. Wow. You’re right that we take them all the time as writers.

    And, I’m sure I’ll be taking far more than I can see right now. But the ones I’ve got planned for my profession are:

    1. To get the new series in tow, to send that manuscript about which I feel so insecure to my agent and do it in the first quarter of the year.

    2. To attend a writers’ master class in Oregon. This is a two-week morning til night kind of thing which will require tremendous sacrifice for me and our family. But I feel the need to take my entire writing life up a couple of notches and I think this is the way to do it.

    It scares the hell out of me . . .

    I think that’s enough for now.

  2. billie

    I’m getting some high-level help with my first novel ms to see if I can get it over that last hump needed to be born between hard covers.

    I’m querying something new before the end of March – not yet sure if it will be the second or third, but one of them, for sure.

    I’m notching up my riding expertise with a new trainer and I’m learning to trim my horses’ hooves! Believe it or not, it’s trimming the hooves that intimidates me more than anything else.

  3. Louise Ure

    Very evocative post, Toni. And it echoes Alex’s discussion yesterday about wanting to write more, better, faster.

    Remember that Don Williams song, “Come From the Heart”?

    “You got to sing like you don’t need the moneyLove like you’ll never get hurtYou got to dance like nobody’s watchingIt’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work”

    That’s what I want to add to my New Year’s resolution. More. Better. Faster. From the heart.

  4. toni mcgee causey

    Pari, thank you, and I know what you mean–forcing ourselves to look at what we’ve done, and to step back and assess where we are and what we need to do to get to that next level–very scary. Because we’re not allowing ourselves to wallow in denial or be stagnant, and stagnant is so much easier. Especially if that place has worked in the past.

  5. toni mcgee causey

    billie, excellent goals. I know a lot of people who live with the philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They won’t analyze what they do because no one’s complained, and there’s nothing wrong with their sales (or careers). It’s probably a much more Zen-like life experience, but at the same time, if we all lived with that philosophy, we’d still be using horse-drawn carriages and qriting with quills. I’m glad as inventors of worlds that we have this hunger to do it better.

    I know what you mean about the hooves–I was always most afraid of handling my horse’s hooves, even though she was very gentle. And good luck on that new training; it sounds like you’re going to have a terrific year.

  6. toni mcgee causey

    Louise, as always, you nail it in the fewest words. More. Better. Faster. From the heart.

    I want to be fierce, this year, in the risks. Without fear, or even in spite of it, go for the goals.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, I said it yesterday, but the risk I’m contemplating is starting to write a second book at night as I’m writing my main project. Risk is completely fucking up both books. Terrifying.

    As a dancer, I have always hated this line of that song:

    “You got to dance like nobody’s watching”

    That’s so wrong. You’ve got to dance like EVERYONE’S watching. What good is dancing for only yourself?

  8. Lori G. Armstrong

    It’s a risk to keep up the pace I held in 2007 – 5 books written – 4 books released, but my goal for 2008 is even higher. If I don’t push myself and take chances, who will? I can’t wait for the fucking muse to show up. Butt in chair. every. damn. day. Period. I’ve found if I write faster, I write better. I know that doesn’t work for everyone, but it sure as hell works for me.

    As goddess Nora Roberts said – “I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank page.”

    Hers is the only quote I live by in the writing world.

    Oh, and I wish for world peace 🙂

  9. J.D. Rhoades

    Plans? In the immortal words of Indiana Jones: “I dunno, I’m just making this up as I go.”

    And always I carry with me the words of the Astronaut’s Prayer: “God, don’t let me fuck this up.”

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Alex, yeah–I see your point. I guess the thing is to let yourself enjoy the dance as if no one was critiquing, so you do what you want, you’re freer to experiment or reach for a difficult step, uncaring if you’re foolish and fail.

  11. billie

    I just have to add this – I was back reading everyone’s comments since earlier today and thinking, why don’t they list all the murderati books so I can look up the ones I don’t have? And lo and behold, I glanced to my left and THERE IT IS!

    Thanks – thumbs up on that addition!

  12. JT Ellison

    Toni, wonderful post. Sorry I’m late to the party ; )

    My big risk for 2008 is happening in two weeks. I’ve agreed to be the fiction leader at a weekend writer conference. Which means teaching. Something I have never done. I’m scared to death, but exhilarated too. I may blow it, it may go fine. I have no idea.

    But I’m having so much fun preparing the lesson plans (yes, lesson plans, three days of teaching, my God, what am I thinking?) My goal for the class is to see each writer has something submittable by the end of the weekend, a flash piece that they can be proud of. I will definitely be reporting back on this one.

    Happy New Year, sugar!

  13. Tamar Bihari

    Toni, beautiful post. And the best New Year’s resolution for any year: take the risk. Grow. Do everything full-out.

    (And why didn’t I know about that awful accident? I thought I knew everything about you! 😉 )

    (Also? I know you’ll do brilliantly at the new genre, and I suspect the switch-up will push you in good directions.)

  14. toni mcgee causey

    billie — JT did all of the wonderful work for the site upgrade. Isn’t it terrific? Thanks for noticing. 😉

    JT, you’re going to be a great teacher. I think you’re a natural born leader anyway, and I know there’s no one else who will have put as much work into a lesson plan as you’ll have by the time you’re there. I’ll be looking forward to hearing about it.

    Tamar, thank you. 😉 And I thought you knew about that one. (I had knee surgery because of that wreck.) Hard to believe there might be something we don’t know about each other after all these years!

  15. allison brennan

    Toni! I’m so sorry I missed this on Sunday. Great post. Risk is hard. The biggest risk I’ve made so far was quitting my day job in 2005 before my book came out in 2006. I knew I might have had to crawl back to my old boss, groveling for my old job. Not something I wanted to do.

    Risk is hard. When you’re doing well in one genre, rocking the boat by changing anything is hard. You’ll piss off your agent, your editor, your readers–or not. The supernatural novella was a small risk–because a novella really ISN’T much of a risk. I have riskier ideas . . . but I don’t know if I can pull them off. But I’m going to try at least one of them.


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