"You've gotta dance like there's nobody watching,
Love like you'll never be hurt,
Sing like there's nobody listening,
And live like it's heaven on earth."
— William W. Purkey
It’s a lovely sentiment and it sounds like fine advice. But real lives are full of people watching and listening, of people who are going to hurt you, not necessarily because they want to but because they can’t help it. And sometimes, when you’re under a deadline, or the kids are screaming for dinner, or you’ve just received your twentieth rejection slip this month and this writing lark is losing its appeal, sometimes the word “heaven” just doesn’t seem to have that much meaning here on earth, outside the firmly closed and padlocked Pearly Gates.
In works of fiction, things are of necessity artificial and exaggerated – and what you get is extremes ranging from Danielle Steel and the soap opera romances to Cormac McCarthy and “The Road”. In fiction, people want the extremes. They want them because, well, that middle-of-the-road territory is something they’re already living – and they either want to indulge in improbable fairy-tale lives of the people whom they can never be, or gloat over how much better their lives are than those of people whom they never want to be..
Sure, there are novels that are firmly set in everyday angst – they are generally known as Literature with a capital L and they win lots of obscure prizes.
In genre works, outside the manicured Literature Lawns, things tend to gravitate either to the utopia or the dystopia side of things. But that’s the draw, that’s what brings the reader in. You don’t want to read an entire novel where Nothing Happens, where your character sits, if not in bliss then at least vague contentment, drinking lattes in corner Starbucks cafes and watching dreamily as the world passes by. You want to read the story where somebody barges in and holds up the Starbucks – or a strange/alluring/disgusting person or visiting alien wanders into the café from the street and makes you sit up and look twice – or a strange Noise keeps occurring but nobody except you seems to hear it or care – or there’s an unannounced solar eclipse – or you think you’ve just seen a wolf lope past the outside seating area and go trotting purposefully around the corner and you have this uncontrollable itch to find out where it’s going and why – or…
Well, you get it. Life – and story – is not really about trying to make everything perfect or seem perfect. It’s about muddling through, and being curious, and occasionally going past signs that say “no entry” because you have to know what’s on the other side of that door. It’s about finding the middle ground by trying to keep both utopia and dystopia at bay.
The key to living a life, fictional or real, is taking one step at a time, and making a binding choice every time you do it. You take a step in THAT direction or THIS one, you turn THAT way or THIS way, you sing THAT song instead of THAT one, you follow one wolf over another. Sometimes you live to regret those choices. And sometimes you are left breathless with relief at the ones that you have made. And there is absolutely no way of knowing which of those it is going to be until one or the other hits you in the face.
There are only a handful of large choices. But if you think that the myriad of little ones, seemingly insignificant ones, that you make every day don’t add up to life-changing decisions too you aren’t thinking it through. Choices are cumulative. Enough of them carry a weight that will force you in certain directions even if you weren’t aware that that was where you were heading.
In a sense every work of fiction ever written is about some sort of choice that happens on the pages of the book – or, sometimes, just beyond them, a choice just before the story-proper in the book begins which has driven your character to that beginning, or the choice that lies in waiting like a monster in the dark just after you close the covers of the book and leave the character to his or her inevitable fate. And choices can change according to circumstances, or knowledge, or instinct, or experience. And sometimes it can be difficult in the extreme to point to one choice or another as having been the “right” choice. Perhaps there is really no such thing as the “right” choice, not as a gigantic monolithic thing as and of itself – just the right choice for a particular situation, set of circumstances, moment in time.
I wasn’t really setting out to write about choices when I began to write “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, my new novel, but somehow there it was – those characters just turned up, and secrets started spilling out all over the table, and the secrets were all about choices. And then they were presented with the biggest choice of all.
If they had a chance to change their lives, utterly, to choose to live an existence that was completely different to the one which they called their current reality, if they could get to unchoose things and choose all sorts of stuff anew, if they could suddenly make and unmake decisions using an alternative set of criteria – would they do it?
What constitutes a life? How much of a life’s minutiae needs to accumulate and accrete for something to be “set in stone”? Are you really who you think you are? Are you the kind of person you think you might be, if only this had been different, if only that hadn’t happened to you, if only…
It’s where that lovely advice at the top of this post comes in. It really isn’t quite that simple – or at least it seems to be right until you unpack it to a deeper level of meaning.
You gotta dance like everyone’s watching, and you don’t care what most of them think, and those few that you do care about you already know will be cheering you on.
You gotta love despite having been hurt, knowing that you’re probably going to be hurt at least once more in a given lifetime, but love anyway, because the alternative is far, far worse.
You gotta sing like you know everyone’s listening, and realize that a bunch of the winces on people’s faces merely mean “hell, it could be worse, it could be me.”
You gotta make your own heaven on earth, and live with the fact that no heaven is ever perfect anyway.
You gotta choose.
In closing – a few words about me, and a few more about the book -
My main website is at http://www.AlmaAlexander.com (take a look at the bibliography page!) and I also have a website dedicated to my YA series, Worldweavers, at http://www.almaalexander.com/worldweavers/ , and you can find a book trailer there, as well as excerpts from those books and also ordering information. I blog regularly at http://anghara.livejournal.com and if people want to get to know the real me that's the more dynamic site right now. I'm also on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/alma.alexander , or https://www.facebook.com/pages/Alma-Alexander/67938071280 ) and if you want to read more literary and writerly essaylets you might visit www.StorytellersUnplugged.com on the 30th of every month and keep up with me there.
If you want to look into purchasing any of my books, you can go to several places:
(if you are after actual books) or
(if you're after a Kindle ebook)
https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/anghara for other ebook editions (and go there to keep an eye on the Alexander Triads project, themed collections of short stories…)
Or visit your friendly neighbourhood indie store and ask them to get my books for you if they don't have them...
For "Midnight at Spanish Gardens", you can preorder the book here:
and it will shortly be available here