Reading Over the Shoulder: A Thing I Wrote While Writing With Friends at Poor Richards

Writers are over-the-shoulder readers. If there is a writer sitting next to another writer, odds are that one or the other will look over their compatriot’s shoulder and peek. There are millions of reasons for this.

First, most writers (the real ones) are readers. If words are on a page, then the words must be read. Otherwise, how do they live? If they sit still on the page, left behind by the writer who abandoned them, there is no oxygen to them. This is something writers understand, so they will read the words. 
Second, there is a certain level of competitiveness. We must make certain the words written by others are not inherently better than our own. I mean, do they (the person whose shoulder we’re reading over) know the proper use of whose
But mostly I think writers will read over your shoulder because of a distinct need to know. We’re nosy. We want to know the inner-most workings of a brain. 
We want to know what observation you’re making about the world. Did we miss something? 
We wonder what is so important to you that you need to get it on paper. We want to know what your handwriting looks like. We want to know how your type so fast that the words, these series of letters, appear so quickly and represent whole universes that didn’t exist until now. Just now. As the ink spilled from your pen, bringing something of order to the chaos of space. 

Losing a Pack Member: What Happens When Writers Leave?

A few years ago, agent Dan Lazar was a speaker at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. I wanted to take down everything he said and inscribe it in gold because he was my dream agent. But, aside from his emphasis on having a strong voice, the only ting I really remember is him saying, “Great writers write in packs.”

From what I’ve studied in college, I believe this to be true and I’ve said it early and often on this blog. I talked about it with Kerouac here and here, with Virginia Woolf here (where my introductory paragraph is almost identical to this one…) and here, and there’ve been lots of posts about my writers group — UGWP is my pack.

For a decade, I’ve shared my work with them and read their words. I’ve spent endless hours asking questions about their characters, spent lifetimes in worlds they’ve built, gotten to know their quirks. I hear their voices in my head — and I don’t consider that a bad thing. Once a month we meet up and, to me, it feels like coming home.

So it’s hard — very hard — for me whenever I lose one of my pack.

They go for an infinite number of reasons. Someone gets married. Someone’s husband gets stationed to faraway lands. Someone dies. And that one hurts the most.

Some of them leave for artistic reasons. They’re hearing the group’s voice too much. The critiques are too hard to take emotionally. They leave because they aren’t quite getting what they need or want anymore. These are legitimate reasons that I understand intellectually and as an artist. Each of us has our own trail.

That doesn’t mean it makes it any easier for those who choose to stay.

It hurts me to know that, when I lay down a chapter or a short story, the voice I was hoping, expecting, to be there is gone. There are insights that won’t be coming. There is an exchange of ideas that is not going to happen.

Sure, I read work from pack members who have gone on and they’ve read my work, but it feels different. A dynamic changes.

There’s all kinds of advice on how to form a writers group. Endless articles on how to find your own pack members. There’s precious little on how to deal emotionally with the loss of a pack member, how to deal with the foreign silence as you go around the circle. I feel an infinite space deep in my throat and I want to howl.

The Big Crushing Weight of Dreams and How Not to Get Smushed

The jist of recent conversation with my husband:

“You have big dreams,” Shane says to me.

“Um, yeah,” I say, thinking Is this some kind of trap/trick question?

“What if they don’t come true? Or,” he says, “what if they take longer than you expect? How do you avoid being crushed?”

Before you think that Shane’s about to ask me to get a ‘real job’ or ‘be realistic’ about life, you should know that he’s a writer too. So the conversation was more philisophical than threatening.

His question is one of the Big Ones that haunts all artistic folk. If the Dream isn’t coming true, what do you do?

I think, before you write the Dream off, you should have a really solid frame around your Dream.

When I talk about my Career as an Author I think it’s confusing to Shane, and perhaps others, as to how I can go on and on and on and on without doubting myself. I talk about being The Next Stephen King. I talk about author interviews. I talk about book covers and agents and editors and All the Author-y things.

There’s a section in On Writing where King talks about him hitting the publishing jackpot and how he laid awake that night with his wife. He called that a night of dreaming. The next day, I’m sure, he was back at the typewriter.

The weight of all of that dreaming could be crushing if there wasn’t some kind of frame around it.

The frame of my Author Dream is the writing.

When I picture myself in five/ten years (those old tropes) I certainly imagine lectures at universities and book signings and all that jazz. But I also picture myself sitting at a computer, at a desk with a notebook, or in some exotic coffeehouse with a scribbling pen. I imagine telling cool stories. I picture the work. It’s part of my dream.

And, since I’m already typing on a computer, or writing at a desk with a notebook, or scribbling away in less-exotic coffeehouses. I’m already telling cool stories. I’m already living the Dream. At least part of it. So I’m not really disappointed or crushed beneath the weight of the other things. The rest of it is really window-dressing anyway.

So, just make sure, as you dream away, that there is a  tangible part of the Dream that’s something you already love and are already doing. It makes the grunt work easier and prepares you for when the rest of it — OPRAH! — comes into play. Don’t get smushed by your hopes.

Do what you can to live the parts you can already live.