Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fuck off, I'm shy

Conceit causes more conversation than wit. 
-Fran├žois de La Rouchefoucauld

My idea of hell is introductory chitchat. I simply am incapable of it. My friends are all, by necessity, chatty extroverts. (They have to be; as a Quiet Person, when I get together with fellow Quiet People, we just kind of sit there.)

I like listening to these talkers, by and large, though, again by necessity, they have to say a lot of stupid things. The more you talk, the more stupid things you say. It's simple probability. I hate looking stupid. Therefore, I don't talk much. Writing suits me because I can carefully construct what I say, and re-read it before I let anyone else read it to make extra-sure it's not too stupid. Image control, you know.

Contrary to what many seem to think ("you're too quiet," "you need to speak up more,") being gregarious is not a choice; one's social tendencies have as much to do with some moral stance as does body type (i.e., nothing). Growing up, however, I always believed, because everyone told me this was the case, that shyness was a hurdle to overcome, not just an aspect of personality. School and work demand that we be social; in a society that places a premium on individualism, you mark your individuality by being loud. Quiet people melt into the crowd. Suspicious. Creepy, even. We may be lone gunmen, or, worse, stoics.

So parents suggested (or demanded) that I befriend other kids on the playground, even though being the first to say "hello" caused and still causes severe anxiety; teachers reported to my parents that I needed to interact more, as if my personality were in itself a deficit (leading me to a conclusion I still hold today: that school is much more about socializing children than it is about academic learning, and that it socializes children in exactly the wrong ways. But that's another post).

I kind of always thought that outgoing tendencies would manifest themselves as I matured. Shyness was a childhood thing that would end, like stuttering or polio. But you know what? Almost 34 years on, I am no better at chitchat or making friends than I was in nursery school. I don't play well with people. You may have guessed from reading my blog or twitter feed that I'm a bit of a misanthrope. This is not a necessary and sufficient condition of being shy. I was born, for the most part, liking people, but after three decades of being told that liking people meant I had to natter on uselessly about stupid subjects, I began to FUCKING RESENT IT.

Extroverts just don't seem to get it. They don't get why I can't just chat with people, why I can't just have a smooth job interview (and therefore why I remain in a perpetual state of professional failure), why I don't speak up, why making friends does not come easily. Some points:

  • There is nothing wrong with me. I am just having more interesting conversations in my head than I might be having with you.
  • Just because I don't say much doesn't mean I don't have a lot to say. I prefer to wait until you're done talking. No, really, go on. 
  • Being shy in itself does not make me miserable. I'm fine with being a Quiet Person (now, though I haven't been for most of my life). What does make me miserable is being expected to be a certain way, and being presumed deficient. That is, my shyness is a problem for you, not for me, but you make it my problem.
  • Introversion is not inferior. It's a way of interacting with the world; I process my environment by listening and watching. Some people work with their hands. Some people are natural leaders. Some people make jokes as a means of coping. Some people have an intuitive grasp of spelling. And some don't feel the need to compulsively discuss the weather or our boring occupations. Being a Quiet Person may make me less popular than I could be. So what? My outgoing friends have many friendly acquaintances and a handful of close friends. I have no friendly acquaintances and a handful of close friends. The close friends are the important thing, and in this respect I am equal to Loud People. 
  • Introversion is not overcomeable. I am, of course, capable of initiating conversations, but the anxiety it causes is much more agonizing than simply remaining silent and waiting for someone else to talk first. The anxiety is something I'm done trying to get over (and again, the anxiety arose not from being a Quiet Person but from being a Quiet Person in an anti-Quiet Person world). I spent my teenage years and a good part of my 20s immersed in an unhealthy amount of drugs specifically because they made me more social, or they at least helped me to not give a fuck that I wasn't social. For awhile I even packed a thermos of vodka to sip on the school bus at 7 in the morning because I found that vodka gave me the confidence to participate in class discussions. That is where expectations of sociability lead. 
  • Quiet People are not necessarily nice. People sometimes tell me condescendingly, after attempting conversation with me, "You're so nice," then turn to another, more small-talk-friendly peer. Meanwhile, I make mental lists of various torture methods I'd like to use on people who assume my thoughts exclusively involve cupcakes and sprites frolicking in waterfalls.
  • Being a Quiet Person does not mean I don't enjoy being around other people or that I don't require friendship. I just really really need to be alone most of the time.
  • If it were not for the internet giving me an outlet, I may well still be the crumbled, substance-abusing mess of a human I was in high school. Either that, or I would have written a novel by now. There's really no way of knowing.
  • I realize I'm incorrectly conflating introversion & shyness. Outgoing introverts may take offense, but in my case, they are concomitant attributes.

Oddly, although I get heart palpitations if I have to, say, ask a supermarket employee where they keep the capers, I don't have a problem being on stage. I did theater a bit in school,
I was once a singer in a band, I frequently sing karaoke before a crowd, and I relish all of it. Conversely, a Loud Person friend I have refuses to humiliate herself onstage. Go figure.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How First Drafts Are Like Newborns

I love writing. Have I ever mentioned that? I love writing so much that it isn’t enough to write; I have to write about writing. Then I write about writing about writing, and how pointless the whole enterprise is, when I should be simply writing, with no recursion involved.

I love the challenge of inventing new characters and implausible situations. I love recreating conversations I've had, ones in which I said all the wrong things or nothing at all, and making myself, this time, say the right things. I love revisiting the past and envisioning the future. I love vocabulary. I love thrilling to carefully chosen Anglo-Saxon words, with a few Latin- or Algonquin-derived words thrown in (fuck what George Orwell says). I love dictionaries; I love looking up words and their etymologies. I love dragging pen across paper, I love my own handwriting, and I love the soft clicks of a keyboard.

I do not love revising.

To revise, you must first read over that first draft you so loved to write, and realize that your loving effort was inconsequential: the draft fucking sucks.

Oh, god, you think. Why am I such an utter loser and hack?

You make some changes. You eliminate this minor character and introduce the main character's mother. You cut out phone conversations. You change all instances of perambulate to walk and notice how reflexively you use the word really.

Okay, it’s getting better, and the third and the fourth drafts are better still; this can only get better!

But then you arrive on the twelfth or so draft and you begin questioning whether you are really improving it. You begin questioning why the fuck you don't have a paying job, or, if you do have a paying job, why you are spending your off hours engaging in toil rather than leisure (yes, it does become toil at a certain point). You begin questioning the purpose of your life. You should've gone to accounting school.

You take it, the twelfth draft, to your critique group, and they tell you there’s still this big thing missing, this gaping hole, this inability to connect with the main character. Why, they wonder, has the heroine of the tale never discussed her line of work with her boyfriend before? And, Oh, yeah, you realize. That's not going to work. But that's integral to the plot.

So much time! So many squandered hours! So much effort! And it’s still so substandard! How many more drafts will it take? Twelve more? Twelve times twelve more? Twelve to the twelfth power more?

What was so promising is fizzling. It’s kind of like the promise of the first beer: the effervescence lightens you, quickens your heart, beckons you into the night and the bar conversations and the mystique of possible unencumbered sex. The second beer does much the same thing, and maybe even the third. By the fourth beer, you’re in way deep; it's too late. You no longer have any idea what you’re doing, and you won’t want to get up in the morning. And after objective parties point out the incompleteness of your twelfth draft, you won't want to get up in the morning either.

Most of the time you spend writing does not have the transcendent, free-flowing quality of the first draft. Most writing is painstaking, annoying, meticulous revision. Sorry. That’s how it is. Unless you are some genius writer (which you're not) you will be revising more than you will be actually writing first drafts. This involves lavishing severe attention on individual sections, paragraphs, sentences, and even words. 

There's no manual for revision (well, there are manuals, but you should disregard them, or at least regard them suspiciously; they may or may not contain germane advice) because every writer has different strengths and weaknesses. Some are immaculate dialoguers. Some create vibrant characters effortlessly. Some are spelling and grammar champs.

Some, the foolish ones, think that their first drafts glide out of their pen fully-formed. Nuh-uh. A person tumbles out of its mother's body in baby form, and while a human in baby form is nice, it's not quite ready yet. It requires years of nurturance, experience, education, and emotional buttressing to become a well-rounded adult. Any human that spends its entire life at the intellectual and emotional level of a baby or even a child will probably not be welcome at most social functions. First drafts are much the same way: endlessly fascinating to the person who brought them into the world, kind of annoying and pathetic and shrill to an objective observer. Now, I don't suggest you spend 18 years nurturing your draft, though I suspect it's been done. But you will need to be like a strict orphanage headmistress gazing in contempt upon a wailing foundling. What can you do to whip this hopeless creature into a worthy entity that will inspire love or despair or love-and-despair-related suicide? 

Well, I'm going to tell you. Some other time. Once I figure out how to do it myself.

In the meantime, dare to notice your shortcomings. Dare to admit you're wrong. It will demolish your ego, but it's a necessary demolition. Kenny Shopsin, who is chef/proprietor of Shopsin's in New York City, but is more of a chef/philosopher [if philosophers invented menu items like Slutty Pancakes and refused to serve people with food allergies], explains it thusly: 

The first duty of everybody in life is to realize that you are a piece of shit....Once you realize you are a piece of shit it's not so hard to take because then you do not have this feeling that you're a good person all the time and let me tell you something: feeling like you are a good person all the time is like having a brand new car with no scratches on it. It's a real responsibility which is almost impossible to live up to. Being a piece of shit and then occasionally doing something that is good and true is a much easier place to be ....There is nothing wrong with not being so terrific. It's what the whole ball game is about : not being so terrific and accepting it.

I spend a good 16 hours* a day obsessing over what is wrong with my writing in an attempt to enhance my relationship with the written word. It's a start.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What I need to do vs. what I will do

Things I need to do today:

Shower. Shampoo hair for like 20 minutes because it’s really fucking oily. Shave.

Do lots of housework. Just imagine everything that could possibly need cleaning/washing/tidying in a house, and that’s the amount of housework there is.

Exercise. Yoga, aerobics, stomach crunches. Cry over my abdomen. Tell kids to stop laughing at me while I'm exercising. Tell kids to stop climbing on me while I'm exercising. Tell them it's their fault I'm fat and that my stomach is stretched out from a twin pregnancy/c-section.

Leave the house.

Scrape ice off the sidewalk so mailman* doesn’t slip & break both elbows & sue us.

Bake bread.

Play with/educate kids without using the television. Get horribly bored. Children are boring. The games they want to play are boring. I don’t like playing with Darth Vader. I hated Star Wars as a kid and I hate it now.

Get in arguments with kids over stupid things. Listen patiently while they tell me things that are total bullshit, then tell them they’re wrong and incur their wrath. “Mama, what if you ate an element? You would die!” “No you wouldn’t. Everything you eat is an element. Everything around us is made up of elements.” “Nuh-uh!” “Nuh-huh.” “No! You’re mean, Mama! I hate you!”

Force Oliver to do his homework. Tell him to stop crying about it. Feel bad for telling him how to feel. But still, he shouldn’t feel that way. Realize I should try to squeeze more hardship into his life so he doesn’t cry over things like homework. Force him to read for 30 minutes, as required by his teacher. Wonder if he’s actually reading/absorbing material or just staring at the pictures. Realize I don’t care. I can’t force him to enjoy reading. I’m not Amy fucking Chua.

Deal with the enormous stack of papers/children’s drawings/bills on my dining room table. Deal with the comic books that my common-law husband strews about the house. Wonder if we’re legally considered a garbage house. I think the legal definition requires fecal matter to appear in places other than the toilet. Recall the time the kids were still in diapers and I found dried poop smeared on the wall of the bathroom. We might qualify.

Figure out how to make money and build a resume while also caring for children & trying to launch a writing career where I write for free.

Send out some magazine queries. Realize the most lucrative writing jobs involve topics I am the least interested in writing about. Realize I have no qualifications to write about any subject. Realize it’s not fair of me to try to earn a living as a writer when there are actual good writers out there with actual things to say. Wonder why my work ethic is so lacking. Fill out some online applications for line cook positions that will get ignored.

Make nutritious dinner for 5.

Things I will do today:

Write a blog post.

Wash my armpits over the sink and put on extra deodorant in lieu of a shower.

Pick up visible debris from floor.

Yell at kids.Tell them to quit making a mess.

Heat up leftover spaghetti. Stretch tomato sauce by adding water.

Have a beer. Have another beer. Have a glass of wine.

Try to cobble together some words after the kids are in bed. Realize I'm too drunk to write. Set the alarm for 5 so I can write in the morning. Look over the blog post I wrote. Consider deleting it. Hope no one's read it. Drift off while making ambitious to-do list for tomorrow. 

Have nightmares involving rejection letters and classmates from junior high laughing at my published writing.


*Not being sexist, he’s a man.