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Monday, January 08, 2007


Shy little writers

I have a friend who's also an excellent novelist, and she has a theory that runs as follows:

All writers were losers in high school.

Her theory is that if you'd been socially successful in high school, you wouldn't have needed to compensate with writing, as far as I understand it.

It's an interesting thought, no? Personally, though, I'd take it off in a slightly different direction. I'd say it's not that you write to compensate for an unhappy adolescence exactly - for one thing, nobody really enjoys adolescence very much - but there is an element of overlap.

Almost all writers are introverts, because writing is a solitary activity. You can't write and socialise at the same time, so you're unlikely to make much headway unless you can survive, and thrive, in solitude. If you're happiest in a crowd and being alone makes you twitchy, you aren't going to get much writing done, and you're probably less familiar with the inside of your head as well, which is the only tool a writer has to create things with.

Now, adolescence is not kind to introverted people. Jung's theory is that the first part of the human life is best served by extroversion, getting out and finding your place in the world, and that the second half best served by introversion, by having gotten where you're going to get and living with yourself once you're there. Introverts, by that argument, are living their lives in reverse, setting out early, armed with the wrong tools. (Jung was an introvert himself, incidentally.) Extroverts frequently find introverts irritating (the same goes the other way, of course, but extroverts are louder about it), and teenagers, who are going through one of the most intolerant phases of the human life cycle, are more likely than adults to be openly hostile to those they find annoying. Extroverted kids can make things hard on introverted kids - and extroversion is a quality that serves you well in adolescence, when independence and the approval of your peers, external things, are highly prized.

Hence, the kind of disposition you need if you're going to be able to finish a book (probably there are some extroverted exceptions somewhere, but I can't think of any) is not the kind of disposition that's going to make you a roaring success as a teenager. If you're going to excel in an anti-social skill, you probably won't excel at social skills too - or at least, not at running them in tandem.

A writing teacher of mine once joked that you can spot the writers at a publishing party - they're the ones hiding under the tables. Anecdotal experience backs this up: I recently went to the 30th anniversary party of my agency, which, being crammed with fancier clients than me, included a lot of intimidatingly posh guests - movie stars, TV stars, politicians... That is to say, people for whom writing books was an extra, not what they were best known for. They stood with their wine and canapes in the middle of the room, talking to people who all looked bigger than me. In small groups I'm cheerful and friendly, but too big a crowd of strangers and I turn into a twelve-year-old again. I got shy.

So I did what writers do: I found a corner. Me and two other writers, a children's fiction author about my age and a romantic novelist with years of experience, found a table, sat down, and had a good chat about our families, our relationships, and the perils of star-spotting. I had a very nice evening, in fact, as they were both lovely, but it does back up the point: we were all writers, not actors or public speakers, and we retreated in a small group to a safe, out-of-the-way spot. Like the sociable introverts we were, we cut the party down to manageable proportions.

It can have odd effects, though. One of the things about writing is that you can make everyone do what you want, an effect that introverts can seldom reproduce in conversation. As a result, your personality comes out on the page, in a deflected and abstracted form, but there - including sides of yourself that you never show socially. A novel can reveal a writer's worldview, their perspective on human nature, their sexual fantasies, their revenge fantasies, their power fantasies, their unquestioned assumptions, the questions they can't answer, and who knows what else. The novel is a part of you, but it may not be a part you show in any other way. I've had more than one person read my stuff and say to me, 'But you seem like such a nice girl.'

As a result, a writer who's successful is actually going to end up more socially expressed than an extrovert. Even a writer who's not successful has expressed themselves to the people who've read their book (which tends to include friends and family, of course). Having seen the spat between Laurell K. Hamilton and her fans recently, I wonder if that's a common cause of tension between writer and reader - the introverted writer, shy of strangers, which to him or her includes the fans, crying: 'Stop bothering me, you people don't know me!' To which the fans reply: 'Yes we do!' They're both right, in a way.

Of course, if you haven't been introduced to a writer in person, it's probably most effective to at least address them as strangers, because few things rattle an introvert more than someone presuming to know them, but from the fan's perspective, the writer has revealed him or herself, obliquely and possibly misleadingly, but still, there's something there that can only have been created by the writer's personality. It's not the same part that they use for everyday living, though, which is the part you use when you interact with other people. A clash of the two can lead to some screeching cognitive dissonance. A common fan remark is that if a writer didn't want people talking about them, they shouldn't have got published, but I suspect that from the writer's perspective, they simply didn't grasp, on a visceral level, that it would work like that. They couldn't; they weren't wired that way. Readers, if you haven't met them, are notional: you know they're there, because you hear about your sales figures and you assume at least some of the books are being read rather than bought for kindling or novelty doorstops, but you don't know anything else about these people. You have to guess. In effect, they're imaginary. Writing is a solitary activity, being read is a solitary activity, and a reader suddenly turning up talking about you, or to you, is almost as disconcerting as if a character suddenly leaned off the page and said, 'Listen, Writer, I'd like a word in your ear.'

Courtesy on both sides seems like the only sensible solution, as delusions are the fuel of fiction for both reader and writer. We'd go crazy if we thought about it too logically. Either that or go post-modernist, which is a form of insanity in itself, and also depends on cutting the writer out entirely and leaving only the reader, a view that writers tend to attribute to critical jealousy. (I wouldn't go so far, but it's neither democratic nor sensible to pretend that books are written by culture rather than by people, and it leads to critics talking some right old nonsense.) But in any case, next time you hear someone say 'introvert' as a term of abuse, you have my permission to poke them in the eye*, because that's a lot of nonsense as well.

*Ms Whitfield's legal representatives wish to disclaim any incitements to violence made on this site, on the grounds that as a fiction writer, her understanding of reality is not legally competent, and as an introvert, her awareness of other people is classifiable as subnormal by the Extrovert Dictatorship Act of 1993. If you get punched, don't blame her.

I'm with you on the introvert/extrovert bit. I certainly have what has been affectionately referred to as my "hobbit hole," where I can comfortably disappear to for days at a time. Do I enjoy getting out, mingling with people and all? Of course. It's neccessary to live beyond our comfort zones if we want to know what real life is all about. For me, it often involves the law of inerta. I enjoy getting out, but it usually takes something pushing me a little to get going (often, that push comes from my girlfriend...I don't know where she gets the patience).

Another thing I've come to realize is:
My stories aren't me. Do they have little bits of me, minced and sprinkled throughout? Umm...sure, if you want a cooking analogy. That might be called an author's style, perhaps, or the flavor of their inner self (geez, how much more pretentious could that sound?).But this "story=me" is something I've actually had to work on. I've had to make myself realize that just because I necessarily would do such and such, or I believe such and such doesn't mean that is how it should happen or be believed by my characters. I've had to step outside of myself a lot in writing what I have. So, sure, there are parts that come from me and that you might recognize if we hung out long enough...but trying to get to know an author by reading their books alone is like trying to paint a portrait from shattered reflections of a funhouse mirror maze. Each reader will have their own mosaic, which is why I think they crave those actual author events, the signings, the conventions. They want to measure an author up to the image in their head, however lacking or fulfilling that experience may be. I wonder how often meeting an author has changed a reader's perception of a story?

Losers, huh? That's using the extroverts' criteria, presumably.

Soon as I can leave the house, I'll go argue it out with them. Maybe. One on one!

On a more serious note, I've just escaped from a 'debate' in another place with someone who said they read in order to get to know the author. My contention was that's not possible; what you actually do, while reading, is construct an idea of the author, which may or may not happen to have some correspondences with 'reality'. It's my experience that most readers, presented with writing stripped of its context, can't even guess with any degree of accuracy whether it was written by a woman or a man.
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