On Shyness and Writing

Human shapes by mripp, on Flickr

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I am twenty-eight, and sometimes, walking down a sidewalk, I still find a point in the far distance and make that my friend, and everything–everyone–goes to watercolors at the periphery.

I am a writer. I am shy.

They seem almost canonically opposed: to be shy is to be fearful; to write is to be brave. One is quiet, the other vocal. Many shy writers have two selves: her, in person, occasionally dull-eyed, looking away; him, in black-bolded print, to be had by the world for reading and digestion.

We treat shyness as an ailment. “Buck up,” is my dad’s phrase for me. “You have to admit,” he’ll say, “you’re too sensitive.” It would be easier not to be shy; there are times–in the world, with strangers and with people I know just a little–it’s like having an arm cleft away (oh, those phantom twinges of social grace).

But sometimes, it’s the best.

Shyness shares a bond with deep emotion, and the capacity for it. Shyness is a reaction to rejection, to things that hurt too much. Other synonyms: oversensitivity, thin skin. The shy person is sensitive, and the great boon of shyness–and the shy writer–is that sensitivity, the allowance that small, unexpected things will be felt heart-deep.

These small, unexpected things are the writer’s grist. It’s that moment, stepping onto a sidewalk, when a homeless woman says, “Like you, I used to go to work every day when I was young. Now look at me.” And though you won’t see her straight on, you’re imprinted with the gravel in her voice, and the feel of her: the downweighing, the curved back.

It’s standing at a crosswalk in February snow, becoming aware of a man singing in a delirious, half-drunk way, something about kissing and making love. And when he passes by–mostly grown, swimming in t-shirt and jeans–he sings directly at you for two or three seconds, his eyes angry, confused, bloodshot, like it’s all your fault, and all the possibilities in the world are in your head for who he is and why, and what he means to you.

It’s something awful to meet some people’s eyes. It can be a straight injection of shyness. It’s the time-slowing uncertainty of childhood all over again: what do I say? What do I do? What will happen to me? Shyness–fear–pins us to the moment. It is entirely uncomfortable.

The first tenet of writing: conflict. More is better. We’re subconsciously aware of this from the time we can speak to ask for another story, another. To be uncomfortable–to feel tension–is to perceive conflict on minute levels, to see the smallest strands of spider web in the air. This is terrible and wonderful.

What is writing but taking that discomfort and reliving it again and again until it very well sings? Until, right there on the page, you’ve got that moment. I am not always that brave, but sometimes I manage it–I see other writers do it–and that’s the story or novel or essay that makes me uncomfortable, that gets to me.

This is not about embracing shyness, because shyness isn’t itself a thing so much as a symptom of sensitivity. Recognize it. Be sensitive, I say to myself. Be uncomfortable. Let these small things get inside you.

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