Writing used to be a solitary profession. How did it become so interminably social?
Meghan Tifft 8:00 AM ET
Whether we’re behind the podium or awaiting our turn, numbing our bottoms on the chill of metal foldout chairs or trying to work some life into our terror-stricken tongues, we introverts feel the pain of the public performance. This is because there are requirements to being a writer. Other than being a writer, I mean. Firstly, there’s the need to become part of the writing “community”, which compels every writer who craves self respect and success to attend community events, help to organize them, buzz over them, and—despite blitzed nerves and staggering bowels—present and perform at them. We get through it. We bully ourselves into it. We dose ourselves with beta blockers. We drink. We become our own worst enemies for a night of validation and participation.
Lately, though, I’ve been asking why.
This question comes after several years of feeling ill at ease about my increasing lack of participation in the writing world. There’s my avoidance of readings, my fake enthusiasm as I swindle my own students out of their Friday nights to go to a lecture I won’t attend, my gag-triggering physical loathing of bookstores, my requirement that reading materials appear on my nightstand by benevolent conjury, without any consumer effort from me. There’s my acute failure as an educator to fill any tiny part of the role of writing-community steward that is assumed of me. There’s my own titanic hypocrisy most recently as I think about promoting a new book in the very community I can’t show love for. So here I am. In all my humility. Hello friends. Hello community. If you could pretend along with me that I’ve been here this whole time, that would be super.
My personal reticence aside, I agree with the general consensus that these live and in-person performances are a good thing: good for writers, good for the larger book world. Whether authors like to attend them or not, they’re justly lauded as an authentic celebration of earnest aspiration in a world that’s perennially hijacked by commercial concerns—worries about getting the story formulated for the eventual TV/movie adaptation bonanza, or timing the genre mash-up so that it can best crest the fad frenzy. Amid this noise, the writer’s variety show of readings, interviews, conferences, and Q&As is a way of talking back, creating and sustaining a community around writing that matters. It’s a way of feeling a little less desperate and a little more resourceful, of proudly professing our interdependency and earning our solidarity.
The purpose of all this is to enact the larger mission of the writing and arts communities: We want to transfigure the market demands of self-promotion into something inherently more valuable, to say yes and no to those rites of passage offered to us by the powers that be. We want to do all we can to promote our writing—and good writing in general—but sometimes the rituals by which we put ourselves out there can seem empty and exhausting. And if we choose to reject them altogether, we can feel like we’re not being good team players or doing our part.
That is why my first and most pressing question seems like such an outright act of mutiny. What I want to know is, since when does making art require participation in any community, beyond the intense participation that the art itself is undertaking? Since when am I not contributing to the community if all I want to do is make the art itself? Isn’t the art itself my intimate communication with others, with the world, with the unfolding spectacle of the human struggle as we live and coexist on this earth?
Do I really have to get in the way of that glorious interface by standing up in my sustainable zebra-wood spectacles, my complexion stage-lit and soaked in unwelcome Elton John bubble-shimmer, my cleavage lurching vampishly out of my neckline, my mealy voice and charmless presence competing with the lavish froth of that espresso machine? I mean, I can hardly see past the spotlights and pretentious echo to my own page of writing. It looks like an alien thing in this environment, wholly unbecoming and sickeningly feeble. And lest I imply that the underground bunkers and wine cellars are better venues for the bookish, all of us with our beer slouches, our pond-water hues toning in with the shadows, our mussed hair like bits of unspotted mold, that’s not the case either. It’s all the same. It’s all very embarrassing and alienating, when we look around. We’re real-life writers, not actors each in our own third-rate art film about the writing life. Aren’t we?
Since when did the community become our moral compass—our viability and ethics as writers determined so much by our team spirit? What if the community and the kind of participation it involves are actually bad for my writing, diluting my writerly identity, my ego and my id, and my subservience and surrender to the craft? What if I just want to make something? What if all this communing actually hurts the primary means by which I set out to participate and communicate—my writing itself? What do I do then? I mean, why can’t I make art in my clerestory abyss and snub the community without feeling like a snotty little brat? Why can’t I?
Despite the fact that the introvert is a romanticized figure, in practice the introvert is reviled and pitied. (And offered pharmaceutical cures for her unfortunate existential defect.) But what if the reticence of the introvert isn’t about stage fright, or isn’t just about stage fright? What about those of us who don’t want to self-narrate all the time? It’s exhausting to always be making and talking, whether in front of people or behind them, synchronously or asynchronously. Now, when every popular technology is just another doorway opening onto the ever unfolding dormitory of life—the one we’re all expected to drift up and down with casual curiosity, looking in on each other for the latest bit of gossip or distraction—not even our desks are our private domain. We’re always just a click away from leaving the workbench for the forum.
History has typically not been generous to the writerly recluse. It’s usually only a lucrative position after the fact of your success—and it works best if you’re a man—Salinger, Pynchon, Faulkner all have that esoteric aura about them that’s quite different from poor old Emily Dickinson, that self-imposed shut-in, or Flannery O’Connor, whose excursive limitations were a sad matter of physical ailment. Even Donna Tartt has to go on 12-city tours. And then there’s me. I’m not Donna, or Emily, or Flannery. I’m not getting anywhere as a young, reclusive, female writer.
This is nothing new, of course. With the Internet and social media we simply have an easier time expanding and enlarging the scope of all the old tricks. But at the same time, these platforms are marginalizing our long paragraphs and pictureless tomes even more—whether they’re online or in print. Sure our words and pictures and sound bites are freshly stocking the shelves these days, but our goods are often commodified down to pre-packaged, non-nutritive variety packs. And this development is still doing what it’s always done to art and the artist—politicizing us, making activists of us, making rhetoricians of us, making our writerly identity as much about who we are in the world of politics and community as who we are on the page.
I am grateful that there are many vibrant, engaged, brilliant people involved in the arts community who are much smarter than me and much more talented than me and much better writers than me, and who take pleasure and satisfaction in being a part of this community. For many, this inclusion is stimulating—it feeds the creative impulse, warms it with community spirit, keeps the mind and heart percolating. But it’s not right for me. I still don’t like where it’s taking me personally, the way it’s coercing me and guilting me and laying down standards and requirements for my viability, complicating my very simple ambitions with all this clutter: get your name here, network on this platform and that one, take photos, give a talk, show up.
For me the aesthetic of art is primal and private—it’s a guts-deep aesthetic that is not only losing its potency to the benevolent dictatorship of the screen, but that also goes limp and queasy in the rooms that host the reading, the conference, the Q&A. Writing, to me, isn’t meant to be read aloud. The last thing I want is some writer’s actual voice and bearing and personality scumming up my love affair with his/her book. I want to be alone with your book, please. It’s your words sweet-talking me deep in my head, it’s your thoughts caressing my inner voice, it’s your expression commingling with my perception. But I’m a selfish lover, and a limp compatriot. I want every book I read to be mine, not yours. And I also want every book I write to be mine, not yours—I don’t want to stand at a podium and acknowledge my readers and inoculate them to my writing through my underwhelming personhood, and I don’t want to have my own primal encounters ruined by your personhood either. If we must encounter each other, let’s do it the old way—in the dark, by the fire, our breaths bated, the world a big black mystery beyond us.
Or, if that’s impossible, I hope I can not draw too much contempt as the wallflower at our community shindigs, compelled to be here out of peer pressure but banishing myself to the sullen edge of the dance floor, clutching my bony elbows by the punch bowl, trying to disappear in this room of people that have welcomed me so very ardently. I don’t not want to be your friend. I just don’t want to dance with you.
Copyright © 2015 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.
See online: An Introverted Writer’s Lament