Monday, July 9, 2012

Those Pesky People

This party table is not my natural scene!
I'm not what you might call a typically social person.  If you’re looking for one of those people who goes into any group and immediately feels comfortable, makes everyone else feel comfortable and leaves with ten new friends…well, you’ll have to look somewhere else.

Actually, I have three basic reactions to other people.  First, I love to observe them from an anonymous distance.  This is super helpful for writing, so I highly recommend it. You notice all kinds of interesting quirks, overhear snippets of surreal and fascinating conversation, observe a million physical details.  This is all to the good, since you can steal any of these things to flesh out a character on paper. 

Second reaction:  once I’ve discovered that someone is interesting, usually due to a couple of fortuitous conversations, then I want to talk to them for hours, days, years.  To such people I am very open and unreserved – a typical extrovert, whom you can hardly convince to shut up.  (Apologies to my circle of friends who have to put up with me!)

Third reaction:  this is the complicated one.  When it comes to large groups of people whom I perhaps know a little or not at all, but am expected to mingle with anyway, I become paralyzed.  My skill for small talk basically doesn’t exist, you see.  I stand or sit in the group smiling and feeling stupidly awkward, answering questions which people may ask, but otherwise almost completely tongue-tied, while my mind scrambles for something to talk about.

I’ve been advised that the best way to carry on small talk is to ask others about themselves.  You know, the typical, ‘How’s your family?  How’s work?  What do you do for fun?’  The problem for me is that my mind doesn’t operate very naturally on that level.  I either want to observe people’s mannerisms in silence, or I want to have a passionate discussion about a deep topic, like what impact the fast pace of life in our world has on the creative spirit.  The in-between, day-to-day stuff doesn’t really interest me.  Hence my acting like a wallflower at most social occasions.  Hence also my tendency to avoid them.

See, I told you it was a lovely valley!
However, sometimes you just can’t excuse yourself.  For example, one of my closest friends from high school just got married this weekend.  Obviously I had to attend, so I traveled to her home in a beautiful, rural Montana valley for the wedding.  The reception followed of course, and for my friend’s sake, I was obliged to go.  I did not cover myself in conversational glory at the party. 

This is largely my fault, I know.  I don’t blame anyone else.  I also feel that it’s to my detriment as a writer that I have this mental block against small talk.  After all, it’s perfectly possible that by asking someone what they do in their spare time, and then by revealing what I do in my spare time (write, of course), we could in fact eventually end up discussing what impact the pace of life does have on creativity, or something else equally interesting.  Once the conversation was over, I could tuck it away in my memory and draw upon it for dialogue in my stories. 

Part of the problem is that I write under a pen-name as a way to protect my private life, so I have to be a bit careful of revealing too much, or I’ll end up completely unprotected and the whole pseudonym idea will turn out quite pointless.  However, it’s still perfectly possible to talk generally about my interests.  My most successful conversation this weekend was in fact when I mentioned to a distant acquaintance that I pursue personal writing projects.  She does too, it turns out, and we’ve both submitted to contests (without success).  We were able to talk briefly about our opinions on whether contests are worth it or not.  Based on that experience, it’s obvious that if I would just come out of my shell a bit, I could easily enjoy these social events and even allow them to broaden the scope of my writing, or advance my career through good connections. 

So yes, I am admitting a failure to find balance.  It had to come sometime.  I’m sure that I can’t be the only person who feels amazingly awkward at gatherings, though, so I figured I would share my quandary. 

For the writer, it’s easy to get very absorbed in personal worlds that mostly exist inside the head, and then to rely for feedback on a fairly small, intimate group of friends.  Now, I think this is good – we need those friends and we have to explore our worlds.  However, it’s a bit sad to become socially inept at the same time.  It’s easy to think of the artist and writer as a social recluse, but when you look into most writers’ lives, it turns out that even if they were shy and did avoid society at large (Emily Dickinson, anyone?), they actually had a large circle of friends and acquaintances with whom they at least corresponded.

Other people, as demanding as they may be, as awkward as they may make us feel, are actually very essential to good writing, I think.  A writer can’t afford to become a total introvert, or else the quality of his writing will decline.  Poetry depends not just on our thoughts and feelings, but also on an outward view of the world.  Novels depend on the successful interaction of a variety of characters to advance the plot.  Other people draw us out into the world; they also give us examples of the variety we need for stories.  Therefore, according to my reasoning, I have to conclude that I need other people if I’m going to write really well.

The cake was great, even if my small talk wasn't!
That’s one of the reasons why I’m happy I attended the wedding this weekend, even if I felt awkward and out-of-place and didn’t talk to more than a dozen people in five hours.  My skills for small talk need work, but at least I emerged frm my comfort zone, met and observed new people.  Who knows when challenging myself that way will lead to some story element that’s essential to a future novel?  I think anyone with a reaction similar to mine would be well served by occasional doses of social interaction – don’t you agree?

Besides all those considerations, though, the most important thing was that I had the privilege of witnessing my friend’s wedding, which is definitely worth a smidgeon of discomfort.  I wish her and her new husband a wonderful life together! 


  1. I really empathise with you - people!!!! I'm meant to be writing a novel (2 actually) but can find no time at the moment...

    1. People - we love them and can't get along without them, but oh how frustrating they are! Anyway, as someone who also often can't find time for novel-writing, I wish you luck! Thank you for the comment.

  2. I think as writers, some of us like the web - we get to meet others like ourselves offer support and all in the comfort of our jammies - Occasionally it is good to get out, and that we do for friends. Your nom-de-plume line brought to mind a piece I wrote that you might enjoy:

    While I've been a poet for a loooong time, I've not been paid for anything I've written. I'm still having too much fun...I hope you are too. And maybe, just maybe one day we can come out of hiding together.

    1. I did enjoy your poem! Thank you for linking to it. I like my real name, but I also wanted to separate my private life from any public life I may have as a writer. As a compromise, I drew from my real name and the part of my heritage I'm proudest of to create my pen-name, and as a result I feel that it really says something about me, which is satisfactory

      Anyway, I also find that the web community is a good way to interact with people. We are writers, after all, so communicating with others via notes, chat, blog posts, comments, etc. etc, online is pretty natural. But still, getting out among people upon occasion is a good experience for us all!

  3. i agree I am like that too, i observe people from a Distance or even if i should sit in there company i would only spoke when spoken too...but it takes me for a very long time to get comfortable around people...i guess it is the writer in me to learn people's quirks and just some up what there story is and i am always correct once i get to know them this way later i would feel like i know them, yet even they don't know who they are...
    i prefer this online interaction then the real deal...but my therapist tried to persuade me to meet people in real...

    1. I know what you mean about being able to watch people from a distance and guess what their personality must be like from their behavior. It's an interesting occupation.

      The internet is for sure easier to use as a way to relate to people. You can even form and maintain quite close relationships, I think. Getting out once in a while, though, does help keep us grounded, since we get to remember we're not in control, but depend on others to some extent, whereas online we can get pretty comfortable with ourselves.