Introversion, the Literary Community, and Me

Meghan Tift wrote a piece in The Atlantic called “The Agony of Community” that got me thinking about my own relationship, or lack of it, with the Seattle literary community.

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.

That’s a question I struggle with too. Not so much because of the stage fright which troubles Tift so much. I’ve been performing on stage since high school, and as long as I inhabit a character–and my public reading persona is a character, albeit one kind of close to me–I’m relaxed under the lights. For me, the trouble lies with ingratiating myself among literary types at parties and events. Simply put, I don’t schmooze. I can’t schmooze. I haven’t the slightest idea how to schmooze. I find the after-reading chats at Hugo House and other local venues to be a whirling agony of chatter. I can’t bear it. My skin crawls at the mere suggestion of a party, or an after-party, or any other event where success is measured by the number of people chatted up. I can force myself to go, and I can sometimes, with great effort, pull off the method actor stunt of remembering a time when I felt confident and amiable and behave like that. But in such situations you should know that, like Patrick Bateman, I simply am not there.

Do I understand the value of schmoozing? Of course. All the chit-chat and gossip and introducing and business card exchanging lead to opportunities to read at public events, get to know influential editors, bluff one’s way into gigs, find out about which agent wants what. Sure, there are plenty of people who can do it but can’t write worth a damn. I tell myself about them to feel better.  But there are a few who can both write and muster enough extraversion to rock these gatherings. Such people have tremendous value, and I both admire and envy them. They make artistic communities work, and these communities do a lot to keep literature alive. Sure, they’re not all The Bloomsbury Group or The Algonquin Roundtable, but they keep writers in conversation, with each other and with readers, and that’s helpful.

It’s just never been much use to me.

Maybe it is just my temperament, but I can’t think of a community I’ve been in that I haven’t felt the intense desire to flee. What others find stimulating, I find stultifying. I don’t mind talking to individual members of the literary community. I have writer friends. But when they’re in groups I feel like I have nothing in common with them. One of my favorite George Carlin lines goes like this:

No matter how you care to define it, I do not identify with the local group. Planet, species, race, nation, state, religion, party, union, club, association, neighborhood improvement committee; I have no interest in any of it. I love and treasure individuals as I meet them, I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to.

Like Carlin, I treasure my outsider status. I’ve been an outsider since the age of 3, and it does confer some advantages. It gives me a spot to sit and observe and be, as Lear put it, one of God’s spies. I can say what I want without fear of being kicked out because I was never in. I needn’t feel pressure to seek anyone’s good opinion or use people to help me get ahead in the hierarchy. When I feel confident, I tell myself I’m a rebel standing against all this forced in-person schmoozing and community building. Power to the shy people! I’m going to go write now and fuck all y’all!

But then I look to my left and see the box containing a thousand new business cards. I ordered that number not just because it saved me money, though it does, but because some part of me knows I should be handing them out, which means that I should talk to people who don’t already know how to get in touch with me, that this is the reality, that my struggle against it is futile, and that if I want success as late capitalism defines it (I’m supposed to want that, right? Federal Direct Loans thinks I should) I have to surrender and become a lot better at doing something I really really hate to do. 

Extraverts rule the world. We introverts could theoretically foment a coup, but that would involve meeting each other to formulate the plan.

I’m fucking doomed.


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