Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Writing My Way To A New Self: Introverted -vs- Extroverted

Draft features essays by grammarians, historians, linguists, journalists, novelists and others on the art of writing — from the comma to the tweet to the novel — and why a well-crafted sentence matters more than ever in the digital age.

Writing My Way to a New Self

I stared at the head counselor with a mixture of defiance, annoyance and heartbreak. She had just informed me that she was demoting me. Gone was the prestige position of senior counselor for a group of 13-year-old girls, and in its place, a midlevel position as a co-counselor for a group of 11-year-olds.

“I just don’t understand it,” she said. “In your letter you seemed like a completely different person.”

Of course I’d been a different person in my letter. I’d been writing.

I’d written a letter that spring, back in my dorm room at college, explaining in detail why I wanted to return as a counselor to the camp that had tortured me as a camper. Though I can no longer remember the details of the handwritten letter, I’m sure I said something about how I knew I hadn’t been a model camper, but that I wanted the chance to try again. I wanted to be there for other campers who were like me: bookish, semi-artsy and inexplicably at a summer camp for athletes. I could teach dance, I wrote. I could teach writing, not that the camp offered such a thing. I’d be there for the girls who were struggling; I’d help them have the sparkling summer I’d never found for myself. But mostly what my letter said, I’m certain, was that I was excited and ready to be an exceptional camp counselor.

So the head counselor had been surprised to discover upon my arrival in New Hampshire that I was still the same mildly morose, shy and apathetic person she’d known me to be as a camper. I still didn’t cheer appropriately at soccer games. I still felt like an impostor when singing the camp songs. Camp spirit was still a mortifying concept for me.

“What happened to that girl who wrote the letter?” she asked.

She’s in here, I wanted to respond. But she only comes out when I’m writing. You thought you were hiring Writing Me. But instead what you got was Actual Me. Big mistake.

For many years after, I assumed all writers were like me, with a secret extroverted, passionate alter ego trapped inside an introverted person who kept to the corners of rooms. A decade later, as I lined up in a university hall on the first day of my M.F.A. program, I made small talk with the woman in front of me. We asked each other politely where we were from, and then I said, “This is like a roomful of people who would all rather be by themselves.”

She looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“You know,” I added. “Writers. We’d rather be writing. Not talking.”

“Oh,” she said, and then started to talk to the person on the other side of her.

It turned out that even in a building filled with writers, I was the quietest, shyest, most introverted of the bunch. I marveled at the writers I would meet, both in the program and in the years after, who were able to write and talk to people. How were they able to quietly observe the world around them while simultaneously participating in it?

As time went on, I discovered that my inability to talk to people I didn’t know was seriously limiting the range of topics I could write on. More specifically, I was constantly finding myself in a position where I needed to pick up the phone in order to write about a given topic, a task that to me was as daunting as ice-picking across the Himalayas. In fact, given the choice, I would have readily ice-picked across the Himalayas. As a result, I became adept at writing around the fact that I hadn’t spoken to another human. I wrote an entire book that contained a hefty research component done completely at libraries, without one interview.

After that book my editor encouraged me to broaden my reach a little, to tackle more important topics. This turns out to be difficult when you don’t have anyone but yourself to draw on for source material.

That’s when I turned to email. Over the course of a decade, it had shifted from being a quirky way to contact someone before you picked up the phone to being the only way you contacted someone. Now, instead of having to call editors or sources, one could simply email them. And while on the phone I was awkward and stiff, in email I was my charming inner self. The phone meant talking, but email meant writing, and writing was something I could do.

Whereas I had always focused on essay writing as a way of shielding myself from the world, now I found that I could broaden those essays into reported pieces that went wherever my curiosity took me. Eventually the emails led to phone calls, of course, but somehow the initial exchange helped me get over my fear of picking up the phone. Once an interview subject had been contacted and a time set, it no longer felt as though I was approaching a stranger. I’d already laid the enthusiastic groundwork in my written message, and now all I had to do was ask the questions that were in my head.

And once I got going, a funny thing happened. I became enthusiastic, friendly and witty. Well, wittier than I’d been previously when I was simply stammering into the phone and thinking about how much longer I’d have to talk before it would be acceptable to hang up. I began to actually enjoy my phone interviews. It was as though my writing self and my public self had begun to merge into one whole person.

And when that happened, it was as though I’d been set free. Previously my entire writing career had been defined by what I was incapable of doing. I wasn’t someone who could pick up the phone. And now I am.

As I write this, I’m working on a project that will involve close to 100 interviews by the time it’s done. And with each interview I grow bolder, more comfortable, and more like the person I’ve always been in my writing. Now hardly any topic seems beyond my reach. As long as I can write my way there first. — Hana Schank | The New York Times

Hana Schank is the author of the forthcoming book “The Edge of Normal.”

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