July 13, 2012
I write because I love it. I write because I can’t paint. I write because it’s a solitary profession, perfectly suited to an introvert like me. But I’ve discovered it’s no solitary profession—for every hour I spend writing, I spend the equivalent speaking in public, or preparing to speak in public, or having a nightmare about speaking in public. I’m sure the fear of public speaking isn’t limited to introverts, but I’m willing to bet my signed Winton that for us, it’s worse.
Some days, as I hover outside the classroom during the school drop-off and pick-up, I eavesdrop on conversations (as a writer is wont to do). I listen to concerned parents who worry that their child is too shy, anti-social or lacking in sporting ability. ‘Johnny’ isn’t socialised, he’s over-sensitive, he daydreams all the time. He loses himself in books. So Johnny’s plonked into a remedial program to make him conform to society’s ideal of a well-adjusted, outgoing child.
I was lucky. When I was a kid, my parents never told me to ‘put that book away’ and ‘go play outside’. They never made me feel that shyness was an affliction, or that liking my own company was weird. It was only when I hit my teens that I started to suspect that it wasn’t cool to be an introvert, and I grew to accept that the quiet people are often overlooked in life, in their careers, and in love.
Recently, I had a tough act to follow in a wonderful, vibrant author who worked the stage like a professional. Nearly a thousand cynical teenagers were transfixed. Then it was my turn.
Now, I can’t shout without my voice cracking. I rarely raise my voice. I’m not animated or vivacious or comedic. My kids have learned to listen for the deathly quiet that means they’ve been too busy yelling at each other to hear my mumbled command—they know a stealth attack is imminent. Combine the life-force of a fossilised beetle with stage-presence of petrified rock and you have: me.
I took the stage and started talking. Whispers started in the front row and rolled like a Mexican wave to the back. Snickers. Glowing phones. I was sharing the stage with another wonderful, assured author, but all I could see was the lights, the shadows of tiered seating like the frickin’ Colosseum and, to my left, the yawning dark of the stage entrance where they let the lions in. I brushed my hair away from my face and inadvertently dislodged the mic that was hooked over my ear. The malfunction made my voice even smaller and, while I was swallowing bile and trying to figure out how to fix the damned thing without making any more ‘schchshschsh’ noises, one blessed student shyly asked me a question.
‘What did you say to the ghost?’
Thank you. Thankyouthankyouthankyou.
So I told the story about the night I talked to a ghost. It’s a simple anecdote that I use to demonstrate how ideas are born, and it started a chain reaction. The wave rolled back and the theatre fell quiet. The more quietly I spoke, the more they listened. And so it went; I made it through. At the end I felt an intoxicating relief that is becoming addictive in its own way.
We can’t all be extroverts. If we were all shouting at once nobody would learn to listen for the quiet. So, to all those parents who worry about their quiet little people: Johnny is probably just fine the way he is. And life might be more of a challenge for him, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be amazing.