I’ve just finished reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  I feel like I’ve arrived at the party late – it was billed by many as the ‘must-read’ non-fiction book of 2012.  It was lent to me by a colleague, who urged me to read it, saying that it has changed the way she thinks about the people she lives, loves and works with.  Quite a claim.  But then, it’s quite a book.

Cain’s definition of introversion and extroversion is based, not on how shy or confident people are, but on their levels of sensitivity and response to stimulus.  Introverts often need to withdraw, to think deeply, to create.  Extroverts, on the other hand, need constant input from other people – from the buzz of social connection, collaboration and team working.  Those who enjoy more contemplative activities (reading, for example, or writing, or creating art) are certainly more likely to be introverts in a world which, as Cain suggests, generally values extroversion more.  We (that is, Western society) equate extroversion with social status, popularity and, often, commercial success.

Like so many other introverts who have read Quiet, I had a dawning sense of recognition: ‘ah!  So that’s why!’  It explains so much: that, although my friends are very dear to me, I’d often rather skip the party and stay home with a good book.  It explains why I crave silence.  It explains why, without it, I get intensely irritable; but more than that, stressed, overstimulated and unable to cope.  In this sense, I’m like many creative people, requiring solitude and quiet in which to work, to recharge and to find meaning.  Recently, I got to stay in the guest house of a convent – partly retreat, partly as research trip for my forthcoming radio play – and the silence was so thick I could practically eat it.  I revelled in it.  I’ve done these retreats fairly often over the years, usually in January, which for me is a brilliant time to take stock and to get on with writing.  These visits have become essential to my wellbeing, and to my personal and creative development.  I ‘top up’ on peace and quiet and return to life replenished.

So how do introverts fare in a literary world which, increasingly, relies on writers to sell books and to be their own self-promotional marketing machine?  These days, being a writer means embracing both modes: the public and the private.  It has become obligatory to connect with others – either face to face or through the internet; to build a ‘platform.’  For this, we must navigate the virtual minefield of the internet, which in itself (certainly for introverts) can be overstimulating and exhausting.  Literary agent Rachelle Gardner touches on this in a recent blog post.  She argues the need for writers to filter external stimulus, and to preserve creative integrity by ensuring boundaries between the contemplative process of writing and the external activities of marketing, networking and social media.  She urges writers to be the ‘gatekeeper’ of their own minds.

My own writing life seems to turn on this essential paradox: if I’m an introvert and need solitude and silence in which to work, why do I get so much pleasure from the public face of the writer’s role?  Appearing in public, talking to an audience, speaking about the book, as well as connecting through Twitter and other social media  – I love these things as much as getting on in silence with the writing.  This discovery has been the single most surprising thing about being a published author.  So how does it square with the quiet business of being alone, putting words on a page in solitude?

Introversion and extroversion exist, of course, in a spectrum.  I’ve always thought of myself as having a reasonably healthy dose of extroversion.  As someone who did amateur dramatics as a teenager and went into a career as a lecturer, I know I can ‘do’ performing, even while there is always that pull to find refuge in being alone.  I always just assumed that I must have a split personality (I am a Gemini, after all).

But when it comes to the public face of the writer’s life, Cain gives us another way of thinking about where we introverts find our meaning and strength.  Introverts, she argues, are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love or anything they value highly.  She calls this ‘Free Trait Theory,’ in which an introvert temporarily embraces qualities which might generally be associated with extroverts:

Free Trait Theory seems to run counter to a cherished piece of our own cultural heritage.  Shakespeare’s oft-quoted advice ‘To thine own self be true’ runs deep in our philosophical DNA. Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of taking on a ‘false’ persona for any length of time.  And if we act out of character by convincing ourselves that our pseudo-self is real, we can eventually burn out without knowing why…Yes, we are only pretending to be extroverts, and yes, such inauthenticity can be moray ambiguous (not to mention exhausting) but if it’s in the service of love or a professional calling, then we’re doing just as Shakespeare advised.

(Susan Cain, Quiet, p.210)

Cain’s book has given me another way of thinking about the ‘out there’ activities of being a writer – the events, and talks, and readings – and a teacher.  I no longer think of myself as a split personality.  I now feel I’m an introvert who is able to step forward and speak authentically to the creative process.  Literary events aren’t a performance.   They’re an opportunity to talk about my work, to explain why I wrote the story I did and why I think it might be important.  I do these things not necessarily to promote myself or my work (though that can be a convenient by-product) but because they are another way of transmitting the meaning at the heart of the story I’ve written.  For me, these events – because they allow me to engage directly with real people in real situations – add context and nuance and meaning to the fictional words on the page.

Like many writers, I share the fear that public speaking can bring with it, of feeling vulnerable and exposed.  There’s always the risk I might be ridiculed, or misunderstood or contradicted.  But if we’re to add anything to the myriad rich and fascinating conversations about what it is to be alive, to be human, isn’t it a risk worth taking?  Personally, I’ve come to feel more and more insulated from that fear of risk, by focusing instead on the authenticity of the message and on my passion to convey it.

Question: are you an introvert or an extrovert?  How does it shape your behaviour and world-view?  I’d love to know…


If you want to find out more about Susan Cain’s work, have a look at her website, and at this clip of her TED talk, which gives a great introduction to the topic, and an overview of the issues she touches on in the book: http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html



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