Saturday, November 12, 2011

Shyness Unmasked :: Finding My Inner Extrovert

This morning, a writer and storyteller I greatly admire not only correctly identified me by my work, but also told me that he loved the story. My tongue cleaved to the top of my mouth, my palms got clammy and it took me several minutes to figure out how to respond.

If this interaction didn't take place via Twitter, I'd have been in real trouble.

Like everyone on the internet, my various bios conceal as much as they reveal. When someone asks about me, I'm prone to default to being funny rather than honest. I have no excuse for that, it's just the way I am. If you asked me the same question at a restaurant, I'd probably do the same thing.

Well, at least I'm consistent.

My sense of humor comes from a place of extreme discomfort. I am notoriously awkward in social situations, excitable, shy, prone to blushing, and generally nervous around new people. Strangely, I've been told by many that I'm a compelling public speaker. I'm not sure how that works, but when I hear it, I smile, sort of jerk my head in a nervous half-nod and carry on carrying on.

My favorite aunt was a source of particular terror for me as a child. I was so painfully shy that I ran away and hid from her. I locked myself in a bathroom or two and she once pursued me over and around furniture, determined to give her great nephew a hug. This perfectly turned-out woman, always proper and dignified and accustomed to moving in the circles of power and propriety, determined to get me over my fear of her.

Because she was just that awesome.

If you meet me, you might not realize I'm the adult that used to be that kid. I've been developing ways to conceal these kneejerk responses for over thirty years. When I was single it was ten times worse. It's a wonder and a miracle that my wife and I ever met, much less married.

Even conversations with people I've known for years are often filled with odd stretches of complete silence while I try to come up with something say.

I've always suspected that I'm not alone in this. Not to paint with too broad of a brush, writers are by definition, people who are inclined to spend a lot of time alone with their thoughts. Let's face it: when your imaginary friends are so good you want to share their antics with other people, it leads to a lot of living inside of your own head.

My imaginary friends are so at home they built a lovely little village named Westmoore and made themselves at home. If there's room for a whole village in there, surely the rest of you will fit?

One of the ways I get past my anxiety is by wearing a mask. And not a metaphorical one either, a real one. The one in the snapshot to the right.

I realize that sounds a little weird, but bear with me for a moment.

Consider for a moment a man who is terrified of walking up and standing in front of a room full of people and talking. Then consider what it would take to make that happen. What kind of shield would it take for that person to walk up in front of a crowd and not only command their attention, but hold it?

It was almost exactly ten years ago that I met my Dumbo's feather.

Unfortunately, you can't just wander around in a mask without paying a higher social price than you are already paying for merely being shy. It is possible for the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction and what I really needed was a controlled environment for the experiment where this sort of behavior isn't that strange.

I needed a place that would allow a largely inexperienced, completely unknown and shy actor on their stage.  There really is only one place where that sort of thing is possible. Luckily I'm an historical reenactor and was therefore already on the cast of my local renaissance faire.

Meet Calabash. (I'm the one that isn't made out of bronze.)

I've mentioned before that I'm a clown. Calabash began as a strange experiment and it became something more than that. He became the outlet valve for a part of my personality that I didn't know existed.

With that mask on, I could walk up to complete strangers and not only engage them in conversations, but I could stand on a stage, shouting at the top of my lungs and attracting the sort of attention that without the mask would have me scrambling for cover. I became a lead character. I got paid to show up places. I was on the cover of the program.

A terrified flying elephant holding onto a feather for all he's worth.

And like that feather, the mask was a trick. And just as with Dumbo, it worked.

About eight years after I first put on the mask, I attended my first writer's conference and I was one of the few people there actively meeting the eyes of those around me. Who was starting conversations with strangers, walking up to tables at the dinners and introducing myself, leading conversations, holding up my hand in classrooms...

Outside the agents and editors room instead of staring intently at my shoes, I pictured myself putting on the Calabash mask before I went in.  I was still shaking when I walked out, but my voice was as steady as my handshake and my eye contact was good.

As dumb as it sounds, I couldn't have done it without Calabash the clown.

Writers are mainly introverts, people who would rather sit and chat with their imaginary friends than stand in front of a room full of people who are looking for them to be as interesting in person as they are on the page.

Given my druthers, I would still hide in my corner and write my stories without ever doing anything else. Instead, I'm presenting ideas to the boards of local charities and nonprofits. I'm heading up comittees designated with the task of broadcasting the missions of those organizations to a larger audience. I've walked up to editors and agents and journalists and felt less like I was ice skating on thin ice over the dark waters of panic.  I've found myself on a stage both literally and figuratively, and I've found my a way to make myself at home there.

Because if I want to introduce all of you to those imaginary friends of mine, it's what I have to do. And to be successful at this, you do too.


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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).