What lies beneath: an introverts guide to fiction and life

In our self-help age, shyness can seem like an obstacle to be overcome. But as Agatha Christie, Alan Bennett, Morrissey and others have shown, being tongue-tied can spur writers and artists on to greatness

Shyness seems an obvious theme for a writer. Writers are often natural introverts and onlookers, and the printed word allows them to convey meaning to others independently of their bodily presence. For Sigmund Freud, writing was in its origin the voice of an absent person: it let us transcend the limitations of our mumbling, blushing selves. And yet, as I have found when trying to write about my own shyness, as a subject it poses problems. It is a low-level, lingering, nebulous feeling, hard to turn into a story or drama. It has none of the pathos or narrative momentum of major life events like love, loss, illness and grief. Shy characters are not born protagonists; they are too passive to propel stories along. And shyness is tricky to write about autobiographically without succumbing to the hectoring self-pity that is the death of good prose.

Shyness, often seen merely as a wish to withdraw from others, can also amount to an undue interest in them, a desire for human closeness which defeats itself through fear and doubt. For me, it has less to do with simple timidity than a kind of social deafness, a tin ear for non-verbal cues, a sense that I have failed to grasp some invisible thread that holds communal life together. The shy author often overcompensates for this problem by becoming a field biologist of humanity, a close reader of the semiotics of the social world.

The English fiction writer Elizabeth Taylor certainly fits this profile. She would spend days on end just walking around Buckinghamshire market towns, sitting on her own in the Tudor tearooms, public gardens and pubs, listening in. And then she would pour into her novels and stories all her interest in social ineptitude and her hatred of fake sociability. Awkwardness and embarrassment are, Meg and Patrick in The Soul of Kindness (1964) agree, underrated forms of suffering. I never think embarrassment is a trivial emotion, says Beatrice in Taylors story Hester Lilly (1954). Taylors characters live lives of stockbrokerish comfort and silent anguish, baking sponges for coffee mornings, hosting bridge evenings and enduring formula luncheons that always start with sherry and end with fool. One of her opening sentences beautifully condenses the way that people steel themselves to join in with these rituals: In the morning, Charles went down the garden to practise calling for three cheers.

Shyness
Shyness is nice Morrissey, left, on stage with Johnny Marr and the Smiths. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features
The New Zealand writer
Janet Frame also nails perfectly these unseen dramas of shyness. Her narrators are full of hidden fire and verve, the opposite of the fearful self they present to others. As a child, Frames innate introversion was aggravated by her embarrassment at her wild frizz of red hair and her rotten teeth, which led her to cover her mouth when talking. She began to invest everything in her writing, retreating into a parallel world she called the Mirror City. This city came to seem more real to her than the real world she floated through like a silent, timorous ghost. She was loath to spend the one currency of hers that might have any worth in this real world talking about her life in the Mirror City for fear its magic would be disenchanted. She would not even divulge the titles of her books to people she met. What she called her primitive shyness about her writing made her unwilling to reduce or drain into speech the power supply of the named.

All writers have this sense of a split between their literary and actual selves; for Frame, the split was full-blown and blighted her life. In conversation I am bedevilled, she wrote in 1955. In written expression an angel will visit. Her muteness or incoherence in the flesh meant that many who met her took her for an idiot. She had channelled all the clever and lucid parts of her character into the self that sat alone at a writing desk, waiting for an angel to appear.

Frames fictional alter egos are tongue-tied women who think that the babble and prattle of the spoken word can never match the depth and nuance of writing. What is the use of speech? the unspeaking Erlene reflects in Frames novel Scented Gardens for the Blind (1963). On and on, saying nothing, the tattered bargain-price words, the great red-flagged sale of trivialities, the shutdown sellout of the mind? In another Frame novel, Towards Another Summer, Grace Cleave, an excruciatingly shy writer, has rashly accepted Philip Thirkettles invitation to spend the weekend with him and his young family. (The book was published posthumously because it is based on a real weekend that Frame spent at the home of the Guardian writer Geoffrey Moorhouse.) For Grace, the weekend is hell. She rehearses platitudinous lines in her head I do like cheese on toast, Ive so enjoyed your cooking and sometimes manages to say them. But mostly her words scuttle to the sheltering foliage of incoherence. She longs to sit in her London bedsit at her Olivetti typewriter, with the warm light of the Anglepoise shining over the keys, sending out noisy signals to herself. Frame, like many shy writers, has a sobering sense that language always, in the end, sells us short. Words are a compromise, aimed at reaching fleetingly across the unbridgeable divide between us all. We are all tongue-tied; some of us are just more aware of it than others.

Agatha Christie, like Frame, avoided social gatherings for fear of seeming, as she put it, imbecile with shyness. She, too, made amends for her inarticulacy in the flesh with fluency on the page. In her case this resulted in almost 100 books, millions of words to act as counter-ballast to her real-life reticence. But Christies solution was quite different to Frames. It was to create characters who were starkly her opposite like the nosy and fearless Miss Marple, or the hyper-confident Hercule Poirot, an actor manqu who sees the apprehending of the villain as an occasion for bravura intellectual display. If you are doubly burdened, first by acute shyness, and secondly by only seeing the right thing to do or say 24 hours later, what can you do? Christie wrote in the Daily Mail in 1938. Only write about quick-witted men and resourceful girls whose reactions are like greased lightning. She confided to her diary that she thought Poirot an egocentric creep.

Writers find all kinds of indirect ways of writing about their shyness. Another of these oblique strategies is to conjure up an imaginary world in which shyness is a common feeling one that, rather than just alienating people from each other, unites them in their fears and vulnerabilities. For Garrison Keillor, who grew up a gangly, awkward boy with a powerful wish to be invisible, the fictional prairie town of Lake Wobegon serves this role. Here, in a shyness-cultivating part of the world somewhere north-west of Minneapolis, even close friends stand an arms length apart, romantic passion is voiced as mild interest and the Norwegian bachelor farmers all eat shy-busting Powdermilk biscuits.

Upper-midwest
Upper-midwest diffidence A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969), based on Charles Schulzs Peanuts comic strip. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

Charles Schulzs Peanuts comic strip, of which Keillor is a lifelong fan, taps into the same mood of upper-midwest diffidence. Charlie Brown is Schulzs own shyness in cartoon form. With his anonymous round head, Charlie suffers that familiar seesawing between feeling horribly invisible most of the time and horribly visible some of the time. Schulzs virtuosic twist is to give him a dog, Snoopy, who is a brilliant wordless communicator, and whose role is to make his master feel even more inadequate.

When it appeared on a page of noisy comic strips all jostling for attention, Peanuts drew the eye with its clean lines and white spaces, the boldness with which it said so little. The mood music of Minnesotan weather the softly falling snowflakes, the frozen ponds on which the characters skate silently and the stone-faced snowmen they build and befriend, only for them to melt away adds to the general ambience of stillness and quiet. In Peanuts, problems remain unresolved and words unspoken. Its signature note is the bathetic non-ending, a final panel with Charlie Brown exhaling a *sigh*, smiling wonkily with sweat beads shooting off his face or blushing in a way that fills his face with diagonal lines. Schulz knew that shyness has no narrative arc: the shy just have to carry on being shy. A daily comic strip was his way of dealing with this, communicating with the world remotely by creating his own world with a few bold pen strokes, and signing his name at the end.

Schulz came to believe, with classically midwest self-deprecation, that his own inhibitions were just inverted narcissism. Shyness, he wrote, is the overtly self-conscious thinking that you are the only person in the world; that how you look and what you do is of any importance. But the lesson of Peanuts is quite the reverse. Who, after all, is a better model of humanity: Lucy van Pelt, who shouts at the world with bone-shuddering and misplaced conviction, or Charlie Brown, a gentle, fair-minded stoic?

Tove Janssons Moomins books are also full of introverts, shrewish animals who hide under sinks or wander around the world in search of the horizon, never saying a word. Janssons scraperboard illustrations scratch these characters out of a background of black India ink, as if they are emerging warily out of the gloom. With only the thinnest pen line a tiny widening of the eye pupil, a downturned eyebrow or the sole of a foot treading charily through snow she conveys their fear. But the Moomins themselves are more successful role models for the shy. They like to wander in the forest alone, enjoying its silence and stillness, or to burrow into warm, private spaces. But they sulk and skulk only fleetingly. Mostly they retreat so as to think deeply and make something a painting, a poem or a boat carved out of bark as a way of whittling meaning out of a frightening world. Janssons lesson is not that shy people should come out of their shells; it is that they should embrace that shyness and put it to artful use.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/20/introvert-fiction-agatha-christie-alan-bennett-morrissey-shyness

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