Shyness is Nice: The Beauty of Inarticulation

Author Kirsten Krauth was worried about how her own shyness could work against her when it came time to promote her first novel, just_a_girl. But at the recent Sydney Writers Festival, she was comforted by watching big-name authors grapple to shape their words onstage - and by Sian Prior’s memoir, in which she ‘comes out’ as a privately shy person who flourishes in public.

Image by Marian Ritter.

At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, David Marr did a wonderfully incisive interview with Christos Tsiolkas, author of Dead Europe, The Slap and, most recently, Barracuda. Throughout the session, in response to Marr’s questions, Tsiolkas took many minutes to speak, occasionally with his head in his hands as if trying to squeeze out the answers. The loud silence filled the room. But when he finally was able to seize the words, his ideas were rich in detail, nuanced, worth waiting for. Marr quipped that ‘he writes loudly and speaks quietly’. As I waited patiently for Tsiolkas to frame himself, I realised how rare this was: the chance to see a writer composing, having the courage to be uncertain, to not reach for the quick answer — to feel, as Tsiolkas said, a ‘real sense of responsibility … to what language means’. While Tsiolkas initially saw his writing as an effective way to channel rage (against himself, against others), he also wanted to fight off the ‘bad habit’ of being nice. Marr responded: ‘But you are nice, aren’t you!’ Being a writer, and performing in public, is so often about trying to reconcile these contradictory forces; articulating private emotion while keeping ourselves ‘nice’.

In her memoir Shy, Sian Prior uses this perceived dualism as a literary device. When exploring what it’s like to grow up as (and continue to be) someone who’s shy and socially awkward, she intertwines the thoughts of Shy Sian (the interior monologue of a woman whose hands shake at parties, who’s always on the periphery, who runs for cover when things get too rough) with Professional Sian (the radio announcer and interviewer; the teacher; the activist; confident in front of crowds). When Prior takes to the stage or street, she’s always anxious her shy version will seep through, but Ms Professional usually comes to the rescue. The whole book is searching, for what Prior is really afraid of. Rejection? Grief? Being alone? Vulnerabilty?

It may seem counterintuitive for a writer who’s shy to write a memoir and release it to the world: garnering media attention and exposing their inner thoughts and desires in the process. I asked Prior how she prepared for the moment of the book’s release. ‘I was very anxious about it, because the book is insanely self-revealing,’ she said. ‘It’s a form of extreme exposure therapy in a way. But when the actual book arrived in the mail, and I looked through it again, I found myself thinking, “this isn’t too bad, I can be proud of this”, and my anxiety lessened. And so far in public events for the book, Professional Sian has been taking over and she is rather enjoying it all.’

Tara Moss’s memoir, The Fictional Woman, is a good companion piece to Shy, and shares some of Prior’s themes: how pain is written in and on the body; how others’ perceptions can be elevated above your own; how beauty can be worn as a shield; and how science, stats and semi-truths can be interwoven to make a compelling narrative.

But in both these books, what it all comes down to is sharp writing. While Moss’s book is themed around common (mis)conceptions, Prior uses wonderful sleight-of-hand to draw the reader in and push them away: lists, short chapters, vivid description, strong characterisation, positing herself as the unreliable narrator, juxtaposing the two Sians in interviews, bold statements, wry humour, and the charm (and betrayal) of falling in and out of love:

On the computer screen we could be nutty, nuanced, nonchalant. Nothing seemed to be at stake, nothing required except to entertain each other with words. We told each other stories from our past, we compared our reactions to novels we’d read, we even offered tidbits of regret about past relationships. Writing to Tom, I felt weightless.

And in one of those early emails, when I confessed to being shy, he simply replied: As Morrissey says, shyness is nice.

I felt like I’d been found.

In her memoir, Prior mentions the following words displayed above her desk: ‘All writers must first charm, then betray.’ Prior says she didn’t set out to be charming, but try as she might, her quirky charm oozes out all over the place; perhaps this is something she can’t see, that she has the charm down pat. But I also wondered if she saw the writing as an act of betrayal — of herself, of others?

‘I never thought of this book as “charming”,’ she said. ‘A bit sad, a bit nutty, and full of Too Much Information, perhaps, but I certainly didn’t set out to be charming. Like the word “shy”, the word “betrayal” has several meanings. To betray can also mean to give something away or to reveal something. One sentence that was cut from the final draft said something to the reader like “if I write a book about my shyness will I betray myself to you?” And I have “betrayed” my shyness to the world in a big way, but writing it has been cathartic for me, and I hope reading it will be cathartic for some shy readers.’

At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, what Tsiolkas did, in those long moments of public hesitation, was to let us in, share some hidden part of him. These days, there is much pressure on writers to be perfectionists in all aspects of our lives. Not only on the page, but under the spotlight too. To have the right answers. To be funny. To give the audience what they want. To be entertaining. But vulnerability can be a powerful thing. In Brene Brown’s very popular TED talk on vulnerability (attracting over 15 million hits), she interprets shame as the ‘fear of disconnection’. While Prior may be keen to do all the research and categorisation (shyness vs introversion vs social anxiety), the residue of her writing, the success of her book, is when she meditates on loneliness and what it means to feel ashamed, to wear a mask in public — and how she tries, often unsuccessfully, to get beyond the ‘I’m not good enough’ to build relationships with others.

As I do the festival circuit, contending with my own form of inarticulation, and trying to let Shy Kirsten rather than Professional Kirsten grab the microphone to connect with audiences (as she does it very well), writers have come up to me, confessed their own fears, keen for guidance. They’re afraid of speaking. They’d rather be looking on. It doesn’t come naturally to them. They want to run. I feel their pain. But I can now point to Tsiolkas and Prior and Moss. Do I think any less of them (as writers, as people?) now that I’ve seen their vulnerable side? Do I judge them critically, knowing what I do? It’s exactly the opposite. What their vulnerability invites is enormous respect — and a desire to know more about them (as writers, as people). Just read any blog about how to cope with mental illness, how to move through grief, how to come out as an introvert (via Susan Cain), and go to the comments section. People want to see the inarticulate, the not-so-slick, the grasping for meaning. It’s what generates passion and compassion in readers.

Sian Prior’s memoir may not be a how-to or reveal-all, but it does connect. It offers the chance to challenge perceptions, to see beyond the surface, and to come out the other side, shyness intact.

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