Many of my blogs have been silly and whimsical, and for that reason, someone recently told me that, if I could be the same person around strangers as I am when I write, I could be “the life of the party.”
Maybe long ago I could have been. When I was little, my dad used to call me “Bubbles.” Though considered shy at school, at home I was chronically excited. I could be silly and even rowdy at times. I had a friend who went into fits of laughter whenever I said the word "hot dog," which at the time was an expression of excitement. And I always had a project of some sort, a song I was making up on the piano, a drawing, or a “novel” I was working on.
By adolescence, all my bubbles had popped. Maybe it was the bullying or only the dampening influence of hormones.
But I remember a distinct moment, when I was twelve years old, in which I became aware that my inner world had split off from the rest of me, become vibrantly distinct from my outer world. Maybe the bubbles had never popped but had only gone underground, where they felt safer from the perils of pins and ceilings.
If I had an “underground” it was my writing. While I presented a serious and polite facade to the world, much of my writing remained playful, and at times silly, even during times of depression.
And maybe that is why I have been accused of not being the “life of the party” when I could be. A couple of months ago, my visible discomfort at a group event prompted the comment. I had been mostly silent the whole time, focusing on my dinner plate and speaking only when addressed.
I was even less of a social butterfly than usual because right before the event I had been writing a short story. My accuser had dragged me away from my world of words and interrupted my characters in mid-sentence.
According to all the handbooks, pulling an author away from writing-in-progress is a dangerous thing to do and should be attempted only in dire emergencies.
The group was composed of nice people; I might have enjoyed speaking to any one of them individually. However, when a group of strangers exceeds two people, a shift sometimes occurs.
Individuals merge into a kind of ad hoc “mini-culture,” with norms, rules and expectations. A group leader sometimes emerges, which is invariably an extrovert, and never me.
Once I was eating lunch with some teenage girls at school. They were all talking about times they had fallen in a public situation and gotten embarrassed. Each girl animatedly shared their own story, which culminated in sympathetic laughter.
Soon, everyone had shared their falling experience and began to look at me since I had not “taken my turn.” Why was I not playing along? Someone even asked me: Did I not want to share a story about a time that I fell?
I honestly told them I could not think of a story, but I could sense their disapproval. I had not told a story. I was not one of them. Why was I there? Even if I could have remembered I time that I had fallen, why tell it? It has no meaning for me.
The more a group outnumbers me, the more likely it is that arbitrary rules and expectations will spring up without warning. In order to be polite I want to go along, but at the same time I chafe at group pressure. Just let me eat my cookie.
Even if “rules” or impromptu public speaking events never arise, I am always uncomfortably aware of the possibility. I smile and nod and do my best to act happy, but I am always desperate to get away. When I finally do, I am euphoric.
My relief is not necessarily due to disliking anyone. What grates most is the sense of protocol. Must act polite. Must smile appropriately. Must rave over food an pretend to enjoy experience. Must listen. Must not reveal scandal that I would rather be home.
To make matters worse, I have trouble concentrating to listen in groups. When I am dining with someone one on one, the conversation has focus. There is a possibility of connecting with someone in a non-superficial way. In a group of five or more, multiple “light” conversations spring up. Which do I focus on?
For example, at the group dinner, I tried to listen, to find order in the jumble of syllables being tossed around the table like juggling pins. Amid the chatter of several unrelated conversations, I tried to pick one and focus on it.
That never works, not for long. My story characters, which I had been torn from, were making more sense than anyone. I “listened” to them instead. It was more fun and less confusing.
Nevertheless, people who urge me to be "more confident" in group situations apparently assume that I am boiling over with appropriate things to say about the conversation-in-progress, but that, due to self-doubt, I am not brave enough to say them.
They are wrong.
Other than writing stories in my head, what am I really thinking? Sometimes I am marveling at how comfortable everyone else seems to be with taking the floor and telling stories. But sometimes I notice details I can use in writing: mannerisms, gestures, the kinds of material I can use in writing fiction. Instead of comprehending the content of conversations, I notice tone, facial expressions, or the slope of a nose.
If I broke up a conversation-in-progress about cell phone plans to discuss the slope of a nose, I doubt that my observation would be well-received. Better to observe noses quietly.
What else am I thinking? Sometimes my mind likes to play a game called, “What is the most awful, socially offensive thing I could do in this situation?” My mind does not play this game with my permission, and it quadruples my anxiety.
What if I repeated the last word that every speaker said? What if I insulted the waitress? What if I screamed “Allahu Akbar”? I tense, just in case I lose control of my body and it does those very things. It is as if my mind is exploring the limits of the situation and attempting to reach beyond them.
The feeling of being “limited” in groups can translate into detached behavior that seems antisocial. It is hard to explain to people that I can hate being in a group they are part of, but not hate them individually. But a lifetime of unpleasant group experiences, going back to childhood bullying, has reinforced my dislike of group situations.
I am told that to succeed as a writer, I must change; that writing is an industry for uninhibited, group-loving go-getters; and that it does not tolerate social anxiety, shyness or signs of “under-confidence.” What I heard was, "You must have ‘confidence,’ which you must earn by becoming more like everyone else.” But real confidence is self-acceptance, not apologetic conformity to a group norm.
What I really need is more anger. I have never had enough of it, but at times ire is the most sensible response. It would give me the energy to say: “Pratfall stories bore me to tears and I refuse to inflict them on anyone.” Or “I have nothing to add about the subject hairspray. The topic is ludicrous, dull, and beneath me. However, I find the slope of your nose amusing. There. I am confident enough for you?”
Who knows? Maybe my listeners would find my honesty charming. In any case, I reserve the right to eat my cookies in peace and withhold my thoughts whenever I choose.
Whatever “bubbles” may rise in my writing, they come from a silent and forbidden place, a sanctuary where I go to clear my mind from the confusing chatter of a crowd. The writing self that would make me the “life of the party” comes from a place of solitude.
And inside it, I have learned that I want to stay who I am.