Writerland, Chapter 57: For the Shy Ones
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
I have always been shy. It’s simply part of my personality, a part of what makes me me. But the outside world has undoubtedly contributed to my shyness too. My first language is Spanish, and in elementary school, my classmates would make fun of the way I pronounced words in English. Feeling self-conscious and like I didn't fit in, I retreated behind books and played with dolls instead of peers during recess. I was the kid who dreaded being called on and who, of course, was always called on because I never raised my hand. I hated group reading because I knew eventually we would each be forced to read out loud and I would try to calculate which paragraph would fall to me and practice it over and over in my head, the pit in my stomach growing larger and larger the closer it got to my turn. I was woefully self-aware of how my voice would tremble when I spoke in class and I could feel my face burn as it got redder and redder.
As an adult in my late twenties, I still feel all this. What is unexpected is how many people act surprised when I tell them how shy I feel most of the time or how bad my social anxiety can get. Instead of shy, people mistake me for cold, aloof and judgmental (which I can be sometimes). We are all playing a part, and I have learned to play mine.
It’s funny though, that I decided to attempt a career which forces you to talk to not only people, but to strangers who, for the most part, do not want to talk to you. Journalism is many things, but to me it is anxiety-inducing and at times, overwhelming. And yet for some reason, I’m still here, still trying. Of course, there are many aspects of journalism that I do enjoy – the feeling I have after I write something and read it over and realize it’s not that bad, learning about the people, places and ideas around me, feeling like I am, in some small way, contributing to our understanding of this world.
But in movies and television, I keep seeing journalists portrayed as these fearless creatures who are so eager to knock on doors and cold call and give impassioned speeches that convince sources to go on the record and I always think, imagine all the things I could accomplish if I could be like that. Of course this cannot be how all journalists move through the world. I certainly don’t think I’m the only shy person in journalism. So many of us are introverted and bookish and we’re just figuring out the rest as we go along.
Our society seems to view shyness as something that is inherently bad. My report cards in school were always good, except when it came to class participation. I did my work, I did it well, I understood everything, but I was too quiet. I didn’t participate. I needed to do better, try harder. But when you are shy and so keenly aware of it, a comment as innocent as “you need to participate more in class” only leads to more anxiety, more fear. At least that’s how it works for me. If someone points out a “flaw” that I am already aware I have, it’s worse knowing that at least one more person also knows I have it.
Being shy was something I used to be ashamed of. It felt like a character deficit, something in desperate need of fixing. But recently I’ve realized that I will always be shy and I’m okay with that. What I can do is learn to deal with it better so that I’m not incapacitated by it. I can do anything an extrovert can do, it just takes a lot of pep talks to myself and sweaty palms and heavy breathing.
Journalism has helped me manage my shyness and social anxiety in many ways. In grad school, for example, I had to place cold calls and interview strangers on the street for assignments. Interviews were always nerve-racking and terrifying, but when they were over and I was able to breathe normally again, I felt very accomplished. Doing these exercises over and over again didn't make my anxiety go away, but they helped me understand that I was, in fact, capable of conducting an interview or approaching someone on the street.
But grad school could also be alienating. So many of my wonderful professors spoke with such genuine enthusiasm about their surreal reporting experiences, all the times they were able to get the story right because they managed to sweet-talk the right person or because they were young and bold. I worried that I would never make it because I wasn't made to be like them. There was also so much advice on so many important things but no guidance on what to do if you were afraid to pick up a phone or if you felt like vomiting before you approached a stranger to ask a question. Why did we not speak of this? Did no one else feel this torment?
Over the years, I’ve had to develop my own sort of makeshift roadmap and coping mechanisms for doing my job because I cannot simply throw myself into the work without being anxious or overthinking everything. There’s this Joan Didion quote that I long to embody: “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.” While it doesn't apply exactly to me, I try to put myself in the mindset of using my shyness to my advantage when I am reporting.
Because I am reserved, I can observe while others talk. Because I overthink, I have already thought out every possible scenario so no result is a curveball. Because I am so busy worrying about not sounding stupid when I open my mouth, my silence compels people to talk for longer to fill an awkward pause in conversation. I do not claim to be an expert on anything serious but if you are shy like me, the best thing to do is to use it to your advantage. Keep trying, and remember that you can do anything you set your mind to, within reason. My shyness and anxiety haven't ever disappeared when I report. I still breathe a sigh of relief anytime someone doesn't answer the phone even though that means I’ll have to try them again later. But at least I know that after hours of procrastination, anxious pacing and talking myself through it, I will be able to call them again, to try once more.
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. Writerland, The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.