On Shyness, Dressing Up, and Writing

I have always loved this quotation from Sylvia Plath’s Johnny Panic and The Bible of Dreams:

“So many people are shut up tight inside themselves like boxes, yet they would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully, if only you were interested in them.”

I love this box image. I’m sure that the image was very personal to Plath, and it is something that I always keep in mind if I am dealing with troubled students. Sometimes they just need someone to take an interest in them, and an explanation will come tumbling out.

Opening up has always been something of a struggle for me too. I was extremely quiet as a child, painfully so as a teenager, and this meant that very often, I wouldn’t speak to strangers at all.

It changed when I went to university, where I learned that by dressing up as someone else (as in the photograph attached to this entry by Peter Roach) I could evade the crippling shyness. But I would still relapse at times. I remember working as a classroom assistant for an art teacher, who I found very difficult and sexist, so I would just lapse into absolute silence. He compared me to Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but not in a good way! Maybe this was just another way of dressing up – did I take on the Alice role on purpose?  – to help me manage having to work with a difficult man.

I spent a lot of time when I was growing up watching other people, and I was lucky to have a family who just accepted my oddness. Sometime being silent, however, is read negatively.  I remember having an exchange with a university colleague years ago, when he suggested that quiet students in creative writing workshops were always sub-par. I took issue with this assumption, but sometimes there is this desire for writers to be extrovert, charismatic, and outgoing people, which might work unfairly against people who can’t perform that way.

These problems might be in the work too and the pressure to present a seductive, charming poetic voice, along with a strong poetic persona, because that is what sells so we are told. I admit, I have often wished that I could be more like those writers who seem open, unguarded, and powerful in their self-assurance. Where is the space for the quiet voice?

I recently wrote an essay on “Not Confessing” for a book coming out from Black Lawrence, Far Villages: Welcome Essays for New & Beginner Poets, edited by Abayomi Animashaun.  As a young poet, I found it very difficult to write in a way that exposed myself, or difficulties faced. I did not feel comfortable putting this kind of raw material forward in an obvious way, so I looked for strategies to hide what I wanted to write about – a kind of dream language which gave a feeling of what I had experienced without telling even in a remotely direct way. This strategy was not so different from the distraction of dressing up in everyday life.

More recently, writing my most recent poetry collection Hand & Skull (which is just about finished), I have been travelling towards closeness between the poems and myself, which is especially important because they include my own experiences of different kinds of violence. In initial drafts, I gave myself permission to be absolutely direct, but after some helpful feedback from British poet Andy Brown, I began to pull back, finding ways around the subject matter  – disguises, and costumes – which allowed me to maintain a certain amount of distance. Anyway, in ‘Not Confessing,’ I hope to provide resources for young writers who might not want to write about experience in a straightforward way, but who might need to protect themselves.

Ask any shy person, and they will tell you that they have strategies for dealing with shyness. I always remember how the poet David Morley overcome his anxiety about speaking in front of crowds by becoming a bingo caller. David Morley also taught me the importance of having a persona for teaching and public speaking that both is and is not your self, or at least, that your private self – the shy part of you – can remain hidden from view.

And what great joy I have had in my interactions with people in my teaching, my work, and just in unexpected encounters. In a way, this is what the hands in the title Hand & Skull might represent; though hands can hurt, they also offer joy.

“You knew; you understood; you felt the world outside tugging with all its golden hands” – Edith Wharton