These days, we are all writers. We craft status updates, 140-character-length missives, short texts, and lengthy profiles meant to attract potential mates or lure employers. For some introverts, this situation is ideal—written interactions over the screen feel safer than meeting folks face-to-face. But for others, this style of communication poses as many challenges as socializing in real time. In fact, for perfectionists, it may even be harder. I find myself spending too much time crafting my social media posts, agonizing over how they will be read or even if they will be read. It’s maddening!
In the hopes of gleaning some advice on how to deal with this stress, I turned to Elizabeth Wildman, the Copy Director at St. Martin’s Press and an essayist with work in the anthologies Lost and Found: Stories from New York and Believer, Beware as well as other publications. She’s most recently published a story right here on Quiet Revolution. Wildman knows very well what it’s like to have a penchant for privacy on social media and in her creative work. In an email conversation, she reminded me not only why I socialize online but also why I write in general.
Brian Gresko: We had talked a bit about the anxiety of publishing a personal narrative as you did in the beautiful piece you wrote for Quiet Revolution. Do you feel the same trepidation about revealing something of yourself on Facebook?
Elizabeth Wildman: In some ways, social media is a gift to introverts. You can log on to Facebook, engage in discussion on a variety of topics with a wide range of individuals, and see photographs of loved ones near and far without ever having to abandon the comforts of your own home. There is emotional comfort in that process as well—we have control over our image; we can edit our words wisely; and we’re granted an exit from any conversation any time we like (or “like”). But don’t we need discomfort too? How can we lead honest, fulfilling lives if we spend so much time behind the filter?
Having friends on-screen is not the same as spending one-on-one time with an actual human being who makes the occasional ridiculous remark, irritating gesture, or, heaven forbid, bears a blemish. For a relationship to hold weight, it must exist without artifice; for words to be meaningful, they can’t always be clever. I want what time I have left on Earth to be spent among real people with real emotions—and only the occasional emoticon. This is a challenge in and of itself, given my introverted nature! While I hope that those who know me would agree that I’m quite friendly and sharing in person, I’m just not that interested in creating a virtual facsimile of myself and my world for everyone to see. I decided to value privacy three years ago and haven’t posted a single family picture since.
That’s not to say I cast judgment over others who have made a different decision! Everybody has their reasons and goals for the online selves they’ve created. If I worked by myself all day or stayed at home with my young children, who’s to say what my needs might be?
Even the most quiet among us have a basic human desire for connection, and that requires communication. The term “virtual reality” is oxymoronic, for sure, but I do believe introverts in particular achieve a sense of belonging on the Internet that simply wasn’t possible in the twentieth century. At the very least, the digital age has opened the door for sharing our stories. And I think that’s what human relationships are all about.
BG: I love that you address the need for connection because I think sometimes extroverts believe that introverts don’t have that same drive. I prefer connecting with people over email. Social media feels and looks to me like an overwhelmingly big party, with lots of voices clamoring for attention all at the same time. Online, like in real life, I prefer smaller groups or one-on-ones as opposed to big gatherings. You extoll the virtues of social media, but does it ever make you jittery?
EW: Yes. Facebook, for example, feels like the junior high school cafeteria to me. I become self-conscious as soon as I enter the room―I’m not sure where I should sit, who I should talk to. Do I have lettuce in my teeth? There’s always a popularity contest underway in which everyone is eager to be seen for how smart/talented/beautiful/cool they are. Of course, I get it: we all want to be liked. I’ve spent much of my life desperate to be liked. But even though I’m fortunate to have close, lifelong friends, I’ve always spent most of my time alone and have never been part of a social group. My attempts to fit in always backfired in a profound way. Like you, I prefer one-on-one time, intimate gatherings, and email correspondence. But these are just preferences, not true of all introverts. The screen can also be a great hiding place for introverts or those who deem themselves socially awkward.
BG: I don’t think I had considered that before—playing the silent observer. You’re right, no one demands that we participate or respond the way they might if we were physically sharing space. We can choose to keep our thoughts and opinions to ourselves. That is a wonderful, safe aspect about communicating online.
What about those of us who want to write personal narratives? Do you have any advice for a writer who has a story to tell but is hesitant about putting themselves out there and writing from the “I,” in close first person?
EW: I am a copywriter by profession, which means I write descriptive text for a variety of uses and mediums: book jackets, press releases, a slogan for a tee-shirt, washing instructions for a pair of denim tencel jeans. There is no use of the pronoun “I,” in other words. This type of writing can be fun, challenging, persuasive…and utterly safe.
Writing about myself is just the opposite: it’s risky to speak openly about my feelings, wants, and experiences. And oh, how I fight myself not to use too many disclaimers for what I believe in or apologize for who I am and wish to be! Sometimes, I find myself wanting to package an idea (as a copywriter is wont to do) rather than carefully unpack it (as a storyteller would).
An editor recently reminded me of what readers want the most: the messy stuff of life. There’s truth and beauty in vulnerability—we relate to one another best when we’re out of costume and the curtain is down. But how does a private person publish in first-person without worrying about how the work will be received? How does a writer conquer the fear of ridicule or resentment from readers? Why would anyone want to publish their personal stories to begin with?
My own impulse to write has always stemmed from a desire to connect with others. I know how powerful it can be to read something and think “this writer seems to understand this issue I’m struggling with” or “this was written just for me.” I might not be saving the world with every word I write, but if one young girl reads an essay I wrote about how I was bullied, for instance, and realizes she’s not alone in her pain, perhaps that’s worth taking a risk and putting pen to page.
I think it’s brave of you, Brian, to put yourself out there in spite of any fears of exposure. A true introvert’s dilemma!
BG: And yet, one that’s worth grappling with. I was, like you, a youth who found that reading helped me understand myself and also feel a little less solitary in my experiences and, therefore, less confused and conflicted. I began writing out of a desire to contribute to the conversation that authors have with their readers. All of my work comes from that impulse—not to see a stack of bestsellers on a table at a bookstore but to light a fire of recognition in one reader’s eyes. Your words have reminded me to measure my success by quality not quantity. Thanks for helping me keep that in mind, both in terms of social media and as a creative writer.