Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Writer as Friendly Curmudgeon - Building Fences Without Walling People Out

One of my favorite pictures of my mother, embodying all her effervescence and zest for life - letting her fringe fly.

It's apropos for me that week's topic - which has to do with attempting to be both a writer and a socially acceptable person - falls on Mother's Day. My mother is tremendously social person. She's good at it, and she loves it. Me... well, I've always struggled a bit with feeling like I'm not as good at it, and it took me a really long time to understand that about myself.

I just never felt all that social, though I could fake it to some extent. In fact, I often thought to myself that I was antisocial. In a brief bout of therapy during a dark angsty period in college, my therapist said to me, "Antisocial people don't get elected to be Social Chair of their sororities."

Which was an eye-opener for me, because it was a really good point.

Now I know how to label it, because there's so much more good language to talk about this aspect of human interaction. I'm an introvert! Or perhaps, more accurately, an ambivert. I have a lot of extrovert skills - which I've always attributed to my mother's tireless efforts to make me a better person - but I have a deeply introverted aspect to my personality. I need alone time to rejuvenate my energy.

Because my mom is an extrovert, she needs companionship to rejuvenate herself. Thus she's always worried that when I'm alone "too much" that it's not good for me.

But loving being alone is part of what makes me a good writer. In fact, I'd argue that so many writers are introverts because it's got to be super hard on those extroverted writers to make themselves sit in quiet rooms alone to get the work done. Introverts are all over that.

The downside, however, is that we can be perceived as unfriendly and shunning society of all kinds. Part of this comes from the necessity of building fences around the sacred space where creativity occurs. We absolutely need to be left alone. No quick questions or short conversations. No "but I only need ..." Anything that interrupts that quiet space will derail the work at best temporarily, at worst for a really long freaking time. And the worst part is, allowing minor infractions leads to larger and larger ones. A quick question today leads to a two-hour errand in the not-too-distant future. It can become a convoluted exercise in logic to try to explain why the short convo yesterday was okay, but a total disaster today.

And this is hard to explain. It sounds curmudgeonly and sometimes downright mean for us to say, "I'm turning off my phone, my internet, and shutting my door. If you need me, you'll have to need me later." We know our boundaries can make no rational sense, which means we end up snarling impossible demands like "Nobody talk to me EVER AGAIN."

I always think of the cliche of the Victorian era writer locking himself in the library and roaring that anyone who enters will be reduced to a pile of ash.

Okay, I've totally wanted to be that guy on occasion.

But most of us don't really want to be THAT antisocial. We love our friends and family and would like for them to continue to love us. It's really lovely when we unlock the library doors, emerge, (bathe), and find them smiling, possibly handing us food.

So the trick is to build fences around that writing space without building walls so impenetrable they can't be breached. I suspect the answer there, as it so often is, lies in communication.

I greatly appreciate all those years my mom spent drilling social skills into her reluctant daughter. They've come in very handy. A part of me is also amused that, for all those times she told me to get my nose out of my book, that I'm totally vindicated now.


Also, I love you, Mom. Happy Mother's Day, from both the good Jeffe and the bad one. ;-)


  1. This is perfection on so many levels.

  2. This is so true. I am often confused as to whether I am an extrovert or an introvert. I can be a bit of both. I shall have to try your definition against my behavior and see which dominates. Every time I do the Myers-Briggs type inventories, I wander among a few different answers.
    Perhaps it is easier to be an extrovert-when-necessary writer in this day and age.

  3. There's a word to describe me?! Ambivert!

    I think our mothers were cut from the same cloth. I love mine dearly but growing up and being pulled into skits with her in front of real live people? Well...I guess she did rub off on me a bit since I can get up before large groups of people and talk without hyperventilating. Happy Mothers Day to all the mothers who push their children's boundaries!

    1. There we go! Ambivert Daughters and Extrovert Mothers FTW!