An Introvert’s Guide to Self-Disclosure
Introverts make wonderful writers. They welcome solitude, reflection, and the deep thinking that all writers must cultivate to bring fullness to their work. They listen well, notice detail, and let experiences stew longer in the mind’s eye, enriching the whole when it is finally expressed.
But when the subject of their writing is themselves, when they choose memoir, or personal essay as their genre, they have another barrier to climb. The question is not “Can I do this?” It is “Do I want to?” How much of my interior landscape do I want to share? What is the balance between privacy and emotional honesty: between what is mine, and what my readers need to know?
These are more difficult questions for introverts. Not because they are shy or unskilled in intimacy. These myths persist despite the truth. Introverts simply prefer intimacy in smaller circles: in the one-on-one encounter, in the deeper conversation, or in solitude. So the expansion of that intimacy to the wider world, where they do not choose the receiver, can feel uncomfortable and overwhelming.
But putting pen to paper is often a relief for introverts. “I don’t know what I think until I write it down” said Joan Didion. ‘I write entirely to find out what I am thinking, what I am looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”* The internal dialogue articulated in language, parsed and structured with words, gives shape to one’s thoughts and refines their conclusions.
Still, the tension between the wish to speak and the pleasure in silence is real. It is a challenge for most of us who call ourselves introvert/writers. After almost ten years of negotiating this challenge, I’d like to offer some guidelines.
Write first for yourself. Put aside the question of whether to share it until later. Use pencil and paper if it feels more visceral than a keyboard; free association or incomplete sentences if that helps the words flow in that first exploratory stage. Let your first goal be a selfish one. Does this give me joy, and help me know who I am? If your answer is yes, you have secured an important foundation stone for any public voice that follows.
Get good at scene and description. I laugh now at my annoyance with mentors who told me I had to learn to “set the scene” and “describe the space for the reader.” That’s what I skipped when I read, I told them, what I glossed over to get to the “meat” of the story. Then I discovered that I could inject mood, and emotional tone, and unexpressed feeling into the description of a tablecloth I look at every day, or the taste of my morning coffee. I could use objects and scenery to project my feelings outward, and expand the way I wrote about them.
Tell the introvert’s story. Do not collude with society’s bias that only those who share easily are healthy; only those who reach out to others can find a way through pain. There are many introverted readers out there, who will see themselves in your story, and take comfort in that. Others, curious and trying to understand, will be fascinated with a path so different from their own. So, when solitude helped, say so. When you needed to fight it, say that as well. But do not apologize. Embrace your story, an introvert’s story, and tell it as well as you can.
“You need to pick the places you don’t walk away from” This is another Joan Didion piece of wisdom, and a powerful permission for introverts.** Choose well, and delve deep, and leave the rest alone, it implies. When trying to write about grief after my sister’s death, this quote took me instantly to music. I knew I could write about singing and my time at the Berkshire Choral Festival. With music as a second language I could share how Bach’s St. John’s Passion and Brahms’ Requiems, the works I sang a year apart, framed the process of my grieving. I could pick this and not walk away.
Imagine your reader. Some writers choose one person, a trusted friend, and write to them. “Go on,” their gaze says when you doubt, “keep going.” Or, when you write those personal, self-disclosing words, when you write that scene that makes even you cringe a bit, remember this. Most of your words will be read just as they were written: alone, one person’s face ten inches away from the page, absorbed in your story. Your words will be whispered silently or echoed between rustling pages in the same intimate interchange you know so well. That is your reader.
Let the words you choose be sufficient. If they makes others curious that is not a demand you must meet. I remember the fist-pump of enthusiasm I threw in my own kitchen when I heard this dialogue on NPR a few years back:
Interviewer: I want to ask you about that very painful incident with your Dad. That must have been excruciating, and you write so powerfully about what it was like for you. Can you tell us more about that?
Author: Thank you. It was difficult to write. But I believe I put in the book all that I want to say about that. So no, there’s nothing more. I’ll leave it there.
In the few seconds it took for the interviewer to recover and move on, I had been reminded of a powerful truth. My thoughts are still my own, and I get to say “no, thank you.”
Finally, when you write about others, a special challenge emerges. Do I have the right to expose my child, my spouse, or my parent to a truth they might not share? Or even one they simply do not want to be told?
Volumes have been written about this dilemma, and families have been destroyed or made whole again by books that face the challenge of telling a terrible truth. I wish I had an easy answer but I do not. I have simply my own hard won rule. People’s stories belong to them. They are not mine to usurp or demean or destroy.
But the truth behind those stories belongs to all of us. And if I can find, with generosity and courage, words that covey that truth, I cannot let fear alone stop me. For generations of writers have refused to let privacy and shame stifle their work. Because of that, my understanding and experience of being human has been enriched beyond measure. The only way I know to honor that gift is try to find a tiny piece of that courage each time I write.
*”Why I Write,” Joan Didion, New York Times, December 5, 1076
**A Book of Common Prayer, Joan Didion (Franklin Library 1977).
Our columnist, Mary Plouffe, raised three children in beautiful South Freeport Maine, where she lives, writes and practices clinical psychology. She writes essays, memoir and creative non-fiction, and has been published on NPR, On the Issues Magazine, and Survivor Review among others. She is currently seeking a publisher for a memoir, I Know It In My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child, and a book of essays, Listening Lessons: Reflections on the Grace of Being Heard. Additional information can be obtained at www.maryplouffe.com.