Nobody’s Normal: Introversion and the Writing Life

I woke up at 3 a.m. yesterday to a panic attack. Adrenaline coursed through my body; it was like a jolt of juice in the arm, a desperate desire to fight or flee flooding me from head to toe, compelling me to move, to act. I sat in bed for some time, heart racing, talking myself down. There was no immediate danger. No tornado or wild animal to flee from. No invader to fight. No true danger. Just pent-up anger, fear, anxiety, and anticipation, all expressing themselves here, in this moment, in a rush of adrenaline.

When I’d convinced my manic body there was no immediate threat, I went downstairs for a cold pack and splashed my face and arms with cold water. Sometimes getting overheated exacerbates the issue. I lay back down under the ceiling fan and considered all the things I was chewing on, from book release anxiety to some unfortunate upcoming doxxing, to old publishing business and money issues. But I knew, even as I was chewing on the issues that triggered the adrenaline surge, my real problem wasn’t so much any of these issues, most of which have been gnawing at me for sometime: it was that I hadn’t exercised properly in 3-4 days, and what I was experiencing was my body trying to expel excess adrenaline.

mjaxmy02mwe2njqzmwi4nmnjztgxIt turns out I’m very good in times of real stress. I make a very good birthing partner. I’m good to have around when you’ve suffered a violent injury. All that adrenaline I’m so good at damming up and expelling at inopportune times fulfills its evolutionary purpose in these moments, and I shine. But ask me to bear down under ongoing stress without a fight or flight way out,  and… well, that’s really fucked me up the last three years.

I share this issue with folks on both sides of my family. I’ve talked to cousins who find they must exercise at least an hour a day to keep it at bay, and sometimes still must rely on medicinal help. My parents and sister have at various time taken anti-anxiety medication. My brother runs seven miles a day, and drinks most of the weekend. And my grandparents tended to deal with the issue in the more colloquial way, too – with a couple stiff drinks and manic exercise. The normalcy of this very necessary reflex has become abnormal in a world which presses down at you with constant stress, and we’ve all had to find different ways to manage it.

The reflex is also, I suspect, the reason I’m very introverted. Trying to manage complex human interactions which at any time may become disastrous can be overwhelming for me, which is why I’m so thankful most writers spend time in the bar. I suspect I’ll be better served in future running 30 minutes a day at a con instead of living primarily on scotch and coffee, but I like drinking scotch a lot more than I like running.

I had to give up much of my own preference for alcohol when I got my chronic illness. Now alcohol is a treat, and one I must carefully limit to less than three drinks in any one sitting, when I do imbibe. It makes me the equivalent of a teetotaler at many family gatherings, but also means I’ve never botched my blood sugar calculations and ended up needing an ambulance. All things in moderation, to live to longest life I can with the hand I’ve been dealt.

In another life, I would simply live on 50 acres or – as I planned at one point in my life – live in a cabin in the woods alone with a couple of dogs, writing novels and going into town only for groceries and the occasional movie. That was a fine idea of a life, for me, and one I sought in my late teens. But going to Clarion in 2000 triggered some kind of epic drive, for me. It gave me the confidence that I could have a bigger life, if only I could learn to manage myself in the outside world, a world built for beautiful extroverts who would become hyperactive sales people, mortgage brokers, and bankers.

Sitting here in my 100 year old house on a third of an acre, one of the bedrooms reserved for this study of mine, I can’t help but feel the other houses are still too close. We’re too near town. I have to see too many people when I look out the windows. But the location is convenient, and the price was right. I needed a compromise. I stay indoors too much here, in this house facing other houses. The much-anticipated privacy fence we keep hoping to build has had to be put off again and again for budgetary reasons. So I increasingly pull the blinds, and look forward to writing retreats at a cabin in Hocking Hills just north of here.

I have one romantic partner and one friend, for all intents and purposes, and that’s about all I can manage, and I’ve done that and continue to do that through a carefully negotiated process of their needs vs. mine, which is tough. But I wanted a partner and I want to maintain my relationship with my friend, and if you want these things you need to compromise even when it’s a little tough. The secret, I learned, is knowing when compromise turns into destroying yourself, something I discovered early on I was prone to trying to do, figuring I was the broken one. It turns out I have very fine limits on compromise. Learning those went a long way toward being able to form lasting relationships with humans without sacrificing myself. Them knowing what those were helped.

But mostly my introversion and anxiety is toughest in social situations required for my career, things that you may not think are vital to the writing life, and, in general, aren’t until you can actually write. My day job has endless social opportunities, most of which I am able to avoid, but one must make the twice-annual drinks or dinner with colleagues trek, and for those I prep stories and anecdotes and nurse my one beer and work at trying to react to stories and anecdotes like a human would. Out in the novel writing world, though, when we go to a convention it’s not just *A* lunch or *A* dinner, but a multi-day affair of panels, readings, signings with fans, drinks, dinners, lunches and breakfasts. Cons are a mad affair, one that’s gotten easier as I’ve gotten to know people, but no less exhausting.

Folks who see me at readings or panels often comment that I’m a great public speaker, and are horrified to learn I’m introverted.

How do I hack this? Pretty easily.

I actually prepare for it.

I know, right!? Blasphemy. Mad talk. But I prepare book recommendations and a few talking points based on the panel description before I even go. I prepare things to chat with about for folks I know will be there. I go over socially nice things to say. When I’m moderating a panel, or doing a reading, my prep is more extensive. I might spend 30 or 40 minutes coming up with questions and getting them in the best order. When I get there, I write down everyone’s names in order, if I’m moderating, so I can call them by the correct name. It’s also certainly not unheard of that I’ll have a drink before a later panel – a time-honored writing tradition.

But my biggest secret to public appearances is actually this: high school theater.

I took two years of theater in high school, and it was one of those classes that everyone fobs off as being extraneous. Just a bunch of kids fucking each other and smoking out behind the sets. And sure, yeah, there was that too. But as a kid who’s greatest fear is being publicly humiliated, after being humiliated most of my life – and especially my middle school life – for being a fat geeky girl with braces and glasses and head gear, I found there was a great power in standing up before a crowd and saying, “Yeah, this is who I am. Go fuck yourself.”

Once I started stepping into other roles, into other lives, public speaking got easier – or, at least, the on stage part did. The actual lead-up to public speaking often leaves me sick and shaky, right up until I have to do it, and then I swagger on up like I’m some hot shit or something. I had folks come up to me after speaking at cons and say I was a total liar about being introverted, or that I should speak professionally, or whatever. But the truth is that during a performance, I do not get energy back from an audience the way an extrovert might. I am actually giving out energy to it that I’m not going to get back again until I spend three days alone in a cave somewhere (or the study of a 100 year old house, whatever).


Prior to appearances, though, I still feel the same anxiety. I still worry over every word. In fact, I spent much of the drives back from all three conventions I attended so far this year going over every single interaction I had, interrogating how it could have gone better, and often worrying that I’d made a misstep somewhere. I was actually relieved I wasn’t going to the Hugos this year after I received the acceptor instructions from the concom. Even knowing I wasn’t going, just reading the instructions gave me an extreme sense of sick fear.

That stuff – the anticipatory fear – I can’t hack. I’ve tried. But pretending I’m a Big Famous Author at cons, pretending I’m somebody smarter and more confident and more extroverted than I am, works really well for me. I call up all my old theater training, and I pretend the whole world is a stage, and everyone’s watching. Which, you know, in the age where everyone is live-tweeting your panels and could potentially be updating their Facebook status with something you said to a colleague at brunch, is a really good way to live your life. It also turns out it’s a good way to burn off aforementioned adrenaline – I expel it all during the performance, knowing I am, indeed, often in a possible “Do you know what the fuck Kameron Hurley just said?” situation that could involve days of putting out internet fires.

It’s also gotten easier the more I’ve gotten to know people in the SFF community; Twitter is a lifesaver for introverted folks, because after you correspond with people on Twitter for a few months or years, when you meet them in real life it’s a lot easier to talk to them like they’re friends instead of strangers. And I’m a lot more fun and comfortable with friends than strangers, even knowing it’s a false sense of “knowing.”

When it comes to appearances and promotion, I’ve learned that I need to be very careful about convention appearances, limiting them to three or at most four a year, or I’ll exhaust myself so much I won’t be able to write. Stuff I’ve found I can pick up and do more easily: podcast and radio appearances. Guest blog posts. Tweeting.

At the end of the day, I’ve had to hack and limit the things that exhaust me, or that I’m not so good at – appearances and readings – and double down on the things I enjoy – blog posts, Twitter, etc.

But why? Why try to figure out the hacks at all?

My spouse and I had a discussion late last year about how I needed to go to more cons – he offered to trim the budget and sock away the money if it meant I would be more likely to go. They were not my favorite thing. I got anxious beforehand. I had to do a lot of preparation. But as he pointed out, and as I knew deep down, connections made at conventions are a great leg up for writers. “Go to conventions” was one of the big pieces of advice I got at Clarion.  Looking at my email after convention appearances now, I know all that is true. People are more likely to do business with their friends. They may like you online, and you can certainly forge lovely friendships there, but if they meet you IRL and you continue to not be an asshole, they are more likely to invite you to other things, and to remember when your book comes out, and to think of you first when asked about writers for other projects. That’s how business works everywhere, and it’s no less true in SFF – as frustrating as that is.

Yes, you must be good in this business. But there’s more to this business than being good. Just like any other business. Just like life.

I realize I could have chosen a cabin in the woods. I may still choose that (in truth, the plan is to make enough $$ to get to Oregon in the next 3-5 years). But what I found, instead, was that the best way to manage my anxiety, my introvertedness, in an extroverted world was to give and take. Right now I need to be out in the world. But from October to January, I won’t. My life has become a series of stepping into the light and stepping back out of it periods, chunks of precious time measured and rationed out.

How long can I do this? I don’t know. But certainly I’ve had a lot more success the last couple of years doing this “now I’m on, now I’m off” schedule than I had with any other strategy.

What I find funny is that media spends so long teaching us what’s normal, and trying to force us to interact normally, that it doesn’t give us much space to figure out ways for the vast majority of folks to hack their own way toward success outside of, or in parallel with, those spaces/behaviors. I’ve spent much of my life trying to figure out how to be successful without exhausting and destroying myself. Why isn’t that something we teach people? That the world is made for a very narrow subset, that the rest of us need to learn to hack it?

Because simply telling the rest of us that we are broken, and abnormal, doesn’t encourage us to be successful. It encourages us to give up. It encourages us to say we’re failures, when the truth is, it’s the relentless inflexibility of the structures built up around success that keep us out. Success, these social structures, were not made to benefit the vast “normal” but instead a very narrow and particular subset of folks – folks with the money and resources and temperments the system was made for. Just as standardized tests are not meant to judge general intelligence, but the intelligence of a select few in comparison to another set of select few, many of us start the world at a supreme disadvantage right from the start.

I am managing some workarounds on my own, thirty four years worth of them, but I often imagine: how much more successful would I have been if I hadn’t wasted time hating myself and thinking there was something wrong with me because I didn’t find happiness and energy in interacting with hordes of strangers, or that I needed to spend hours and hours getting ready for public appearances?

There is, of course, no normal human. There’s a vast variance, and I often feel betrayed by the way our stories and media pretend we’re homogenous, and that if you’re “normal” it doesn’t take hours and hours to do or learn the things I have.

But the truth is that much of interacting in and trying to be successful within this world is difficult for pretty much everyone but the 1% that all this fake homogeny serves.

The rest of us learn to hack it…. or we don’t.

And it’s the people who don’t, who can’t make that climb in parallel to a rigged system, that I mourn for. How many voices have we lost, how many will we never hear, because we shut them out before they could even get started?

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