How Being an Introvert Helped Me Become — and Excel as — a Writer

An introvert writes

Introvert traits — like being introspective and spending time alone — are gifts when it comes to being a writer.

I was always called “shy” in middle school. Quiet and reserved, I was never one for sleepovers or play dates at other kids’ houses. I was happiest at home. At some point, they took a middle school class poll on “most popular,” “best looking,” “most-likely to…,” and so on. I was voted runner-up for “most shy”.

In thinking back, I realize how ironic it is to call attention to a shy person and pigeon-holing them using a poll like this. The way everyone talked about the word, it almost seemed like it was some sort of personality weakness that needed to be overcome. And it made me think: Why couldn’t I be more outgoing like everyone else?

In grade and middle school classes, I was never one to speak up first, oftentimes speaking only when called on. It’s not that I didn’t have something to say, but rather, a fear of what people would think of what I did say if I chose to say it. It was easier to try and blend into the background, observe, and hope no one noticed. When I was called on, it usually came with the requisite blushing and short, concise answers. In my own head, I tended to dwell on how others were perceiving me. Later, I would learn this was not just a symptom of shyness, so to speak, but also one of the characteristics of an introverted personality.

Outside of those social pressures of school, some of my happiest childhood memories were of my time alone assembling plastic models. I sat for hours in my room piecing together model cars and planes while listening to “Top 40” hits on my clock radio. As I worked, I fell into an almost trancelike state of peace, joy, and focus. My mom probably thought I was sniffing glue and wondered why I wasn’t playing outside, but for me, it was a time of recharge and comfort.

(Here’s the science behind why introverts love being alone.)

Another favorite activity was the game of electric football, a popular game in the ‘70s featuring two teams of tiny plastic football players going head-to-head on a vibrating metal gridiron. I often played alone, setting up the players for both sides. Of course, it was always more fun playing against someone, but I never thought doing anything alone was abnormal or weird. To me, it was natural and cathartic.

Little did I know that all this time alone — and its energizing qualities — were clear signs of introversion. At the time, I only knew myself as a loner. It was much later in life, as a fully grown adult in my 40s, that I even came to know what an introvert was, and recognize the fact that my personality fell squarely within the spectrum. 

Growing Past the ‘Shy’ Label

As I grew older, I gradually overcame my shyness, partly because I (mistakenly) sensed it was a character flaw, and partly because of increased confidence. I realized that if I was going to succeed in this world, I had to play nice with others, no matter how that looked. This meant getting outside my comfort zone and expanding my social circles. In high school, I developed a core group of about four close friends. A couple of those guys were what I would label as introverts, too, but a couple were not. Regardless, those who were not introverts accepted my ability to say “no” to interactions based on my need to isolate. It felt good to finally be accepted by people who knew my quirks, but loved and appreciated me anyway.

When I married and had kids, I grew to see that my past issues were not from simply being shy. I came to realize it was a mixture of inherent shyness and acute introversion all along. It took being married to one and steeped in it to recognize how strongly I was rooted in my own need for solitude. (I often “argue” with my wife over who is the bigger introvert. She always seems to win.) She has reminded me that while I do have definite longings for social interaction, she does not. For example, when I say that a small part of me enjoys an annual work conference in California because I get to socialize with friends I only see once a year, she just says, “Nope, not me. I have zero desire for something like that. That sounds exhausting.”

At the same time, these conferences pit me against myself. I go because my job requires a lot of continuing education and networking, but often my attendance comes with a foreboding sense of dread. While I claim to look forward to a week of spending all day in crowded rooms and evenings spent at social networking events hanging out with friends, I know it comes at a great price. I tough out each day, going through the motions, but, without fail, I come back to my hotel every night completely tapped out and wanting nothing more than to hole up and be alone. In the weeks leading up to it, I fight with two voices, one saying, “It’s California, it’ll be fun!” and another that says, “Are you crazy? Remember how exhausting those things are?”

How Being an Introvert Helped Me Thrive in a World of Words 

Over the past 10 years, as a balance to my highly technical, team-oriented day job, I have pursued a newfound passion for writing nonfiction and poetry. I’d always loved to write, but only started taking it seriously in 2010 after enrolling in a locally offered nonfiction writing class. It spurred me to join a writing workshop at a local studio, where my work was critiqued by peers every week. 

In the process of this ongoing workshop, I soon discovered that writing took me back into that sacred isolation I’d experienced as a kid building models in my bedroom half a decade prior. Headphones replaced my clock radio, and a laptop took the place of my plastic model, but the urge to create and be completely alone with my thoughts was exactly the same. What might seem like arduous work to some was therapeutic to me. It was a pure escape — and still is.

My wife recognizes my need for this creative space and we both now share an understanding that Saturday afternoons are my writing time. I call it my “anchor time,” where, if I get no other writing done during the week, I still have those few hours on Saturday. Now that the kids have grown and moved out, this alone time has crept into my Sundays, as well. As my wife will attest, I get moody if I am denied it because of other commitments. In my own defense, my efforts have resulted in three traditionally published memoirs, five books of poetry, and extensive publication in magazines, journals, and anthologies. From a creative standpoint, it seems that my introversion has paid off through my writing. But…

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Powering Through Self-Promotion as an Introvert

After my first memoir was published, I was soon to discover that promoting and marketing a book requires skills that are polar opposite from those which enabled me to write it in the first place. It meant scheduling readings at bookstores, schools, and coffee shops. It meant preparing an elevator speech about the book to have at-the-ready for presentation when the situation arose. And it meant a fair amount of horn-tooting on social media. I was required to call attention to my books and publishing success — and to myself — something I’d never done before. It all seemed boastful and self-serving to me and certainly outside the realm of something the majority of introverts enjoy doing.

Suffice it to say, public speaking and self-promotion were difficult for me. While there was a side of me that enjoyed the recognition and accolades, early on, my first few public readings uncovered symptoms of social anxiety that resulted in a rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, and tightness in my chest. I quickly realized that these physical responses were something I needed to push through or overcome if I wanted to succeed as an author/poet. After consulting my doctor, he prescribed a mild beta-blocker medication that was nothing short of miraculous. It took the edge off, tamped down the anxiety, and enabled me to get through the events in the name of promoting my books. 

I released my third memoir in November 2020. While I recognized the middle of a pandemic was not an ideal time to release a book, for me, the situation was a mixed blessing. Social distancing meant public readings were out of the question. I was forced to conduct my book launch using a Facebook Live, a much more comfortable event where I read a few excerpts and took questions from viewers at the end. From my seat, it was the best of all worlds. I got to release my book with none of the stress of speaking in front of a live audience. In many ways, it was an introvert author’s dream! (Research, too, has found that introverts have had an advantage during the pandemic.)

So my writing journey has brought to light both my fears and my strengths. I have come to see — and embrace — my need for isolation in the name of both creative release and self-restoration. I’ve also come to recognize that introversion is not a weakness, but rather, a part of my genetic code and something I consider a gift. I’ve chosen to use it to my advantage by making space for introspection and building in time for recharge after public events.

But it has also required me to become more confident in my ability to “fake it until I make it” with regard to public speaking and presentations. I would even go so far as to say I’ve experienced a deep personal satisfaction when I feel I have connected with an audience during a live, in-person reading. And while that’s far from perfect, it is pretty good for a guy once voted runner-up for “most shy.”

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Written By

Jim has three published memoirs, Cretin Boy, Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir and The Portland House: A '70s Memoir. He also has five poetry collections, Thoughts From a Line at the DMV, Genetically Speaking, Reciting from Memory, Written Life, and On a Road. His nonfiction has been published in Main Street Rag and The Sun Magazine, among others. His poetry has been featured in The Orchards Poetry Journal, Blue Heron Review, and many others. He lives in Waukesha, Wisconsin with his wife, and enjoys fishing, kayaking, biking, and camping. For more about Jim, visit his website.