Monday, May 30, 2011

Solitude and Isolation by Jennifer Hubbard

Solitude and isolation; aloneness and loneliness. These are issues that most writers must grapple with at some point in their careers, since writing is usually practiced in solitude. Even the writer who works in a busy cafe or a crowded household has to achieve a bubble of quiet within that space, to enable her to listen to the inner voice.

At first glance, these would appear to be non-issues for the introverted writer, who thrives in solitude. Yet introverts need human connection as well. We are not immune from loneliness; we are not invulnerable to solitude’s darker twin, isolation.

While solitude can be seen as the joyful state of being alone and liking it, isolation is another brand of aloneness. I can think of two kinds of isolation: the first, an aloneness imposed against our will, deprived of company by death or desertion, by the choices of others or by chance and circumstance. Most people recognize this form of isolation: we may have encountered it as “fear of abandonment” or “homesickness” or “mourning” or “the empty nest.” But there is also self-imposed isolation. At its most extreme, we might call this a social phobia. It’s the voice that whispers in our head that it’s just easier to be alone, that people are too unpredictable, relationships are too taxing. We are better off without others. We can go it alone. We don’t have to let anyone else in.

The difference between solitude and isolation is not a matter of quantity: people can be quite happy spending large amounts of time alone, or having a small circle of intimate friends. Rather, it’s a matter of quality. Solitude is an aloneness full of freedom, serenity, a sense of connecting with oneself. It may be joyful or peaceful, stimulating or relaxing. Even some unhappiness expressed in solitude may be healing: we may need time alone to work through our anger at another person, to mourn a loss, to have a good cry. This is still solitude, marked by feeling connected with the inner self.

Isolation, on the other hand, is marked by uneasiness. It may be characterized by numbness, a disconnection with oneself. Addictions often thrive in isolation: compulsive overeating, binge drinking. The aloneness is less a matter of choice than the product of an insidious whisper in the brain: Nobody wants to hear from me. I’m safer alone anyway.

In our society, with its emphasis on social relationships and extroversion, introverts are often assumed to be isolated. But most of the time, our solitude is just our battery-recharging time, the happy and fruitful aloneness we need. Our relationships are characterized more by depth than volume. When disconnection and loneliness arise—which can happen to anyone, introvert or extrovert—it’s important to reach out to those we trust, to break the grip of isolation.

All of us must find the balance that works for ourselves: time alone and time spent with others; time looking inward and time looking outward.

For more discussion of this issue, see Caroline Knapp’s essay, “Time Alone: Navigating the Line Between Solitude and Isolation,” in the collection The Merry Recluse: A Life in Essays, Counterpoint Press, 2004.

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Jennifer Hubbard is the author of THE SECRET YEAR and longtime Shrinking Violet. She also has impeccable timing. Thank you, Jenn!

Monday, May 23, 2011

An Interview With The Little Introvert That Could (aka Allen Zadoff)

SVP: You’ve been called the Little Introvert That Could. What’s your secret?

I moisturize.  Actually, that doesn’t help much.  I think the key is accepting my limitations, even leaning into them a little. For example, I’m not great with social networking.  When my first novel Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have was published, it was suggested I get on Twitter.  I checked it out and saw that people who were good at it were tweeting a dozen or more times per day.  They were funny and real, they were carrying on a conversation as part of a community. I could see what they were doing, but I couldn’t do it myself. So I was thinking, “I’m dead. I can’t tweet. I’m dead.”  As if Twitter were oxygen, right?  But then I thought, instead of trying to be a Twitter black belt, what if you just participated at any level?  So I instituted Tweet Tuesdays.  I’d send one tweet on Tuesday.  That’s it. It sounds ridiculous, right?  But instead of doing nothing, I was doing something.  I was in the game.  It’s a lot easier to go from one tweet to two than it is to go from zero to a hundred a week.

SVP: When did you first realize you were an introvert?

I was very shy in the womb. I hardly spoke to anyone. When I got out, the trend continued. As a kid, I was most comfortable in my room, watching TV, reading, listening to music.  In my book My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies, the hero is a techie who hides up in the lighting grid and watches the world go by down below.  People want to know where my inspiration comes from. I was that kid looking out his bedroom window at the neighbor kids playing, and I was afraid to join them. I can’t say why.

SVP: In what ways has being an author met or exceeded your expectations? What were some big surprises?

The young adult community is very welcoming to new writers. I was quickly embraced as part of a community of authors, readers, booksellers, librarians. People are passionate about their YA! That was a surprise. I was also very lucky in that my publisher and editor, Elizabeth Law at Egmont, was a fantastic tour guide. If you know her, you know she’s a delightful voice online and she has an amazing ear for story. What you don’t see is how she brought me into the fold, introduced me around, helped me find my way. She’s been a supporter, coach, and mentor, as well as a fantastic artistic collaborator.

Jealous! Allen got to have drinks with Lawsy!!
SVP: How has being a published author challenged you? Or did you know full well going in that publicity and promotion was part of the expectations?

Before I was a YA novelist, I published an adult memoir called Hungry: Lessons Learned on the Journey from Fat to Thin. I knew from that experience that promotion was a part of being an author, but I didn’t realize how big a part it really was.  I come from the world of TV and film, and in those places there is a machine in place to promote things.  But being an author, at least at the level I am an author, is more like having your own little theater company.  You have to invite people, hand out postcards, sell the tickets, create a mailing list, follow up with people for the next show.  You’re basically creating a community. Otherwise the show opens, and there’s nobody there. You’re sitting alone in the theater thinking, “I did all this work. What happened?”

SVP: Did your life B. P. (Before Publication) involve extroverted activities?

Of course it did. To tell the truth, I’m an introvert with a taste for extroversion.  I really enjoy people. One of my favorite experiences was when I went to a friend’s wedding out of town, and a whole bunch of our mutual friends were staying in the same hotel.  I was on vacation for the weekend, but I was surrounded by people I knew.  I felt like a flower who had just discovered the sun. It was glorious.  It also gave me a deeper insight into my introversion. While it’s a natural part of who I am, it’s also influenced by fear and a feeling that I’m not safe.  When I feel safe with people, I relax and have a great time.

SVP: If your life BP did include extroverted activities, how did those prepare you for the demands of a promoting author?
Many people who know my work know I’m in recovery for an eating disorder going on fifteen years now, and long before I was published, I had many opportunities to talk to people about what it’s like to be a man with food and weight problems. Without knowing it, those experiences were helping me prepare for being an author. The difference is that in that forum, I’m talking to people who have had similar struggles with food. We’re not strangers because we share a common problem.  When it comes to promoting my books, it feels a bit like I’m talking to strangers. I’m still learning how to be comfortable with it. 

SVP: What are your three favorite promotional activities or ways to connect with readers? Your least favorite? Any embarrassing disasters you’d be willing to share with us?

Let’s start with embarrassment. That’s like mother’s milk to me. My novel Food/Girls won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award, and I was at the SCBWI conference to accept the award. It was in a banquet hall with something like a thousand people in the audience.  I’d written a three-minute acceptance speech the week before, but I got the award the year Sid died, so there was a lot happening to honor him.  First, Lisa Yee spoke about Sid’s life, then they showed a film about Sid, then Paul Fleischman, an amazing poet and Sid’s son, talked about what he learned from his father.  Then Paul introduced me.  As I was walking up to the stage, I thought, “I’m not giving this lame speech. I’m just going to speak from the heart.”
That’s quite a leap for an introvert!

So I walked onto the stage, thanked Paul Fleischman, looked at the audience of a thousand, and started to speak off the cuff. Now I don’t think anyone who was there saw anything bad happening, but the truth is I got about a minute into my acceptance speech, and I had absolutely no idea what I was saying. I was sweating and in trouble. I was thinking, “Why didn’t you give the speech, you idiot?”

SVP: In your newest book, MY LIFE, THE THEATER, AND OTHER TRAGEDIES, the main character, thinks “the best way to live life is behind the spotlight.” That sounds like an introvert to me! Is being an introvert and coming to terms with that a part of his character journey? In what way does being an introvert inform your writing?

Life/Theater is about a boy learning to come out from hiding and be seen in the light. It’s a perfect metaphor for the introvert’s journey, and it’s no coincidence that it’s me who is writing it. It gives me a lot of joy to write about shy, awkward, and uncomfortable characters who find the courage to be themselves in the world. That’s what we’re all trying to do, isn’t it?

So doesn't that interview totally make you want to read his book? His voice and humor and humanity came through so loud and clear that it made me want the book right this minute. I was also struck at what a great example he is on working within our own limitations and strengths. Thanks for sharing your insight with us, Allen!

Aaaand, for a really cool opportunity, Elizabeth Law is offering a 30 page mss critique over on the Cynsations blog! If you haven't read about how she and Allen do the editorial dance, then get thee over there at once. It is most illuminating--and hilarious, as one would expect.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Creative Freedom of Anonymity

There is no shortage of anonymous bloggers, sources, and commenters on the web. It could even be said that such anonymity is a blight on the quality of online interaction—when people are anonymous they can often be much more careless, rude, or downright obnoxious. But for introverts, there can be remarkable freedom in anonymity, and I think we can use it to help gain new levels of creative expression.

As introverts, we like to think long and hard about what we say and how we say it. We are very aware of the affect our words will have on others, and the very many different ways they can be misinterpreted. We like to practice things in private until we’ve perfected them, only then going public with our efforts.

But that preference is not necessarily the best approach for expanding one’s creative horizons. Creativity demands risk, and risk is often uncomfortable for introverts. Especially risk with an audience.

And this is where I think a bit of judiciously applied anonymity can be invaluable. Sometimes we need to be invisible before we can find and speak our truth. We know we need to take the step of speaking that truth in a public forum, where others can encounter it, but we also need an extra layer (or two) of protection to keep that oh-so-tender and unexposed skin from all that, well, exposure.

I’m not talking about sock puppets, but rather a chance to get comfortable with a new way of being, a new way of interacting with people or of speaking truth on a deeper level than you are used to.

I know a couple of different writers who found their voice by creating anonymous blogs. It gave them a platform for attempting new things—for stretching outside their comfort zones, but with a safety net. I myself created an anonymous blog many years ago when I first started blogging. I found I really wanted to get the hang of blogging and commenting on other peoples’ blogs, but in a private rather than public way. (Again, I realize this is something only introverts will get—and even some introverts won’t understand. This is for those of you who do.)

As I think I’ve mentioned before, two of my strongest books came from projects that were initially just for me; my eyes only. They were safe playgrounds where I allowed myself to take risks and push the envelope, but away from any sense of an audience or judgment. The fact that they did end up being some of my strongest work has taught me a valuable lesson. It also wasn’t until I had blogged anonymously for a few months that I found my footing with blogging. In retrospect, I probably didn’t make any huge gaffes or errors, but I couldn’t have predicted that at the time. I easily COULD have made such gaffes or errors, and if I did, no one would know, so I felt secure enough to try.

Conventional wisdom says to blog, tweet and comment under your own name, as you are trying to build a brand, fer gawd sake, and you can’t build an anonymous brand. You can, however, use anonymity to experiment until you find the brand and personality you are most comfortable with

Sometimes I find myself having similar urges with pseudonyms—I could write anything I wanted, and no one would know it was me. I could, in essence, step away from my own backstory and start fresh. In fact, that’s an interesting question to ask ourselves: What would we write if we thought no one would know it was us? Would it be different from what we’re writing now? In what ways?

How would our online persona be different if we felt it was separated by a big enough divide from who we really are? Would that feel safer? Would that safety allow us to expand our creative boundaries? Speak more closely held truths? Take more risks?

[Also, if you get a chance, please take a second to fill out the poll in the sidebar! Last week's post on the writing process was hugely popular so we're trying to get feel for including more of those types of posts. Thanks!]

Monday, May 9, 2011

Guest Blogger: Anti-Advice from Erin Bow

We're doing something new this week. Here on Shrinking Violets, we talk a lot about how the strongest promotional strategy is to write an aMaZinG book, so I thought it might be helpful to talk about the writing process from time to time. And we're going to start this new feature with a BANG! I'm very excited to have children's fantasy author Erin Bow here today to give us some anti-advice...

How to Get Stuck and Brood
(anti-advice for writers)

Hey fellow writers: here's a deeply bad idea. Google "How to Write a Novel." Three million four hundred thousand hits, and presumably at least some of the posters think they know, and can convey to the searcher, how a novel is written.

The top return is from the Snowflake Method guy, who gives us the "ten-step process for writing a design document." It includes step eight: "Make a spreadsheet detailing the scenes that emerge from your four-page plot outline." Further down Google's list are others, many others, who while they don't win my heart by naming themselves after well-known figures in fractal mathematics, do still offer the prescription, the method, the one true key idea that will make the grand words come to you and order themselves into some kind of story.

And then there are the books -- oh, shelves and shelves of books -- on how to write. A writer could crumple under the weight of all the words about writing. (Do painters have this problem? I suspect they do not, if only because painters don't assume they can write instructional books, and for some reason paintings on how to paint don't sell well.) Still, these books are attractive, because they Seem To Know What They Are Doing, while I, A Writer Of Very Little Brain, generally feel Entirely Surrounded By Vague Flailing. So the authority is tempting, even seductive.

But giving one's self over to authority has its downsides. Chief among them is that one generally discovers that one has been Doing It Wrong. This can lead to either strained efforts to Do It Right, or to Guilt.

I will acknowledge that trying new ways to write can lead to good stuff too: you can be stretched in new ways, think about new ideas. Sometimes one falls into the navel of writing, and finds it is dark there, without much room to manoeuvre. Perhaps trying someone else's writing method can help one pull one's head out of the place where it is stuck. One looks around, blinking in the sudden light.

But I think the Doing It Wrong and the Guilt are the more common reactions. Oh, fellow writers. Don't you already feel that you're Doing It Wrong? Don't you already have The Guilt? Why are you seeking out more? I wish we could be more gentle with ourselves. Here is my gentling manifesto:

  •  No process that results in writing is a bad process.
  •  No process that results in a miserable writer is a good process.
  •  No one process works for everyone.
  •  No process works for long.

No, you do not need to write 1000 words every day. No, you do not need to outline. No, you do not need to make a spreadsheet. No, you do not need to write first thing in the morning. No, you do not need to give yourself permission to write crap. No, you do not need to push through the spots where you are stuck.

What you need to do is not the same as what other people need to do. You need to write your own words in your own way. You need to find the process that helps you do that. And when the process breaks – for they always seem to break – you need to find a new one.

Me, I find a writer's notebook valuable, love to write snatches of overheard dialogue, descriptions of the people walking by in the street. Other people want to dive straight into a fictional world. I like to work in a highly ritualized way: the same few hours, in the same place, with the same cup of tea and the same music and the same smell from the same candle, etc. Other people think that's a bit much, and recommend prescription medication for me. Presumably some of them are coaxing spreadsheets to emerge from their four-page plot outlines, which I think is a little much.

The point is, it doesn't matter. What works for you, works for you.

And can we talk about “pushing through”? Oh, we live in a culture of pushing through. We go to work sick. We take pride in that, in our exhaustion and productivity, our general busyness. Working while sick, writing when we don't want to write. And, well, there's something to be said for it. Writing can be like dating: you have to think twice about standing writing up just because you feel like it. After a while, it will stand you up too. So, me, at least, I've got to be present, even when I don't want to be.

But being present is different than pushing through. I've learned to respect my deep resistance to pushing through. Sometimes I am not ready to write something. I need to brood – not brood in the Edward Cullen sense, but in the Mother Goose sense: I need to sit with my embryonic work and keep it warm. Or, since we are mammals, let me put it in mammalian terms. Sometimes, particularly before tackling something big, I need to wait. It feels like waiting to go into labor. You cannot will yourself into labor, though most of us, by the time we reach that stage, deeply want to. And even once in labor, there is no point in pushing before you're ready to push.

Don't worry, you won't miss the moment. It will track you down.

I have some pretty bad days when I forget this, when I try to rush the moment. Days when I work hard and do nothing, when I'm a battery hooked to a non-conductor, ending in tears of anger and frustration. Sometimes I do worse than nothing: Worse, because that pushing through pretty often puts me astray: I get somewhere, but it's not where I intended, or I've wrecked something important on the way.

Wait, wait. Be patient. Wait in a different way than that “blocked” feeling, that feeling that pulls you two ways like two horses: wound tight, but lethargic; defensive, but like a fraud. Do the ninth-month waiting. Feed and tend yourself lovingly, feed and tend the writing. Me, I write an essay, a poem, or if working on an essay or poem, a story. A friend of mine does fanfic. Go for walks, do your stretching. Breathe.

Is this too much? Especially for the boys out there? Let me try one more metaphor. This last year I learned to bake bread. I discovered that my favorite kinds of bread are the ones that don't need much kneading – or any at all. They get their rise from being swampy and goopy and much more wet than you usually think of a good dough being. (Hey! Just like my writing process!) They have to rise a long time. (Hey, just like my .... yeah, you get it.) And generally they're cooked hot. Very, very hot.

In the interest of being hypocritically helpful, I give you:

Things I learned about my writing from learning to bake bread:

You can overwork things: knead bread that doesn't want to be kneaded and you'll have bread that only double-stomached animals can eat, because it needs to be chewed as cud. Kneading develops the gluten, you see, the long strands of protein that give the bread its structure and strength. But you don't want a bread to be all structure and strength. You want it to have softness too. Whatever process you use for your writing, leave room for softness, for mystery, for levity, for surprise.

Enjoy the process. There's plenty of good bread in the world already, and most of us can get some without fuss. So why make it? For the smell, for the feel in the hands, for the pure satisfaction. When I sold my first book I had a bad spell when I forgot that writing was fun, because now I was a Professional Writer (Of Very Little Brain). Remember: for the smell, for the feel in the hands, for the pure satisfaction.

Rising time is as important as kneading time. In bread baking, it's obvious, as it is not in writing. Some times the right work of the moment is not to work at all. Things need to sit and develop. Don't poke them. Be patient.

No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can't put in your book can be used to wash the floor, to live in the soil, to lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.

But don't take my metaphor for it. Find your own metaphor. And run with it.

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Erin Bow is the author of Plain Kate, a Russian-flavored fairytale novel for young adults, out now from Arthur A. Levine books at Scholastic. In addition to ignoring books on writing, Erin ignores parenting manuals on raising two small girls, self-help books on marrying other writers, and cookbooks of all sorts.

Twitter: @erinbowbooks

Monday, May 2, 2011

Introvert Innovation: Pamela Ehrenberg

Sorry for the late post today! But it's worth it to read about this unique approach! Introvert Innovation at work!


How to Meet 14,000 Librarians Before the Babysitter Leaves

 Shade helps. Also water and a fully charged laptop battery.

Last June, the American Library Association (ALA) conference came to Washington, DC: 14,000 librarians, three miles from my home. I planned to spend a full day, Friday, meeting librarians in the exhibit hall.

But at the last minute, I learned the exhibit hall wouldn't open until Friday evening, right around my preschoolers' bedtime. Weekdays were when I had childcare. I had to meet those librarians.

I sulked. I rechecked the ALA website. Finally, I bought foam board.

Friday morning, I collected my badge at the Convention Center. Then I crossed the street, put on sunscreen, and sat down to write in Mt. Vernon Square. The foam board announced, "YA Author At Work. Please Interrupt--I Love to Meet Librarians!"

And librarians came! From North Carolina, then from Paris. I met librarians from 10 states and four countries, plus a School Library Journal blogger and someone from the ALA's YouTube channel.

I even got some writing done.

Sure, my second location, closer to the main sidewalk, required propping myself up against tree roots. But I met two dozen friendly people who wanted to learn about my books and Skype visits. And I gained confidence as a publicist.

Of course, not everyone lives in a big conference city. But librarians, reading specialists, and other book people meet in state and regional groups too--often with trees or benches nearby. Just remember they want to meet you--and remember plenty of sunscreen.


Pamela Ehrenberg is the author of Tillmon County Fire (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2009) and Ethan, Suspended (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2007). More information about her Skype author visits and her online workshop, "Making Time to Write in an Impossibly Busy Life," can be found on her website, ; This posting was reprinted with permission from the SCBWI Bulletin (January/February 2011).