An interested article popped up in my Facebook feed today that had me thinking about personality traits and being a writer. The article was about habits of highly sensitive people (linked below) and all but one of those traits applied to me (#12…violent movies and television shows don’t bother me, and I adore horror movies. But that’s because I can disconnect from the violence on the screen, knowing that it’s all faked. Show me a video of real-life violence, and I’ll flinch or cry.) As a woman, I live in a patriarchal society that says it’s okay for me to be highly sensitive, because of my genitals and secondary sexual traits, so I’ve never really felt punished for being sensitive (and I thought it was neat how men in certain Asian countries are respected for being sensitive, whereas men in Western culture are mocked for the perceived weakness of having a “feminine” trait. Note to self: poke around on this topic some more.) Sure, I’ve been in situations where I know it would be uncomfortable if I burst into tears, even though all I want to do is cry, but that’s apparently just another trait of being highly sensitive. As long as I don’t work myself into an anxious fit, I find considering other people’s emotions and reactions a good thing.
I’d read another article (also linked below) about introversion. Even before that article, I knew I was introverted, and while not every single sign applies to me, the biggest one does: I “recharge” by spending time alone. Reading, writing, watching movies, walking, visiting the science centre or museum. Even if I go somewhere with someone, I’ll often wander away and do my own thing for a while. (Yeah, I’m that weird person who does basically everything by herself. Except for eating in restaurants. That’s always been too social an occasion for me to adapt it to solo ventures.) Being introverted works well with my schedule, since I don’t work the standard Monday-Friday, 9-5 as the rest of the real world. My schedule doesn’t work well for making plans. So I still get to do the stuff I want to do, when I want to do it, and how I want to do it.
Sometimes, though, these traits can backfire, badly. This past summer, we were across the country visiting my brother-in-law’s family in Newfoundland. He comes from a small town where everyone knows everyone, and family just drops by to hang out just because. His family was lovely. So kind. I’d always kind of idolized that lifestyle, as I’ve grown up in a situation where I see certain family members only every few years. But the problem is Newfoundlanders party hard and long into the night. Not only am I not a drinker (I had more alcohol the night of my sister’s wedding than I’d had all year) but I have a hard time just mingling with large groups of people I don’t know. When I’m at a party or out at a bar, I’m usually done by eleven, maybe midnight at the latest. And while a good portion of the guests had left by eleven, as the party was held at the in-law’s parents’ home, and we were staying there, too, I didn’t want to seem rude. I spent a good hour trying to appear perky and friendly, until I could escape to my room. To be honest, I think the only people who were sober enough to notice were my mom and step-dad. And then the next morning, I was trying really hard, but the in-law’s mother commented that I wasn’t acting “normally,” because I was curled up on the couch with a book and the dog. (the dog wasn’t complaining. I give good scritches.) I felt bad, thinking that I’d maybe somehow mislead her in the week leading up to the wedding. But really, I was just so drained from the day before, and all I needed was some quiet time by myself.
I know those traits are valuable to me as a writer. As a highly sensitive introvert, I tend to internalize everything (especially the bad) and deal with it on my own, usually through my writing. And since I spend a lot of time considering other people’s feelings in real life, I find I can craft similar emotional reactions for my characters.
But what really has me thinking actually ties back to a random, semi-philosophical thought I had several weeks ago while strolling through the mall: Am I a writer because I’m full of stories, and they’re bursting out of me in the form of text on a page, or when I became a writer (either by choice or design) I became this empty vessel for stories, and everyone else’s stories are pouring into me for translation into text.
Am I a writer because I’m a highly sensitive introvert, and this craft best suits these traits? Or am I a highly sensitive introvert because I’m a writer?
And no, I’m not just trying to twist myself into knots here. Whenever I think of being a writer, I think of the poem “The Lady of Shalott” (linked below if you’re not familiar with it, or desire a refresher.) The poem tells of a woman in a tower who spends her day weaving what she sees of the world as reflected in her mirror. She’s cursed not to look down upon Camelot directly, or else she’d die. And it’s only when Lancelot rides by the tower that she’s driven to her window to gaze directly upon him. Because she does this, she knows she is dying, and so lays herself in a boat, which carries her down the river to the gates of Camelot, where Lancelot finds her body.
I used to just see this as another pretty poem. And then in a class, the instructor presented the poem as an idealized portrait of The Writer: a third party who does not partake of life, who produces unbiased reflections of life and the humanity in it, and by joining in with life, the writer then kills off the unbiased creative force.
The whole unbiased bit is nonsense. If it’s created by man, it has an inherent bias. So let’s just ignore that part.
While it’s difficult to completely pull away from the rest of life (especially when one’s a writer, as making a living purely by your writing is a Herculean task, and writing is no longer a truly solitary act) I do identify with the idea that the writer is not always directly involved in the story. Put it this way: the writer is to the story as the camera is to the movie. The camera can be manipulated to tell the story a certain way, but the camera is not (usually) a character. And I know I spend a lot of time on the sidelines, watching what happens to other people.
Right now, I don’t know the answer. I’ll never be able to live as a less sensitive extrovert to see if I do something else with my life, or go back to a time before I was highly sensitive, introverted, and/or a writer and make a different choice. And that’s really the only way to conduct a proper experiment. Well, or maybe gather up a whole bunch in infant identical twins and conduct life-long studies, but that’s a lot of time, money, and effort I just don’t have. So this is something to ponder later.
And at this exact moment, I need to leave for work anyway.