This is my last Writers in the Attic for 2019 and I’m delighted to end the year with this beautiful and insightful post from Joanna Nell.
Everything Jo mentions in this piece, every single detail, resonates with me, as I’m sure it will with every other writer out there.
By the way, if you haven’t read Jo’s début novel, The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village, about an older woman finding love again, you’re missing out—it’s a heartwarming story that shows age is only a state of mind.
Joanna Nell is a Sydney-based writer, GP and former ship’s doctor. Her award winning short fiction has been published in a number of magazines, journals and short story anthologies including Award Winning Australian Writing. She has also written for The Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum and Sunday Life magazines.
Her debut novel The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village was published by Hachette in 2018 and became a national bestseller, with rights sold to Germany. Her second novel The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker was published in October 2019.
What I remember most clearly about my childhood is my shyness. The way I watched the other kids play but didn’t know how to join in. How I managed to read every book in the library but had only one friend, not counting the invisible ones. It never occurred to me I might need more than one. I clung to the bubbly, outgoing and fearless Alanna like a safety blanket until her family moved overseas when we were ten.
The other kids called me a swot, stuck-up and standoffish. A snob. I longed to join in so I wouldn’t stand out but resigned myself to always being this way: alone but, oddly, never lonely.
At every age, well-meaning adults told me I should be different. I needed to be more confident, more outgoing, more assertive. More. Always more. It got easier in my teens and twenties – I made friends and married a lovely man. As a doctor, it was no surprise that I gravitated towards the one-on-one consultations of general practice. I was, after all, a good listener.
Outwardly at least, I was a successful, fully-functioning adult. Inside, however, I harboured a shameful secret. There were times when everyday interactions left me completely depleted and even my own beautiful family exhausted me. I often craved solitude. Frequently, Greta Garbo-esque, I just wanted to be alone.
In 2013, I read Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking. It sounds trite, but that book was my personal epiphany. At last everything made sense. Now I knew why the words, so perfect in my head, stalled when they reached my lips. I understood why I let others speak over me and why, always five minutes too late, I came up with the most cogent, witty and articulate response. I’d always recognised that the words flowed more freely through my fingertips than my lips. On the page, I was everything I knew I could be. It felt as though all this time I’d been trying to walk with an enormous rock in my shoe. At last, I kicked it out and stood up tall for the first time.
Susan Cain’s book challenged every assumption I’d made about myself. I wasn’t withdrawn, stuck up, depressed or a freak. I wasn’t even particularly shy. Quite simply, I was an introvert. I’d grown up comparing myself to an extrovert ideal. It was time to stop measuring my shortcomings and start playing to my introvert strengths instead. For instance, I could sit at a desk for long periods, ignoring distractions. I thought deeply and felt deeply. A lifetime of candid observation had taught me about human behaviour and my eye spotted life’s accidental comedy. I saw the extraordinary in the everyday. What’s more, the years of quiet worry and endless rumination had programmed my brain to think imaginatively and creatively. All along, I’d been a writer.
When my début novel, The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village, was subject to a bidding war, I was overwhelmed—first with exhilaration, then with crippling anxiety. This was what I’d always dreamed of, yet as the reality sank in, the self-doubt returned. Being a published author would mean book launches, interviews and attention. I’d have to put myself ‘out there’ and say goodbye to my precious anonymity. The fear of scrutiny and judgment had returned to haunt me. Suddenly, I was eight years old again, an outsider watching the other kids play. The normal kids.
In the weeks following publication, I felt as if I were riding a speeding train. Not safely tucked inside the quiet carriage but balancing on its roof. Naked. There were moments of such joy that I cried, and times when I felt as if my skin had been boiled away. How could I want this so much and, a heartbeat later, not want it? There were even times when I wished it away, when I wanted to disappear. Yet other people believed in me. What’s more, they’d invested in me because of, not in spite of, the very thing that had held me back. I couldn’t let them down and, more importantly, having come so far I couldn’t let myself down either.
If I’d learnt anything from the past, it was resilience. I brushed myself down and found a psychologist who understood. I wasn’t alone, she assured me. She’d seen it all before. With her help, I peeled away the layers of doubt and found the tool I needed to be able to speak in public. It boiled down to this: authenticity. Who I was on stage was the same person I was in private – an introvert, yes, but one with something to say. Before long, there was a microphone in my hand and for once, nobody was going to talk over me!
This year I’ve recorded podcasts and spoken on national radio; I’ve appeared at writers’ festivals and even been interviewed on live television. Sure, I stumbled a few times and wished I could have written the answers instead. I smiled a lot. People were kind. If I’m honest, I still prefer intimate author events to addressing large crowds or a video camera. What I realised, however, is that like it or loathe it, introvert or extrovert, publicity and promotion are just part of the job of an author.
Not all introverts write, but it’s a well-established fact that many writers are introverts. Possibly most. We’re easy enough to spot: hiding in cafes or on public transport with our notebooks, watching and eavesdropping, lost in our thoughts. I imagine that, like me, few would willingly swap the solitude of their writer’s garret for a stage and an audience. These quiet people are my tribe. It’s taken a long, long time, but I think I’ve finally found the cool kids. My own quiet gang.