Friday, 1 June 2012

The Introverted Extrovert

It’s a generally accepted notion that writers are introverts. There’s plenty of evidence for this: they spend long periods alone, are greatly prone to introspection and have an apparent preference for the company of the characters in their heads, rather than real people. But there are several paradoxes in this line of thinking, for instance: in order to write believable characters, one must spend time observing and interacting with other people. Most of the writers I meet are also rather personable types and often revel in social situations. Is this really the behaviour of the true introvert?

A recent book has reignited the discussion about how introverts and extroverts are treated in society. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain argues that business, in particular, is organised in favour of extroversion. Open plan offices, brainstorming meetings, networking parties – these activities are all extrovert in design. I certainly felt rather oppressed at a recent technology conference when there were explicit "networking breaks" built into the schedule, and I knew literally no-one else there apart from Kate Wilson from Nosy Crow (who is apparently contractually obliged to attend every event where publishing apps are discussed). For all my defence of networking I still find it a tough activity and not something I would always consider to be fun. But my fear of being a wallflower is apparently greater than my fear of being rejected by complete strangers!

I’ve been lucky enough to meet quite a few agents, editors and other publishing people at various parties – I believe very strongly in making personal contacts because then you both have an idea of what the other person might be like to work with. But an author friend of mine said something very interesting to me recently, that many of the editors who connected with her latest novel were introverts, people who deliberately stayed off the publishing circuit. This was a revelation to me, because I realised that my personal contacts were largely extroverts; would they be the ideal group to respond to my deliberately introverted main character? Clearly, this is an area where an agent might really help me to unlock that fabled "right person" for my writing.

So am I an introvert? I certainly need to be by myself on a daily basis. It doesn’t have to be time spent writing, just something to clear my head from the noise of the world. But I also can’t spend a day without significant human contact. Getting the balance wrong between these two competing activities is a key trigger for me to slide into a low mood and eventually depression. Much as I’d like to consider myself unique, I can’t believe I’m the only person who needs to alternately run from people and then towards them again.

Perhaps this problem with classifying myself (and many other writers) is simply down to a general love of binary thinking, a need to divide the world into two discrete categories. Thus you are either a Lark or an Owl. A Plotter or a Pantser. A Thinker or a Feeler. So it is with introversion and extroversion. But the finer grained truth is that we are all somewhere on a scale between the two, shifting with our mood and responsibilities. But does that make me an introverted extrovert or an extroverted introvert?*


* Quiet does have a term for this category of person – they’re called an ambivert. But that isn’t half such a good name as the alternatives.


  1. This is a really interesting topic, and one I've been thinking about a lot since I started writing full time. I think you need to be able to switch between introversion and extroversion at will - from addressing an assembly hall full of pupils to spending a week locked in a room to meet a deadline. Sometimes you feel like you've had a good day socialising and then you realise that you've actually been writing dialogue. And that you're going bonkers.

    1. What's the other half of the assembly full of?

      Arf. Arf.

  2. Sebastian Gnomeface1 June 2012 at 12:42

    Yes, I spend long periods of time in my office on my own.

    Mainly because my wife locks me in there.

  3. I can talk to anyone and everyone (at the same time in the hugest room) as long as it's not about me and/or my writing when I become an apologetic buffoon. Networking gives me sweaty palms before I've even finished typing the word.

    I work from home as well as writing so most people think I'm a sad git afraid to step outside my door. In reality, if I'm too busy to go find someone to talk to, I engage my postie and the landlord's dog in conversation. Mine's more mutual polarity rather than ambiversion, I guess.

  4. I'm with talking about EVERYTHING--except writing! Also proud to declare myself a pantser, Nick.