Steve WetherellVisit Steve Wetherell‘s website.
I work in an office where everyone has their own mugs. You can tell a lot about a person by the mug they have. Does it have a cutesy message? A dirty joke? Does it advertise the owner’s love of golf, or books, or food? Does it correctly quantify how useful mental illness is for succeeding in that particular place of work?
If you find my mug you’ll find that it’s blank. Utterly blank. A plain white mug with no identifying markers on it. Unlike the mug I have at home that loudly proclaims ‘World’s Greatest Lover’ (I assume my wife presented me this mug on behalf of all woman kind, and not, as she said, because it was hilarious,) my work mug betrays nothing about me at all.
Why? Am a I blank slate? A pod person? No. I am so shy that I worry if I bring in a particularly cool mug to work, somebody might ask me about it and I will answer a stuttering, non-sensical reply that will completely ruin any mystique the mug has afforded me. That’s right- such is the state of my self esteem that I genuinely worry about being upstaged by my own mug.
Shyness and low level anxiety are kind of writer tropes. I know a lot of writer friends that proudly assert their introvert status with meme and anecdote. While I absolutely identify with these people, I worry about “normalising" this writerly assumption.
Don’t get me wrong, the symptoms of shyness and social anxiety are often born of being a perennial outsider, and this can be very useful indeed to a writer. In a sense, us writers report the news, we don’t make it. Standing on the side lines can sometimes give you a better view of the game. However, I worry that normalising the “LOL introvert!” trope is something of a crutch, the same way that when I joke about my weight, I worry I might be making excuses as to why I drove past my gym last night because I saw an ice cream van. Because while the kind of constant social anxiety that shyness can bring might be an unlikely tool in the the writer’s tool box, it can also hold us back from being what we need to be.
I’m not proud of my social anxiety. I hate it. It’s like a steel band across my chest that stops me being the person I want to be. It ruins my punch lines, makes me upset when I should be cool, and has put a serious crimp in what I’m certain would have a brilliant career as an exotic dancer. Worse still, the anxiety stops me from “putting my face out there”.
I’m sure most of my writer friends understand they have a “brand” and that brand goes far and above the stories they choose to tell. It is imperative for the low to mid range authors to engage with their audience, and while this is easy enough to do online, the real opportunities are to get out there in the real world. Book fairs, conventions, signing events, there’s a reason that the big name authors still lug themselves across the country to press the flesh with their readers. It works. Your readers are important, and making a special effort to meet them will only benefit your relationship.
“But Steve” you say “What if I’m a huge disappointment to my readers? What if they literally spit in my face?” Welcome to the plain mug gang, my friend. That’s exactly how I feel.
I used to be in a heavy metal band, and while we were never really going anywhere, we had a few fans. I discovered that while I was happy enough to get on stage and scream about death for forty minutes, talking to anyone who went any further than “hey, good show guys,” was not my strong suit. But I quickly realised that, no matter how trivial or brief, I had fostered a connection with these guys, and a little polite chit chat was all it took to validate that connection and, incidentally, tell them where they could download our stuff or buy a t-shirt.
You see, that’s the other reason to get out there in the real world. There used to be a trick nightclub’s used where they would make sure the entrance queue was longer than it needed to be. I mean, if people are queuing up, then it must be great, right? The nightclub is you, the queue is your readers who are…waiting to get inside you? No, that’s a terrible analogy, but I hope you see what I mean. By getting out in the real world, meeting real readers, you kind of validate yourself as something more than a face on a screen, or a name heard casually. You’re an attraction!
Now. The truth. I’m sitting here giving you this advice, but I’m basing this all on what I’ve seen from other writers. I’ve yet to invite myself to a writer event and “put my face out there.” I'm going to. The very though of it makes me feel a little panicked, but I’m going to. And I want you, the shy indie author, to do it too.
And here’s something comforting I’ve learned. All those shy types who suddenly get on stage and act like they were born there? It’s not because they found some secret technique to cure themselves. They were still the same shy, anxious person they were while waiting in the wings. They just went out and did what they knew they needed to do. Some of them get to do it so often that it starts to feel normal. And that’s the only difference between them and you. Seriously.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to make a coffee. After all, the world’s greatest lover has to keep his strength up.