In 1925, an aspiring young writer called E.B. White thought he would take a shot at writing for a new magazine called the New Yorker. He sent in some pieces without any covering letter—just a self-addressed stamped envelope for the rejection. White was excruciatingly shy and remained so all his life.
The self-addressed envelope, which email has since rendered obsolete, used to be the shy writer’s salvation. It let them receive a “yes” or “no” via the mailbox, without having to network or schmooze editors, or talk to anyone else at all. Years later, when he was the New Yorker’s star writer, White said with feeling: “Magazines that refuse unsolicited manuscripts strike me as lazy, incurious, self-assured, and self-important.” No wonder that his favorite play was Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, the title character of which ghost-writes witty and eloquent letters for someone else. And only a shy person like White would have written about New York as the city that could bestow “on any person who desires such queer prizes… the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”
White’s shyness runs all the way through his classic guide to writing, The Elements of Style (1959). He based this on an earlier guide written by Will Strunk, his old professor at Cornell, which he admired as an essay on the “nature and beauty of brevity.” Good writing did not offer the writer’s opinions gratuitously, The Elements of Style ruled, because that would imply that “the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the case.” For White, the best prose combined simplicity and self-concealment. Writing was, he wrote in 1964, “both a mask and an unveiling”—especially for the personal essayist, “who must take his trousers off without showing his genitals.” A writer’s voice was a vehicle for disguised egotism, he felt, and tact and taste were vital parts of the disguise.
Is there something about writing that attracts shy people in particular? Nicholson Baker, Alan Bennett, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, J.K. Rowling, and Garrison Keillor are just a few of the contemporary authors who have written or spoken about being shy. The British novelist Patrick Gale recently founded the North Cornwall book festival in the UK especially for shy authors. “Most novelists are at the shy end of the spectrum—sly watchers of life rather than noisy graspers of it,” Gale wrote in the Guardian. “Many of us have had to overcome that and develop a performative persona behind which the sly watcher can continue to lurk.” To help his fellow introverts he has kept the festival small and intimate, with “a bar and an abundance of homemade cake.”
Perhaps the art of sentence writing, which lets you endlessly rework your words until they fall right, appeals to people who in life are inarticulate. Verlyn Klinkenborg argues that the hardest thing to learn as a writer is that your writing is “orphaned.” “When called to the stand in the court of meaning, your sentences will get no coaching from you,” he writes. “They’ll say exactly what their words say, and if that makes you look ridiculous or confused, guess what?” A part of every writer still feels that we will be there hovering over the reader as they read, to explain what we really meant. But I suspect that shy writers make this mistake less often: they are more at ease with the idea of writing orphaned sentences and letting those sentences speak in their place.
They also know that bringing words to life like this is hard. “When you say something, make sure you have said it,” White wrote in The Elements of Style. “The chances of your having said it are only fair.” Writing is a long lesson in how difficult it is to order words in a way that makes your meaning clear. And yet we have been led to think, in our era of instant connection—Skype calls, tweets, status updates, texts—that communicating with others is easy.
This is a new version of an old problem. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that the whole tradition of western thought, all the way back to Plato’s Republic, suffers from an intellectual bias he called “phonocentrism”—the idea that speech, which we learn instinctively, is a more natural form of expression than writing, which we learn tortuously.
We live in an especially phonocentric age, an age that overprizes speech—that likes to pretend, in fact, that writing is speech. Online prose aspires to the talky and informal, and invites immediate rebuttal below the line. The visual language of texting, with those speech bubbles pinging left and right on your phone, mimics dialogue. One effect of all this is to threaten the status of a defining element of the written sentence: the closing period. In texts and tweets, young people now routinely shun periods, replacing them with line breaks, emojis, kisses, three-dot ellipses, or nothing. On social media, leaving out the period conveys an extempore air, in which replies seem casual and jokes off-the-cuff.
A 2015 study of students at Binghampton University found that millennials now think that texts ending in periods sound too clipped and curt. They construe that extra millisecond that the sender used to add the period as a sign of insincerity or passive-aggression. Tellingly, they often use periods between every word to sound angrily emphatic or disbelieving: Just. Like. This.
My theory is that the shy are less likely to ascribe to this kind of phonocentrism. For a start, they know that there is nothing natural about speech. Bitter experience has taught them that speech is a complex skill, requiring one’s brain, breath, tongue, and teeth to work in unison in order to bring the amorphous workings of the mind into line. Such a demanding trick can never be executed perfectly.
Language is an evolutionary make-do, the flawed solution that natural selection has devised for reaching fleetingly across the unbridgeable mental divide that separates us all from each other. Shy people have a salutary sense of this inherently imperfect aspect of all language. They are unafflicted by the delusion that we can ever make ourselves truly understood. They know that we are all, essentially, tongue-tied; some of us are just more tongue-tied than others.
The shy also know that writing and speech are different. A written sentence is not a text in a speech balloon awaiting a response. A text can be followed up with a clarification, and is usually addressed to someone we know, someone who knows our quirks and our context. But a sentence is all about forming your words into a complete thought that does not need someone else to finish it for you. A sentence needs a period because it is not a conversation. We write alone, as an act of faith in the power of syntax to convey meaning to absent others, unknown and elsewhere.
Shyness is often seen as just a shrinking away from the crowd, a retreat from social life. But it also involves redirecting our social instincts into other areas, like writing. We write partly because we feel that other kinds of dialogue have failed, and that we need to speak at one remove if we are to speak at all. Writing draws, just as shyness does, on what the French call l’esprit de l’escalier: that conversation we carry on in our heads after the other person has gone.
Writing with this goal in mind is a gamble. It may entail years of self-imposed solitude, so that what was intended as a cure for shyness only ends up aggravating it. Shy writers, far from being timid, are actually taking a big risk: the risk that their writing might, if they are lucky, speak to someone else in some long-deferred future.
But there is something very human about that. We are not the only animals to be sociable and communicative. Whales, dolphins, birds, and other creatures have sophisticated languages that might seem even more so if we could just decipher them. But we are the only animals to turn our communicative instincts into substitute forms. We alone leave marks that can be read when we are not there, perhaps even when we are no longer alive. Writing is the answer that evolution has devised for the problem of human loneliness. No wonder shy people are drawn to it. And yes, that goes for the writer who wrote what you have just been reading.
Joe Moran is the author of Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness, published by Yale University Press. He is professor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University, UK.