Can you overcome shyness?

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that character is destiny. Character—the basic attributes created by inborn temperament and early environment—determines your actions, and your actions determine the course of your life. Some people think character can’t be changed, that those attributes are too deeply ingrained. One example is shyness. Can a shy person ever become outgoing?

From earliest childhood I’ve been painfully shy. In college it was agony for me just to say hello to acquaintances when I passed them in the hallway. My remedy for shyness was booze, but it only helped while I was drunk.

A teaching job

When my husband and I moved to Charleston, a small town with limited job opportunities, I applied for a temporary job teaching composition and literature in the English department at Eastern Illinois University. I bombed the interview and didn’t get the job. Then, the first week of the semester, the department chairman called. He needed an emergency replacement to teach one course. Was I interested?

And so I found myself standing in front of two dozen people only a few years younger than me. When I began to talk, someone in the back called out, “Louder!” Hands trembling and stomach churning, I upped my volume and launched into my presentation. In a couple of ways, I lucked out. They were a kind group. Also, the the elderly prof for whom I was a last-minute replacement was reputedly a boring lecturer. Anyone was an improvement over that guy.

college classroom

An angry student

I went on teaching one or two courses a semester. Gradually the shakes and nausea went away, but I still entered the classroom with dread. One day, a student got angry over a C she didn’t think she deserved. So angry that she told me the truth. “It’s not that you’re a terrible teacher,” she said. “You seem to know what you’re talking about. But when you’re up there talking, it’s like you don’t even see us.”

Her anger turned out to be a gift. I began looking at individuals in the room as I spoke. Their faces told me whether they were listening. And they actually did pay more attention when I started speaking to them rather than at them.

The students from hell

In a last-minute schedule change, I got a class that was originally assigned to a professor famous for giving As to everyone. When I walked in the classroom, I was greeted by stares of shock and dismay. Six students dropped the course right away. The rest were a hard group to teach. They fell asleep. They talked among themselves. To keep the class from devolving in chaos, I had to assert control. I still recall one moment in particular. The class was ending in five minutes, and the students were growing restless. A guy in the back row stood up and reached for his books. “Joe!” I pointed at him, my voice booming. “Sit down! I’m not finished.” He slowly sat down.

The students from hell were a gift. They helped me become someone who could stand in front of people and command attention.

Did my shyness go away?

Not really. I still struggle when I meet new people, especially since I’ve stopped easing the way with alcohol, but it’s no longer agony.

Maybe character is destiny, but it can’t be reduced to one weakness—or one strength. It’s an interplay of the many attributes that make up who we are. And I’m convinced that we have some control over which of them prevails.

college graduation, college student

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Return to Tanglewood

I found the paperbacks in a used bookstore. Their pages were yellowed and they had the distinctive smell of old books. New, they cost $0.60 and $1.25. They were A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s adaptations of classical myths for children, and when I was nine years old they were my favorite books. Or actually book. The book I read long ago was a hardback that contained both volumes.

So I bought the old yellowed paperbacks.

I remember reading them in the living room of my neighborhood friend ‘Alicia’. I was lying on the carpet, which had a swirly pattern that reminded me of waves. Alicia was a grave little girl. I liked her because we did things like read quietly together. It may be I borrowed the book from her rather than from the library. She had quite a few books.

At the time my brother and I and our mother lived with Nana, our grandmother and Mom’s ex-mother-in-law, in Ocean Beach, California. The two women had a complicated and sometimes tense relationship.

Nana ended my friendship with Alicia. Alicia’s mother didn’t invite me to Alicia’s birthday party because she couldn’t invite me without also inviting the other neighbor kids, including two sisters she disliked intensely. I understood. The sisters were nasty bullies and I didn’t like them either. But Nana didn’t understand. She took my not being invited as an insult. So when my birthday party rolled around, Nana allowed me to invite all the neighborhood kids except Alicia.

During the party Alicia came to the door. I still remember Nana’s hard voice as she spoke to Alicia through the screen, telling her she couldn’t come in and have cake with the rest of us.

Reading A Wonder Book again, I understand why I loved those stories so much. They must have been a challenge. I doubt my nine-year-old self knew words like erudition, vagrant, and audacity (and those are all in one sentence). But the truth is you don’t have to understand every single word when you read. Seeing a word like dominions the first time, you kind of guess the meaning from the context and can be pretty sure it meaning something like kingdom.

MinotaurHawthorne’s tales lifted me from everyday life into a world of magic adventures where the mysterious Quicksilver comes to the aid of Perseus as he sets out to slay the Gorgon, where greedy King Midas is cursed with a golden touch, and where Theseus  braves the labyrinth and battles the Minotaur. I got lost in those stories. As Hawthorne says in the preface (which I doubt I read back then), “No epoch of time can claim a copyright in these immortal tales. They seem never to have been made; and certainly, so long as man exists, they can never perish.” They awakened my love of fantasy.

But Hawthorne also gives the stories a frame. A group of children, brothers and sisters and cousins, are staying together at a beautiful estate called Tanglewood. They sit together on a spacious porch overlooking a misty valley, or beside a shady brook, while their college-age cousin Eustace Bright tells the stories.

Tanglewood seemed like paradise to me. It was a world without divorced parents or kids who were nasty bullies. The children in the book might tease one another gently, but they’re never mean. If one of them had a birthday party, all of the others would be invited. And if one of them showed up at the door, wanting to be let in, she wouldn’t be turned away.

A small grief

The day I returned to work after my brother’s funeral, one of my former students, ‘Trevor’, dropped by to announce that his world had collapsed. His fiancée had dumped him for some guy with lots of money. He was going to drop out of graduate school and he didn’t give a shit what happened him anymore. I assumed, mistakenly, that Trevor wanted me to talk him out of his despair. I’ve never been much good at that kind of thing, but I gave it a shot.

He might see things differently in a few months, I pointed out. Why not finish the semester? Then he could take the summer to decide what he wanted to do.

No way, Trevor said. He was too devastated to go on.

I told him my brother had just died and I was still in shock, but I was teaching my classes. Not functioning at full capacity, maybe, but trying. I doubted it would ease my grief to sit around thinking about how much I missed my brother. It would probably make things worse.

“Sorry about your brother,” Trevor said, and then he added, “Well, at least your brother didn’t reject you.”

From Trevor’s perspective, his grief was more severe than mine because his fiancée’s desertion left him feeling worthless. Yet in ten years — if he didn’t kill himself or become a hopeless drunk — he might meet another woman, someone kinder and more deserving of his love. But no one could replace my brother.

None of us fully understands someone else’s pain or grief. We only imagine it based on our own experience. Although boyfriends have dumped me, none of them mattered as much as Trevor’s fiancée mattered to him. And supposing Trevor had a sibling who died, the two of them might not have been as fiercely close as my brother and I were.

The loss of anyone leaves a hole in your life, and the depth of your grief is roughly proportionate to the size of that hole. What did you share with the one who’s gone? How much of yourself did you give? Nobody knows that but you.

All of this brings me to Westie, my parakeet, who died on Christmas Eve. To many people the loss of a pet is unimportant, especially a small bird. But Westie meant a lot to me. I talked and sang to him every evening before I put him to bed. My husband talked and whistled to him every morning. As a result he knew quite a few words and chattered and sang to us every day until he fell ill. Some of his favorites were “Won’t you kiss me?” and “Smile when you say that,” and “That’s Mr. Westie to you.” He whistled the opening notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Ride of the Valkyrie” and several other tunes.

He spent his last day snuggled against my chest while I wrote and read and watched videos on my iPad. That night I dozed in a recliner with Westie cupped in my hands. At four in the morning he fluttered away from me. I picked him up and he tried again to fly away. He wanted me to let him go. I placed him in his cage, where he died a few minutes later.

Only a parakeet, you can always get another one, but I felt like part of myself had flown away.

The loss of Westie is a small grief, but it hurts.

 

(The quotation is taken from Daemon Seer whren Lu’s parakeet, Foster, is bird-napped by daemons.)

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I was a teenage changeling

It would happen as I walked to school alone, or sat in the cafeteria with schoolmates chattering around me, or came home to find my mother had left work early and stopped at the liquor store for a fifth of vodka, now half empty. I suddenly knew this wasn’t my life. I belonged somewhere else, to different parents. Why they’d abandoned me I had no idea. They must have had a good reason, I thought, and someday they would return for me. I imagined my real parents as powerful, unearthly beings who could transport me in an instant to the unknown and hardly imaginable world where I belonged. They might come anytime, I told myself. One more minute and I could be out of there.

The reasons for my make-believe were plain to see. I was an introverted kid with not many friends. My mother was depressed and numbed her misery with alcohol. “I wish I was dead,” she said often. “If I had any courage, I’d find a gun and shoot myself.” My brother, Steve, the only one who shared my experience, had gone to live with our father in another town. But his absence hardly mattered. Something had changed between us since we became adolescents. The onset of adolescence probably had something to do with my feelings of strangeness as well. I hardly recognized my body anymore. Hardly recognized myself. I felt alone and insignificant, and my fantasy allowed me to feel special.

A changeling is a child left by fairies in exchange for a child stolen. An inferior, sickly thing left in place of what is precious, like the fake diamonds a jewel thief might leave to conceal his theft. I wanted to believe I was worth the trade. I wanted to become, like David Copperfield, the hero of my own life. But first I had to accept my life as it was. Once I did, things got better.

I worked harder in school and won encouragement from some of my teachers. I joined high school organizations and made more friends. After losing ten pounds and getting fitted with contact lenses, I found a boyfriend. And if I wanted to enter unknown and hardly imaginable worlds, I picked up a book or wrote a story. Eventually my stories and plays won national contests sponsored by Literary Cavalcade magazine, which led to a scholarship at Knox College, a school famous for its program in creative writing.

Looking back, I know my unhappiness wasn’t that unusual. I’ve met people whose childhoods were far worse than mine and who had the same sense of not belonging, of being an outsider. Now I value the experience. Though it caused me plenty of suffering then — and later — it made me a writer. It helped me imagine Lu, the hero of Talion and Daemon Seer, a teenager trapped in hopeless circumstances until the daemon Talion tells her who she truly is.

I wonder how many others have imagined themselves as changelings of one kind or another. I would like to know their stories.

I wrote another version of this post almost five years ago. Now that I understand my life better, the story has a happier ending.

Have Your Hugged Your Driller Today?
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Memories of my brother

My brother’s birthday is coming up, but he won’t be around to celebrate it. He died of a heroin overdose in 1987. Here’s what I have left of him: The hardhat he wore as an oil exploration worker. The old trunk, plastered with decals, that held his clothes and books when he traveled. Old photographs. And of course my memories. Some of the photographs are inherited from my grandmother. On the back of each one she diligently noted the date it was taken and who was in the shot. I’m grateful to her for that. Sometimes I can’t recognize faces from long ago. Looking at them makes me sad. Steve died young. Life wasn’t always kind to him, and he wasn’t always kind to himself. The photos show how he grew. And changed. They stir memories that have been submerged a long time.

I don’t remember where or when this picture of Steve and me was taken. It looks like an airfield. Those are the Wasatch Mountains in the background. Steve and I used to make up stories for hours on end, speaking in the voices of the characters we imagined. Maybe that’s why I rely so much on dialogue in my fiction.

This one with me in the ridiculous dress was taken on Easter. Every year on Easter Sunday we went with Mom and Grandma to an all-you-can eat buffet, always the same one. Steve loved their pie. One year we noticed the restaurant had raised the price for children and blamed the increase on Steve. But I’ve attached that sweet memory to the wrong picture. We’re too young here. The buffet came later.

Here is Steve with Grandma. He was in high school then. Since he lived with Dad and I lived with Mom, we only saw each other on holidays and during summer vacations.

He was a party animal who could down a six-pack faster than anybody. His favorite novel was Crime and Punishment. He got straight and stayed that way for a year or so before he relapsed.

Steve and I lived a thousand miles apart and seldom saw each other as adults. But when we did, things were the same as they always had been. He never stopped being my brother.

Blue Thunder

In my novel Daemon Seer, Lu is twenty-five years old before she finally has a pet, her parakeet Foster. When the daemons descend on Lu, Foster can sense them coming.  Lu realizes how much Foster means to her when she finds her front door open and Foster gone. In fact, the daemon Black Claw has stolen the parakeet and Lu must get him back. I wrote the essay below as a tribute to my parakeet Benji. It first appeared on my personal blog, Dreambeast. Although Benji died quite a few years ago, he remains dear to my heart.

Benji and I met at a party given by the fiancée of Joe’s department chairman. I knew only a few people there and soon retreated to a chair beside a bird cage. A parakeet came over, jumped onto the bars and hung by his claws, showing his wide blue belly and snowy vent. He was bigger than average. Later I found out he was half English budgerigar, a larger breed than the American parakeets usually found in pet stores. I moved my face closer and said, “Hey, little guy, you’re a cutie.” I whistled and clicked my tongue. He chirped enthusiastically.

I spent more time with Benji than with any of the party guests. At the end of the evening the hostess offered to give him to me, cage and all. Her soon-to-be husband disliked birds and joked that she might come home one day and find him hanged in his cage, with a little sign around his neck reading Goodbye, Cruel World. Though we’d just met, Benji’s owner trusted me to give him a good home. I did my best to deserve her trust for the nine years he was with me.

His vocabulary included such staples as “Benji is a pretty bird” and “Hey baby, you’re cute.” He might have learned more if I’d had the patience to teach him. But I would have loved him whether he talked or not. Gentle and affectionate, he liked perching on my shoulder and nibbling my ear as I read or watched TV. He soon began joining me at meals where — to Joe’s disgust — he perched on the rim of my plate and nibbled my food. He especially liked spaghetti in tomato sauce.

Benji was a less than athletic bird. When I set him on a parakeet swing, he hunkered down and gripped the bar like an acrophobic old gent trapped on a rollercoaster. He struggled to fly, working his wings frantically to keep his chubby body aloft and occasionally bumping into a wall and fluttering to the floor. He never got up enough momentum to hurt himself in these collisions, but I couldn’t help being scared every time he went down. Joe dubbed him Blue Thunder.

Near the end of his life, Benji became too weak to fly. But he would flutter to the floor and walk through the house until he found me, and I would pick him up and hold him, and pretty soon he would fall asleep.

He never forgot his first owner. He chirped with excitement when she and her husband came for dinner. After we finished dessert, I brought Benji to the table and gushed about how much I loved having him around. He chattered and preened, basking in the attention. His first owner’s husband remarked grudgingly that he was kind of cute. Benji flew from my hand and landed on the head of the man who’d threatened to hang him. Squatting and wiggling his tail, he squeezed out a tiny drop of bird dung. Then, having vented his feelings, he flew to his cage on thunderous wings. Call it coincidence if you want. I call it payback time.

Confession of a story binger

I don’t remember much from the summer I was thirteen, months of boredom punctuated by moments of emotional violence involving my father and/or my stepmother and/or my grandmother and/or me. I lived with Nana in a trailer behind the tavern Dad owned. The trailer had a small yard with a dusty cacti garden and a fence that separated it from the parking lot. I spent some time with my younger brother, who was staying with Dad, but mostly I sprawled on a couch in the trailer, reading library books while the swamp cooler in the ceiling gurgled and whirred.

This cover is NOTHING like the Ivanhoe I barely remember.

From that forgotten time, one moment remains in my memory. I finished Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and felt desolated. I stared at the last page, the final sentence. How could it be over? I really needed to get up and walk around, maybe get a glass of Kool-Aid from the fridge. Instead I turned to the first page of Ivanhoe and began reading the story again. I was obsessed by a novel that I can barely remember now.

The reasons for the obsession are obvious enough. What pudgy teenager with pimples wouldn’t prefer a world of chivalry and adventure to sordid reality? And fiction wasn’t my only escape. I loved movies. I saw Lawrence of Arabia half a dozen times and The Great Escape at least ten. Movies without a single female character. It must have been a relief; I wasn’t exactly comfortable with my emerging sexuality.

Now decades have passed and my life is happy. Of course I suffer pain and disappointment, the same as everyone else, but nothing like the constant anxiety and misery of adolescence when books and movies were my refuge. So why haven’t I changed? Why did I reread thousands of pages from George RR Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice? Why did I reread all five books of Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series? Why have I spent the past few days watching all 55 episodes of the NBC urban fantasy Grimm?

Nick-Grimm-Season-3-grimm-35260010-500-185Grimm could be described as Law and Order with monsters. Nick Burkhardt, a detective in the Portland, Oregon police department, begins having disturbing visions of people morphing into monsters. Then his dying aunt shows up and announces that he is a Grimm and like his ancestors is able to see the true faces of these creatures in their unguarded moments. Yes! The monsters of Grimm’s fairy tales exist, and dozens of them live in Portland. Not the trendy neighborhoods of Portlandia, but the dark and gritty back streets where danger threatens and the darkness is drenched in eerie green.

The hero.

Nick’s aunt leaves him a trailer full of ancient books, potions, and weapons so he can hunt  down monsters and kill them. That’s his job as a Grimm. It’s a long tradition. The monsters expect decapitation, or worse, at his hands. In every episode he faces down another terrifying creature. He dispatches the nasty ones and befriends some of the not-so-bad ones. Geeky wolf man Monroe becomes his unofficial partner as he navigates the world of the supernatural. Eventually he shares his secret with his partner on the police force and with his girlfriend.

A howling good time

Nick discovers that the supernatural world has its own hierarchy and Machiavellian politics in which he is supposed to play a particular role. Some creatures want to assassinate him while others try to exploit his talents. He also has an object, left to him by his aunt, that certain people are determined to steal from him. The overarching story is his struggle to survive and find his place in a world he doesn’t understand.

I know why I enjoy Grimm. The series has an original concept, inventive plots, appealing characters, and a noirish visual style. The writing is literate with allusions to W.B. Yeats, Emily Dickenson, and various mythologies besides Grimm’s fairy tales. But none of this explains its hold on my imagination.

Habits formed in childhood are difficult to change. Maybe there’s nothing more to it than that. But often I don’t enjoy real life—the tedium, the labor, the difficulty and frustrusion, the questionable meaning of it all. I would rather escape into exciting fictional worlds where darkness and danger are caged within the story, where everything makes sense.

That’s why I sit at the computer and create a world of my own. And why I become lost in the worlds of other artists.

Photos from FanPop.

A tribute to my father

An entrepreneur at heart, my father owned and operated more than a dozen small businesses in his lifetime, two or three at a time. Since he liked spending money and always needed more, he also sold cars for various dealerships in Heber, Utah, where he lived. He was a terrific saleman. He won national prizes for his record in sales—gold pins, cookware, trips to Las Vegas.

Unfortunately I didn’t inherit my old man’s greatest sales asset, the ability to connect with all kinds of people and a personality that immediately put them at ease. I’m more of an introvert. When I decided to become a writer, I imagined a life cloistered in my office, creating stories and novels, emerging to give the occasional reading. Someone else would persuade readers to buy my books. But life didn’t work out that way. As the independent publisher of my books, I have the entire responsibility for marketing them.

Although not a natural like Dad, I learned a few things from watching him sell cars.

Believe in your product

When Dad sold Fords, they were the best automobiles on the market. Nothing beat a Mustang for speed and handling. Then he went to work at the General Motors dealership. Suddenly their vehicles became superior. I teased him about changing his opinion from one day to the next. But he stuck doggedly to his position: you couldn’t beat a Cadillac for luxury and comfort or a GM truck for power and reliability.

Ultimately authors have to believe in their work; otherwise they wouldn’t create. But even great writers harbor doubts about the value of their writing. Franz Kafka wanted his manuscripts destroyed after his death. I’m not that depressive, but then I’m no genius either. I revise incessantly and agonize over sentences.  Doubt is useful when it drives me to improve my writing, but I have to put it aside when I market my book. If I don’t believe in the book, neither will anyone else.

Never stop selling

Dad talked to everyone he met about cars—good friends, casual acquaintances, and strangers. If they showed the least interest in buying one, he had a deal for them. I’m sure he got rebuffed plenty of times, but he made a lot of sales, too.

That kind of persistence is hard for me. Rejection hurts. I have to remind myself not to take it to heart, to seek out opportunities and jump on each one.

Rise above disaster

I was amazed at Dad’s unflappability when he was selling. Once, a customer took a test drive in a used car—emphasis on used—and as he pulled back on the lot, the radiator hose burst. Dad opened the hood and quickly stepped back to avoid the spout of water. So much for that sale, I thought. But Dad led the customer into his office. They talked awhile, and then the guy came out and left. Dad emerged a few minutes later.

“Too bad about the hose,” I said.

“Oh, he bought the car,” Dad said. “I was just writing up the sale.”

“He didn’t care?”

“Car’s fine except for the hose,” Dad said. “We’re putting in a new one.”

The first edition of Talion was pretty much a bust—ineffective cover, insufficient copy editing, formatting mistakes. When I realized how completely I’d screwed up, I wanted to crawl beneath my bedcovers and hide. But I didn’t (not for long, anyway). As I learned from Dad, mistakes are fixable, and you don’t fail until you stop trying.

(This has all the earmarks of a Father’s Day post, but I don’t feel like waiting until June.)

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Why I get out of bed in the morning

I was half asleep when my husband put on one of my favorite CDs, Nude and Rude: The Best of Iggy Pop. You might figure the aural assault of “Search and Destroy” or the pounding beat of “Lust for Life” would wake me up, but I drowsed through both songs. It was Iggy’s haunting and poetic “The Passenger” that brought me to life.

Here let me explain that I’m one of those annoying people who play the same song over and over and over until you want to grab a baseball bat and pound their music-playing equipment into rubble. (Anyone who roomed near me in college, please accept my belated apology.) This mental disorder has somewhat abated now that I’m old, but “The Passenger” is a song I used to play 28 times in a row. I feel a deep psychic connection to this dark song about riding without end through the city at night.

The first stanza goes:

I am the passenger

And I ride and I ride

I ride through the city’s backside

I see the stars come out of the sky

Yeah, they’re bright in a hollow sky

You know it looks so good tonight

I am the passenger

I stay under glass

I look through my window so bright

I see the stars come out tonight

I see the bright and hollow sky

Over the city’s a rip in the sky

And everything looks good tonight

You don’t know who’s driving the passenger’s car.” A chauffeur? Anyway, the passenger seems unworried about being taken where he doesn’t want to go. Nor is he concerned about danger. “The city’s ripped backside” suggests the bad side of town—vacant buildings, broken windows, vacant and broken people. But he isn’t brushing against any of this damage. He remains “under glass” like something rare and protected, safe behind his window.

“The Passenger” has three stanzas. In the first one the singer is the passenger, but in the second he invites listeners to come along for the ride. “Get in the car,” he says. “We’ll be the passenger.” And in the third stanza the passenger becomes a third-person entity. He has morphed from a person to a way of being in the world.

Under glass, looking through his “window’s eye,” the passenger is the center of the universe. Nothing touches him, and everything he looks upon is his. He says, “All of it was made for you and me. / Come take a ride and see what’s mine.” The purpose of the ride is to see, and in the act of seeing, to possess—not just the city but “the bright and hollow sky” and all the stars in it.

The world belongs to him entirely.

But his ownership comes with a curse. He can see but not touch. If he leaves the car and steps out in the world, it no longer belongs to him. Whatever he touches will touch him right back. No control. No protection from pain or damage. The passenger has to keep moving and stay encapsulated. The song is haunting because nothing belongs to him really. Everything happens in his head, and that’s enough. The music will carry him anywhere he wants to go. He moves through the world like a ghost.

The endlessness of his ride is expressed in the obsessive rhythm of the music and the repetition of the same imagery with slight permutations from stanza to stanza. The passenger “rides and rides and rides” and goes nowhere. These qualities make the song a perfect choice for playing over and over. And my emotional response is simple: Take me for that ride.

It’s easy to look at Iggy Pop’s career and stage persona and conclude “The Passenger” is about heroin, which is both obvious and beside the point. I listen to the song and feel the perilous allure of disengaging from the world. And I don’t have to shoot smack to disengage. I can go crazy or join a bizarre cult or spend every waking hour surfing the Web — or just refuse to wake up in the morning.

When “The Passenger” played, I rolled out of bed and danced until the music ended. Then I sat down to write.

Photo from fanpop.com