Thinking about Suzanne’s recent post at Stephanie’s blog about shyness. It must be excruciating to be truly shy. I think I may be shy, in a way, but I have managed my shyness by morphing it into an extreme and parodic form of self-consciousness. Pure shyness strikes me as a form of hostility in that shy people seem only to be thinking of their own anxiety and discomfort instead of focusing on what their interlocutor might be experiencing. They block the two-way flows of energy between communicators, and to me, this is a kind of hostility. I tell this to my shy students, and sometimes they overcome the worst of their shyness by focusing on the other, sometimes not. I do try to be a model of not-shyness for them so that they can feel freer to communicate. I think I try to do this for the writing community as well, but it’s less easy to measure my effectiveness in that area.
What I do experience that is something like shyness is the horrible sensation, sometimes, of practically seeing my words come out of my mouth and hang there like leaden speech balloons. In an ugly void, where everyone’s staring. Somewhere (maybe quoted in a book review? recently?) I read a passage of fiction that described this phenomenon very cogently. I guess that writers in particular are prone to this syndrome; and I remember never feeling that way so much as in the Bay Area in the 80s. There was something almost pleasurable about that hyper-consciousness, but it was also stultifying. It’s fine to be self-conscious when I say things that come out winsome and snappy, because then I can be charmed by what’s in the balloons, but sometimes, especially when I’m in the midst of some rhetorical battle (not, perhaps, my strongest mode), the statements that come out of me seem wooden, wrong, and other.
Is my extreme self-consciousness in fact a kind of “false consciousness” (a phrase I was reminded of reading a review of abook on poverty in the Times today, in which a woman rationalizes her extreme poverty and alcoholism by saying that she must have committed some grave sins in previous lives)? Am I deceiving myself that I am reclaiming roses and ruffles, and that because everything I do is steeped in performative irony I am not buying into received notions of womanhood? That my parade of images of myself is not in fact a true narcissism but rather a going-to-extremes of self-consciousness in order to work through it, as an aspiring Buddhist might lose himself in alcohol and promiscuity on the way to enlightenment? Aw, hell.