I took a four-day narrative writing workshop in February, and the instructor (who was excellent) had a collection of aphorisms he suggested we use when we write. One of them was “Don’t isolate your characters.” In other words, characters should rarely be alone in a short story or novel. They need to bump up against other characters – that’s what creates conflict. Yes, yes – conflict can be interior, and every so often a successful story will involve someone battling the elements or some such thing, but most of the time, conflict comes from interactions with other people, and as a rule of thumb for writing fiction, I think this teacher was dead right.
But then a few days ago, on one of my many trips along I-280 during my commute, I started playing with a little syllogism. Ultimately it’s a faulty syllogism, in that it doesn’t hold up logically, but I do think it sheds light on a problem that faces the writers and readers of fiction. Here it is:
1) Conflict in fiction comes from the interaction of characters.
2) People who are introverts spend much of their time alone.
3) Therefore, introverts don’t usually make effective characters in fiction.
I’ll expose my syllogism’s flaws. First, the presence of the word “usually” and “much of” negate whatever precision the syllogism might have had. Syllogisms only work when they deal in absolutes. Second, introverts do in fact spend time with other people. Sometimes they do so by choice – because introverts do generally enjoy their friends, although they may count a smaller number of people as friends than extroverts do – and, of course, most introverts come into contact with people during the course of their day – at school or work, running errands, and so forth. The clash of people who have been forced together against their will is a standard source of conflict, and introverts can certainly be involved in these sorts of scenes.
However, I do think that many introverts save some component of their best selves for their alone time. They feel most comfortable and relaxed and creative and alert and energetic when they are alone – more “themselves.” Yet it’s true that most of the time, the things that introverts do when they are alone are not the stuff of great fiction. Take me, for instance. I spent today alone. My dad and my uncle were around, but I didn’t interact with them. Between 11 am and 8 pm, I did about 14 pages of work on a novel I’m writing. I played Scrabble on Facebook. I said all kinds of embarrassing things to the cats. I went to the grocery store twice (because in between trip 1 and trip 2 I developed a craving for Ben and Jerry’s Blueberry Graham frozen yogurt), and I stopped by a tutoring client’s house to pick up my paycheck. That’s it. No one would ever want to film the day I just had or mine it for the stuff of fiction. Yet at the same time – it was a great day. I was productive. I was physically comfortable. I was intellectually and creatively active. If I were a character in literature and a novelist was trying to capture who I am, he would be remiss in neglecting days like today.
Flash back about eight years. I was sitting with a colleague in a hotel restaurant in Washington, D.C. We had just begged off an evening of bar-hopping with colleagues and had been made to feel shitty about it. We were wasting a night in Washington, D.C. by just sitting around and how many times do we get to hang out with co-workers socially and so on. The colleague I sat with in the restaurant said something to me that night that chimed with everything I had always known and felt but had never heard put so perfectly into words. She said, “Introverts don’t dislike people; introverts are exhausted by people and energized by solitude. Extroverts are exhausted by solitude and energized by people. They feel nervous and tired and bored when they’re alone.”
We happened at the time to be at the annual conference of The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), so I was walking around all day long with BIG IDEAS in my head. There are very few things that I love more than walking around all day with BIG IDEAS in my head. At the time, I was the Director of Residential Life at a boarding school in southern California, and we were always working to make sure that our dorm routines and activities program were consistent with the school’s mission. Less than a year later, I had left that school and was a teacher and dorm parent at another boarding school in Connecticut. By that point I had come to the belief that there is something in the culture of boarding schools that treats introversion as a pathology of some kind. There are reasons for this that have nothing to do with ideology: adults who work at boarding schools are expected to know where the students are and what they are doing. If a parent calls the school on a Sunday afternoon and says he’s been unable to reach his child, we can’t very well say that we haven’t seen the child since classes ended on Friday afternoon. Fair enough. Most schools solve this problem in one of two ways. The first is scheduled check-in times. An adult sits in some central location: the dining hall, the library, etc. at specified times during the day, and students have to come to that place within a certain window of time and check in. Ideally, the adult chats with the students for a while, trying to make sure the student is happy, ideally not on drugs, etc. If a child doesn’t show up to check in, he receives detention or some other low-level punishment. This procedure is annoying for both kids and teachers, but is relatively simple and effective.
The second method of keeping track of students is the one that I find a little sinister: making certain recreational activities mandatory. I think this system is probably a necessary evil for students in middle and elementary schools, but in high schools it’s a disaster. I’ve chaperoned mandatory dances. Once, my job for the whole four hours was to stand outside a door and prevent students from leaving. I don’t even want to think about what I would have done in high school if some adult tried to force me to go to a dance. I’ve also chaperoned mandatory field trips and – worst of all – mandatory sessions of icebreaker-type games held over and over again with the nebulous goal, always in the forefront in boarding schools, of “building community.” The thing is, the mandatory activities are always activities that appeal to extroverts. I’ve never known a school to require solitary walks in the woods. I’ve never been asked to chaperone mandatory knitting, or mandatory reading in bed, or mandatory long drives in the country drinking coffee and listening to Willie Nelson (I am an expert in all of these activities, by the way).
Similarly, I’ve been in any number of meetings in which students of concern were discussed. Someone always begins by saying something like this: “I’m concerned about Jane Smith. She’s always alone. Does she have friends? Who does she spend time with? Whenever I see her, she’s always reading.” I’m not suggesting that a student who is always alone should not be a concern: it’s entirely possible that the student is depressed, and it’s good that teachers care enough about her to raise the concern. My problem is that equal time is never given to extroverts: “I’m concerned about Lisa Brown. She is always in the center of a group of kids. Last week I heard her complain because no one wanted to walk to the post office with her. She acted as if spending ten minutes walking to the post office alone was the worst thing that could have happened to her.” There are people in the world who are afraid to be alone, and they may need help and treatment just as badly as a person who likes to retreat from society now and then.
The same holds true in society as a whole – not just in boarding schools. How many times have you heard people praised for being “community minded,” while others are mocked or criticized for being “shut-ins”? Every time the news announces another shooting at a school or public place, I grieve for the victims, of course, but I also cringe because I know that any time now local residents will begin making blanket statements about introverts: “I always knew there was something wrong with that kid. He was always alone. Never even played outside with the other kids.” Et cetera.
So long story short, I started thinking about a course called “Introverts in Literature.” This course would not be simply about characters who are in solitary situations against their will (no Robinson Crusoe, probably no The Old Man and the Sea). The course would be about introverted protagonists who are not portrayed as sick or crazy or weird – so no Boo Radley, no Mr. Bromden from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, no Gregor Samsa. I polled some friends, who helped me assemble a list, but overall this will be an ongoing project, and I look forward to reading or rereading some of these texts with an eye on finding authors who treat the real lives of introverts honestly and fairly.
Here’s a skeleton of the list:
Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid. A friend suggested that every story Munro has ever written is about an introverted protagonist, and I think he’s right. I chose this collection of linked stories for the list because I think its tension between an introverted protagonist and her extroverted stepmother brings these issues to the forefront more than most. I also chose it because the protagonist has a failed marriage, and I have a hunch that many if not most stories about failed marriages are actually stories about introverts.
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence. Case in point. I’m also keeping a close eye on Anna Karenina, although for now I don’t think Anna is an introvert, not really.
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge. This is another collection of linked stories. The protagonist is kind of bristly and is disliked by many people in her town, but her character is drawn with great compassion. I’d have to reread it to be sure.
Everything J.D. Salinger ever wrote. His protagonists – Holden Caulfield and the older and younger pairs of Glass children – constantly seek the company of others and are always disappointed.
Robert Frost’s Collected Poems – no explanation needed
Thoreau’s Walden. This one’s the cliché, of course, but I think it belongs on the list. In the last couple years of my teaching career, I finally learned how to teach Thoreau properly – by emphasizing his failures. By the time he moved into the woods, Thoreau had been hired and fired from dozens of jobs as a teacher and tutor. He and his brother had founded a school, which had gone under as well. Although he never puts it in quite so many words in Walden, Thoreau moved into a tiny house on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land near Walden Pond in order to punish himself – to put himself in a place where he wouldn’t be able to screw up his life more than he already had. The irony, of course, is that he learned to live as an introvert.
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild. This one is almost another cliché; I used to teach it side by side with Walden. The central figure in this work of nonfiction is Chris McCandless, who runs away from a life of privilege and success to live a life of freedom, spontaneity, and self-reliance. He dies of malnutrition in an abandoned bus in Alaska after misreading a guidebook that warned readers that a certain type of potato seed contained a toxin that shuts down the digestive system. The thing is, McCandless shows every sign of being an extrovert. Everyone who knew him said that he reveled in the company of others, forming deep and lasting connections to the people he met on the road. Yet he also seems energized by solitude and the contemplative life. Could he be both an introvert and an extrovert? Is that even possible? That’s why this book is on the list.
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre. This was an interesting suggestion from a friend. While Jane is rarely truly alone, she does seem to have hard edges to her that resist the easy sociability of extroverts. She readily turns down marriage and security with St. John Rivers because she doesn’t love him and only finds happiness with the equally prickly Rochester (their union makes me think of Rilke’s statement that in a healthy marriage, “each is the guardian of the other’s solitude.” Finally, a statement that places the needs of introverts over those of extroverts!). And on that note,
Rilke. Probably just about everything he wrote, but specifically Letters to a Young Poet.
Jim Harrison, The English Major. This is a novel about a man who takes a long, rambling road trip. I haven’t read it but hope to soon.
Helen Stringer, Paradigm. A teenaged friend of mine recommended this title immediately after I told her I was looking for books about introverts. I’ll be reading it soon.
At least a few of the protagonists in Flannery O’Connor’s stories have to be introverts, no? Hulga Hopewell? Mary Grace in “Revelation”? Julian in “Everything that Rises Must Converge”? Further thoughts coming soon.
John Cheever, “The Country Husband,” and maybe others. This is one of the best stories ever written about the interior life.
William Styron, Sophie’s Choice. I read this novel years and years ago and put it on this list at the suggestion of a friend. This novel uses first person minor character point of view, and the narrator is a very introverted guy named Stingo who develops a connection with a Holocaust survivor who lives in his apartment building. This novel affected me powerfully when I first read it. I’ve been looking for an excuse to reread it sometime soon.
John Green, Looking for Alaska – a trendy young adult novel that fails to accurately capture the atmosphere of a contemporary boarding school. This novel follows a structure that I think is cliché and overused in Young Adult fiction: 1) Ordinary Kid meets Extraordinary Kid. 2) Friendship deepens, Ordinary Kid learns that Extraordinary Kid is troubled. 3) Ordinary Kid has best experience of his/her life, possibly involving sex. 4) Extraordinary Kid dies, either via suicide or via some kind of risk-taking behavior brought on by the fact that Extraordinary Kid is troubled. 5) Ordinary Kid realizes that he/she will probably always be ordinary. But in spite of my misgivings, I do think Alaska Young (this novel’s iteration of Extraordinary Kid) qualifies as an introvert. The friend who suggested this book said, “She’s a charismatic introvert: the worst kind.”
Philip Roth, Zuckerman Bound. A volume containing several short novels about a reclusive novelist in Salinger’s mold.
The Young Adult novels of Robert Cormier and Cynthia Voigt. I don’t know how widely available these books are now, but I loved these two authors when I was a kid. I’m thinking of the boy who refuses to participate in the chocolate sale in The Chocolate War, Bullet in Voigt’s The Runner, and maybe Cilla – a woman who takes in the abandoned Tillerman children in Homecoming. These will require some revisiting.
So there you go. I’ve learned not to promise too much here on PFP (cough – Paradise Lost – uncough), but I really do hope to revisit some of these books, extend the list, and eventually arrive at something concrete to say about introverts in literature who are neither sick nor crazy.