Why Many Authors Are Shy

03 Nov 2012

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For years I worried about my natural shyness, (Mahatma Gandhi called his Institutional Shyness), thinking that it was some kind of disease.  I was so shy that I used a pseudonym for my first novel.

As I grew, my eyes opened to the fact that God makes no mistakes and everything He has made is good. He has generously given every individual gifts for their assigned goals, and he has carefully wired each person to achieve their set goals.

Now I know that if I have to write whole chapters or books in my head before I sit down to download on paper, God was not mistaken to make me an introvert.  Now I know that the wiring that makes me talk less because I take time to think before I speak is the wiring that allows me to write in my head. It could be scary, but sometimes I live in my head. And I also know now that introversion is why I am able to keep long lonely hours to write.

I have also learned from fellow introverts. For a lawyer and a global icon, Gandhi’s discomfort in public was surprising. But he wrote in his autobiography: “I must say that, beyond occasionally exposing me to laughter, my constitutional shyness has been no disadvantage whatsoever. In fact I can see that, on the contrary, it has been all to my advantage. My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure. Its greatest benefit has been that it has taught me the economy of words...a thoughtless word hardly ever escapes my tongue or pen. I do not recollect ever having had to regret anything in my speech or writing. I have thus been spared many a mishap and waste of time...A man of few words will rarely be thoughtless in his speech; he will measure every word.”

Would I say I was surprised to know recently that the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, who wrote 66 novels and has so far sold over 4 billion novels, was an introvert? Not really. But I now know that she also trained as a singer and pianist and had it not been for her extreme shyness, she could have made that her career.

Shyness or introversion must have helped her write her numerous books. She said, “I think the real work is done in thinking out the development of your story and worrying about it until it comes right. That may take quite a while. Then, when you’ve got all your material together, all that remains is to find time to write the thing.

“…when a smart idea falls into your head, which you like, you have to build a believable story from it. Suddenly faces grow as well, one by one”.

Many writers are shy or are introverted because they are wired to show hermit qualities to enable them write. They keep few friends. They are scared by the high opportunity cost of social outing, parties, which an average person sees as fun.

They are wired to endure long, painful, lonely hours at their desk, which others can’t stand. As Hollie Snider notes, “sometimes words flow out faster than you can type. Other times it’s like chipping away at a concrete block with a toothpick. There are times when you read what you’ve just written and honestly wonder if raising tropical fish wouldn’t be a better venture. Other times, it is the most brilliant, wondrous thing you’ve ever written, beyond your wildest expectations”.

Writing and literature generally, tends to be for people who prefer to express themselves through writing than speaking. Shy and introverted people belong to the former category. Experts say that although the underlying cause of shyness differs between writers, the common thread is that writing allows a form of expression and an outlet for emotion.

Some other strength of shy people are cautious thinking, well-thought out contribution to discussions, and being believable.
The point must be made that even though shy authors do no fail to admit their shyness, many strive to overcome the associated insecurities. In my case, many years of journalism has been very helpful. I couldn’t hide my byline, which became increasingly popular and exposed me; and sustaining the importance of the byline meant I had to go out! However, I remain an introvert. That is what I am wired to be, and to write.

Ladies and Gentlemen, you know about Agatha Christie, now prepare to be amazed by some other big writers from

J.K. Rowling: J.K. Rowling (Joanne Rowling) is a British author known for the “Harry Potter” series of books. She describes herself as a shy, daydreaming child who had no sports ability but a love of literature; she began writing at the age of six. Rowling devised the storyline for “Harry Potter” while stuck on a stopped train for four hours, but it took her another six years to finish the book. She believes in taking chances:
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”

Elfriede Jelinek: Elfriede Jelinek is an Austrian novelist and playwright who won the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature. She is best known for works such as “The Piano Teacher” and “Lust”; her signature style is a language that mimics musical composition. She described herself as a loner during childhood and someone who used writing and poetry as an outlet for expression. Although she accepted the 2004 Nobel Prize, she did not attend the ceremony because of self-proclaimed extreme social phobia:

“I would gladly do it but I am suffering from social phobia. I cannot manage being in a crowd of people.”

C.S. Lewis: C.S. Lewis was known for not revealing his private life and feelings in his writing or even in personal relationships. It is said that his shyness sometimes appeared to turn into aggression when others tried to get too personal, but that this was just a fear of close relationships. He is said to have been too shy and modest to believe anyone would want to know him.

Cormac McCarthy: Cormac McCarthy is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author best known for the book “No Country for Old Men” which was adapted into an Oscar-winning film. McCarthy is known for valuing privacy and turning down interviews even when finances were tough. His former wife Anne Delisle is said to have complained that:

“He would tell them that everything he had to say was right there on the page,” she said wistfully. “So we would eat beans for another week.”

George Bernard Shaw: George Bernard Shaw was an Irish novelist and playwright known for his bold and analytical writing about contemporary issues exemplified in works such as “Pygmalion.” Shaw grew up shy and with an inferiority complex; it is said at one time he was too nervous to even knock on the door of a friend and instead walked up and down the banks of the Thames River.

Vowing not to let his fears overcome him, he built confidence through participation in oral debates. Shaw is credited with molding the thoughts of his generation and those that came after him. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925. Shaw passed away on November 2nd, 1950.

Harper Lee: Harper Lee is best known as the author of the famous 1960’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee is known for being a private person who preferred staying out of the limelight and had no interest in fame. Lee is also famous for turning down interview requests for magazines, newspapers and television.

Garrison Keillor: Garrison Keillor is an author, radio show host, comedian and newspaper columnist. Known to be shy, Keillor argues that shyness is simply a personality trait that should be welcomed as an individual difference instead of the subject of scrutiny and programs for change. Keillor believes that shy people face obstacles in life because they are bullied into fitting into an extroverted society. Keillor is proud of his shyness and sees it not as a disability that needs to be overcome but as a virtue.

Robert Frost: Pulitzer-Prize winning American author Robert Frost has been heralded as one of the greatest poets of all time. He is best known for works such as “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Frost is said to have grown out of his natural shyness as a result of his experiences as a teacher. Frost died January 29th, 1963. He is quoted as saying:

“Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.”

JM Coetzee: He is a novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. Of South African origin, he is now an Australian citizen and lives in Adelaide, South Australia. Prior to receiving the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, Coetzee twice won the Booker Prize.

Coetzee is known as reclusive and avoids publicity to such an extent that he did not collect either of his two Booker Prizes in person. Author Rian Malan has said that:

“Coetzee is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word”.

According to Wikipedia, as a result of his reclusive nature, signed copies of Coetzee’s fiction are highly sought after. Recognising this, he was a key figure in the establishment of Oak Tree Press’s First Chapter Series, a series of limited edition signed works by literary greats to raise money for the child victims and orphans of the African HIV/AIDS crisis.

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