If you had panic inducing shyness the last thing you’d want to do is tell people about it, let alone write about. Sian Prior however, has chosen to do the opposite. Shy: A Memoir, is a deeply personal exploration of Prior’s battle with shyness. Drawing upon events from her life and a catalogue of research Prior examines the complexities of being shy.
Often when I meet someone new, I am overwhelmed by something like those strange forces- simultaneously. So curious to know everything about the person, so desperate to read their mind, I could crush them with my enthusiasm. Yet so overcome by my own self-consciousness and anxiety, I want to back away from them when they tell me their name. Exhausted by the rush of opposing emotions even before I’ve opened my mouth to say hello.”
Sian Prior’s debut novel blends together her extensive research with her personal accounts of social anxiety and insecurity. All of this comes to a painful crescendo when Prior’s relationship falls apart, bringing to the surface all her self-doubt and fragility. Yet, in an exercise of catharsis Prior digs in, opens up and candidly recalls it all in an effort to discover what it really means to be shy.
How did the idea for your memoir come about? What made you want to investigate shyness?
So the book came from a number of different things happen one was something you probably read about in the book which was me fleeing from a party about 5 years ago in a state of just panic basically and getting home and just thinking oh my god why am I still dealing with this at the age of 45 or whatever and I just started thinking what is this, why am I still so shy, why does it still cause these panicked reactions in me? And simultaneously I had also been wanting to write a book for ages and I hadn’t been able to think of a topic that I thought would keep my attention long enough. So what I did was I wrote an essay first about shyness where I tried to answer some questions that I had about it and after I wrote the essay I thought, well no, there were still a whole lot of other things I wanted to find out and so I decided to keep going and try to write a book about it and I suppose in part I was hoping if I could find out enough about it I might be able to cure myself of it, which of course turned out not to be true, but nevertheless was helpful.
Could you talk a bit about your writing process? There are a lot of chapters in the book with different styles, was the process change along the way?
Well look it merged in a pretty messy way in that I guess I started doing two things simultaneously, one was trying to find the answers to those questions that I had and I did that, you know by reading books by experts and interviewing experts… and just trying to get the information I needed and at the same time I started just kind of combing back some of my memories and trying to figure out what were the most memorable and intense moments of me dealing with my shyness and then trying to put the two things together, trying to illuminate the memories with the information I was gathering…
When I first started writing the book I was originally planning to do a much more informative and less personal book and when I showed the bits that were emerging to people who I respect they just kept saying; you know what, it’s the memoir stuff that’s really working you know you really just need to write this based on yourself because that’s the stuff that’s really resonating… Originally I was starting to interview other shy people and I was going to put there stories in but in the end I thought, you know this will be much more satisfying for the reader if I just focus on that quest if you like of trying to understand my self through the research.
And then of course life intervened with my relationship break up and that just made everything I was discovering much more intense and much more relevant, I guess in that I just got to the point of discovering that the essence of shyness is about the rejection and then I was rejected and… reluctantly I took on that gift of a narrative arc that had come through this life event.
How do you write a book putting all those things out there you don’t want to anyone know? Was it a form of catharsis or a way of coming to terms with your shyness?
It became like a kind of extreme exposure therapy. It was like, what am I most terrified of, I’m most terrified of people really knowing me and then judging me negatively, how am I going to put myself in the most extreme version of that and see if I cope, maybe if I just put everything about myself in this book. And I suppose part of my brain was thinking, you know if other people who are shy and finding this kind of stuff hard can see it is possible to do and survive then maybe that will be useful. I had some very useful advice from people who I respect who had read early drafts and they said you know your still hiding.
One mentor said to me; Ok I want you to write down the three things you feel you could never put in this book… and then he said I want you to go home and write about those things, telling yourself no one is ever going to read them… and I just did it as I was instructed and of course once it had come out onto the page I thought, ‘Oh God that has to go in’. So I sort of tricked myself into being able to write down the stuff that was very difficult to write down. The whole process was deeply cathartic, it helped me to understand, it helped me to think… process of thinking, of reflecting, of understanding and ultimately coming to terms with some of the painful material in the book.
Throughout the book you have this battle with mirrors and reflections. As a shy person how did you confront the struggle between your public and private life?
Discovering that this person, who in the book I’ve named Professional Sian, existed inside me was a marvellous and revelatory and incredibly helpful thing for me… that was the start of me realising that when I was in a situation where it was not all about me… it was about something much larger than me, then I could be much more brave than when it was just me in a social situation… We are all many people aren’t we… We are different when we are with our grandmother or with our lover, we all perform different versions of ourselves in different contexts… We are all out there performing what we think the world wants from us and that can be really helpful to us, so in this situation I just need to perform this person or that person. What’s always been hard for me and all shy people is to know who to be when we’re just being ourselves or know how to be.
How do you sit down and write honestly? How do you write in such a way that your not projecting a certain image, is it impossible?
Look in some ways I think it is impossible, it is something I struggled with, I mean all the way through writing the book I was constantly, in the back of my mind was the question, are people going to like me if they read this? And I think every memoirist probably has that question in their mind. So because I was so conscious of that question and of the stakes of that question for a shy person it was like I constantly had to ask and re ask and re ask and put some of that dialogue with myself in the book.
In your book shyness is seen as something negative, what impact do you think our current culture has upon that pessimistic view? Has it got something to do with our expectations of being sociable and outgoing?
In some ways it probably is, because we live in a increasingly performative world, just the whole performance appraisals, at work we are constantly being judged on how we perform perhaps rather than who we are. And we are performing versions of ourselves online constantly, you know on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, we are presenting versions of ourselves and I suppose you know, we live in a world where competition is starting to get the edge over cooperation and community and competition requires a kind of aggressive approach to your behaviour in the world and that’s something that I’ve always really struggled with and probably because I am deep down a shy person. On the other hand the digital realm can provide great cover for shy people, often it’s the physical proximity to other people that causes us a lot of anxiety and if you can hide behind some avatar or persona or whatever it’s sort of a safer way of entering the social world in some ways but the bad thing would be if all the shy people got stuck behind the screen and never ventured out…
Coming back to mirrors and reflections, why was this such a prominent theme?
There’s this lovely metaphor there of the memoir as a mirror in a way, I’ve been terrified of mirrors but then what I did was I sat down and wrote myself a sort of mirror out of words, which was a memoir and again it was like exposure therapy if I can’t stand looking at myself what’s going to be the hardest thing what’s going to cure me of that is to look really hard at myself in the form of a memoir…”
You’re holding a course called ‘Writing as Therapy’, what’s that all about?
We’re going to talk about… that process of using writing as a way of thinking and using thinking as a way of helping yourself out of distress. Sometimes when we are in distress we are dealing with a lot of pretty out of control emotions and emotions can get in the way of clear thinking and clear thinking is what can help us out of those distressing situations. What I’m going to propose to people is that they start to use writing as a way of thinking, as a way of creating meaning out of the chaos that sometimes our lives feel like…
Speaking of that, now that you’ve finished the book do you think it has helped you?
It’s helped me, it hasn’t cured me, because shyness is not something you cured of it’s a temperament trait. But by putting myself through the exposure therapy of writing about it and understanding it better and therefore taking out all the shame and embarrassment that I have felt about it, it’s like a lot of the pressure has lifted and therefore a lot of the anxiety has lifted.
This was you first book; will you write more in the future?
I do want to write more, and I will write more, I’ve got quite a few essays in mind and note form on the go at the moment. I’ve got a couple of potential ideas for books. To be honest, they are both in areas equally kind of dark and difficult and potentially self-revelatory as the last one so I just don’t quite feel ready to do that again yet so I just need to take a little time to think about, to give myself a break from that sort of, doing a striptease for the nation and decide whether I’m up for it…
* * *
Writer’s Edit would like to thank Sian Prior for taking the time to speak with us. You can check out her website here.