Sunday, January 27, 2013

Introversion: not a bad word! Or, reflections after reading "Quiet" by Susan Cain

{cartoon via Out Came the Sun; originally
by Eat Up What's Good For You}
All throughout school, group projects exhausted me.  Besides being kind of type A and kind of smart, therefore often doing most of the work, I always felt like I would have learned more and created better work if I could just do it all myself.  Culture and even my educational studies have told me that is a wrong way to think, though. Collaboration is key to a good learning experience! Because I believe in community and giving everyone a voice, I continued on--as a student and as a teacher.

I remember a conversation a few years ago where one of my friends explained how his company was catering to its different personality types: extroverts were energized in brainstorming sessions with other people while introverts were energized by being given the time to independently work, then share their ideas, then brainstorm together.  I remember thinking: if only my teachers understood this! Everything could have been different!   For years I have joked about my sometimes-anti-social behavior (I love to have either Friday or Saturday night to myself and if someone cancels plans I'm sad to not see whoever I was meeting, but relish the "stolen" alone time), but then my understanding grew to know that extroverts are literally energized by being around people and introverts are energized by time alone.

All of this makes so much sense to my introverted--yet very social self--as I look back on my personal history.  In college I lived in a 4 bedroom house with 7 girls and was involved in a very people-centered mentoring program where apparently everyone thought I was an extrovert because of all the large and small group leading I did.  However, what kept me sane all those years was the long drive back to campus in my car, listening to music.  The down side was that I think I was much too quiet in my classes as a result.

One of my friends who is also a teacher and I were talking recently about what it means to be an introvert and a teacher of 90-120 students each day--and how long it took for us to realize that being involved in numerous groups outside of the school day wasn't life-giving to us in the way it was to people who had less social jobs.  Rather, it was draining.  Period.  But a level of guilt has always accompanied me in that: I grew up thinking that I always needed to be as active and involved in possible.

A few of my kindred spirit-educator friends and I have had multiple conversations about being introverted--and our sometimes-tendency to drop back or stay home or hopelessly try to make ourselves be a bit more extroverted.  One of them came across the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain and suggested that we read it together.  I've spent the last few weeks laughing out loud about all the things she explained about my personality type that I have long thought I needed to try to change.  This book would also be eye opening to extroverts, as well--especially those who manage people at work.  I also laughed when I saw how New York Magazine described this book in their "How to read 31 Self Help Books in Four Minutes" article: "a feel-good book for the silent type."  New York Mag, I love you, but you misunderstand introversion just like the rest of them.  Sigh. Cain unpacks the idea that we live in a culture that celebrates the "extrovert ideal," and her anecdotes and research are fascinating.  I would completely recommend this book to introverts in order to better understand yourself, or extroverts, to better understand the introverts in your life.  She analyzes "mixed" marriages, work collaboration and even how to set up space in a place of business.

So.  This year I've decided to fully embrace my introverted personality.  I'm pretty interested in thinking about my teaching practice, my religious practice, and my own emotional and physical well being in light of what I've learned in this book.  I did not learn to hibernate or to not stretch myself in ways that may seem painful, but rather than fighting up against my natural temperament, I want to see what happens when I use my knowledge of it to live better.

Also, as a side note, and an encouragement to my other introverts out there, Cain shared a number of life changing works have come from introverts including Harry Potter.  So there's that.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Cloud Atlas: If anything can save us, it's narrative.

I have been looking at this book for years: I've read the back cover, added it to my lists of books to read, and yet never picked it up.  In mid-December, though, it came up in conversation and I found myself vowing with two friends that it would be the next book I read.  Cloud Atlas became my companion for two weekend trips on planes, my Christmas break and the first ten days into the new year--so needless to say, its 500 pages and nesting-doll style of six interwoven stories has messed up the number of books I usually finish in the winter.  But. This is the kind of story that left me thinking about so much that I hardly know how to approach it in a space like this, much like last year's winter read of Kaftka on the Shore.  Both deserve a seminar class.

To give a bit of context, the novel is made up of six interwoven stories that are cut off mid way through and then continue as though mirrored to their conclusions.  Interestingly, each story becomes a text of sorts in the next story as they progress from the 1800s all the way through a post-apocalyptic future: one is a journal that someone in the next story discovers, one is a set of letters that the character in the next story discovers, etc.  Each narrative set has its own style and allusions to various kinds of narratives: mystery, romance, fantasy, epic, etc. David Mitchell explores the seemingly unchanging nature of humans and our up and down patterns both individually and corporately throughout time.  I wish that I had a professor to tell me to be on the look out for such things while I was reading--because now I feel like it deserves a reread to truly study what Mitchell was up to.

What I am left thinking the most about though, is a comment I found in The Guardian while researching after I finished the book.  The author noticed--and what Mitchell surely implied-- is that as the reader makes her way through the narrative of time, that storytelling survives science and that if anything can save us, it's narrative.

If anything can save us, it's narrative.

The final piece of text starts as it began with a journal from an 1800s traveler, Adam Ewing, whom after witnessing the way that humans enslave one another in a myriad of ways, dedicated his newly-saved life to fighting against it.  The Guardian columnist Hephzibah Anderson summarized Ewing's musings by saying: "If by believing the wrong story we can bring about the worst, who knows what we can achieve by believing a good story?"


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Winter Writing Inspiration.

I finally finished Cloud Atlas this week, but it's one of those books where now I need to process and think and research because David Mitchell packed so much into it.  While I gather my ideas, I thought I'd share some thoughts on writing, especially in the winter.

A friend and I decided over drinks a few months ago that we desperately needed to start a writing group--some accountability to actually put the pen to paper and to bring the pieces living in our heads to life.  We start next week.  As I've been trying to prepare some work, I realized I've done quite a bit of writing in this space about winter.  And then, serendipitously, another friend of mine sent me this blog post from the New York Times that starts this way:

In early winter, when the heavy rains come to the Pacific Northwest and we settle under a blanket of sullen sky, something stirs in the creative soul. At the calendar’s gloaming, while the landscape is inert, and all is dark, sluggish, bleak and cold, writers and cooks and artists and tinkerers of all sorts are at their most productive.

I do not live in the Northwest, but I live in a city where it seems I walk a half mile to get anywhere, bundled for winter as I have no car with an automatic starter or seat heaters.  I now choose warmth over fashion and can really only wear boots in the winter, always have a winter hat in my bag and find my shoulders most often pulled up to chin while bracing the cold.  Needless to say I prefer to hibernate and the lack of daylight only encourages this unsociable practice of mine.  I also love the nod to Seasonal Affective Disorder in the article.  (I finally bought a light therapy lamp this year.)

So, while you are waiting with me for warm days that seem so far away, read the article from the Times, join me and find your voice and your outlet: writing, painting, cooking, reading.  Winter is the most acceptable excuse to stay in with some kind of delicious beverage and get lost indoors.