Category Archives: Introversion

Pretty

This is long, and sprinkled with f-bombs and other strong language. You have been warned.

Geylang East Public Library

I had my daughter Anya to myself pretty much all day yesterday, and we had a lot of fun. We spent several hours at the Geylang East Public Library, which she loves; I needed to return a few books, and I’d promised her a week ago that we’d come back (they’d been closed for the Hari Raya weekend, and I’d stupidly forgotten; duh, public holiday). We’ve been taking her there since she was only a few months old; it’s only a five-minute walk from our housing block. She even has her own library card. The children’s library takes up the entire first floor, and is well-maintained, brightly lit, very colorful, and has lots of seating and a really good selection of books.

The baby and toddler books are all along the rear wall near the big windows, and that was where we parked ourselves for a long time. Anya kept taking Chinese books off the shelf to look through, and narrating stories about them based on the illustrations. She’s gotten quite good about actually putting the books back on the shelf when she’s done with them (rather than just tossing them on the floor), and after a while she asked if we could look for some Thomas the Tank Engine books.

So we moved to a different area of that section and took a look at the shelves there. We didn’t find any Thomas books, but we did discover several Peppa Pig and Wonder Pets books; I also found a small Dr. Seuss board book called The Shape of Me and Other Stuff. We sat on the floor. She looked through them a bit and then asked me to read them to her. At one point, she sat in my lap and snuggled against me, just like she does every night at bedtime. While we were doing so, a kind, smiling librarian approached us, noticed the books we’d picked out, and asked if we wanted any Dora the Explorer books; I thanked her and said no, that Anya didn’t watch that show.

“Really?” she said. “Wow, a couple of years ago, all the kids wanted the Dora books. We couldn’t keep them on the shelves long enough!” She laughed, reminded us that they were giving away balloon animals if we checked out 12 books (which was far more than I wanted to cart home), waved goodbye to Anya, and stepped out of sight.

As I was finishing one of the books, Anya looked up and shouted, excitedly, “There! That one!” I asked what she was looking at, and she jumped out of my lap and ran the short distance to a low bookshelf, where a middle-aged Chinese woman was browsing by herself. Anya started to pick up a book that was lying on the top of the shelf, and the woman reached down quickly and grabbed it. I guess the woman had picked out that book for her own kid or grandkid, but the sudden movement startled Anya, and she ran back over to me with a frightened look on her face, bursting into tears when she got to me.

The woman, who I’m assuming realized that yanking a book out of a two-year-old’s hands kind of made her look like a dick, approached and tried to offer the book to Anya, but Anya only cried harder. It wouldn’t have done any good to try and explain that she’s highly sensitive to stimuli (as am I, part of our introverted natures), and that getting up in her face while she was upset wasn’t really helping, so I just said, “It’s okay, she doesn’t want it anymore, just take it, it’s okay, it’s okay,” while trying to soothe the thoroughly upset toddler clinging to me like a koala. The woman got the idea, apologized, and then went away.

When Anya’s upset, it takes her some time to calm down, like most children. After a minute or so, she sat back on the floor again next to me, and picked up one of the books we’d been reading, still crying, less intensely but still audibly. I stroked her back, handed her a tissue so she could wipe her eyes, and talked to her about the book, hoping to get her mind on something else. Then, as if apparating out of thin air, a different librarian in a tudung appeared, bent down, and in a loud forceful voice said, “‘Ey, where your mommy, ah? Where your mommy?”

Anya, jolted at the sudden utterance, went quiet for a moment, and then the wails started up again. The librarian repeated herself, “Where your mommy?” and I finally said, “Her mommy’s not here. I’m her father.”

Ignoring me, the librarian squatted down on her haunches and said, “You should not cry, you know. It’s not good.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” I said, “she just got scared at something. Don’t say that.”

Still ignoring me, she continued, “Should not cry, make you ugly, you know. You cry and you not pretty anymore.”

Anya found her voice and shouted, “I don’t want pretty!” and exploded into a fresh batch of tears.

Out loud, I said to the librarian, who had stood up in surprise, “Okay, that’s enough, you should go, please, thank you.” And she moved off as Anya latched onto me again.

In my brain, I was shrieking, “OH MY GOD, WHAT THE FUCK, LADY?!!”

I was only stopped from yelling this aloud by three things:

  1. I didn’t want to upset Anya even further by engaging in a shouting match right in her vicinity;
  2. There were lots of other kids in the library, it being a Sunday afternoon, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate to either make a scene or use such strong language; and
  3. Misguided as the librarian’s execution was, she did have good intentions, and didn’t say what she did out of mean-spiritedness (at least, I don’t think so).

I’ve worked as a librarian, as part of my teaching duties at Hwa Chong Institution (the school where I used to teach), and I understand the impulse to keep the noise level down and defuse any overly vocal situations (although the children’s library was already quite noisy because of the amount of kids there yesterday), but this was absolutely not the fucking way to handle this situation.

First of all, it appears that the librarian in the tudung made the assumption that Anya was not my kid, and that the reason she was crying was because the big bearded ang moh had scared her for some reason. Not once did the librarian directly address me, or even ask if I was the crying child’s father. But then, after I told her I was, it seems as if she accepted the fact.

Secondly, trying to get a crying toddler to stop crying by scolding her is probably the stupidest tactic I’ve ever seen. Anya’s tall for her age (taking after her old man in that department too), yet she’s not even three years old. Trying to reason with her in such a forceful manner was the thoroughly wrong approach.

Thirdly, hoping to appeal to Anya’s sense of vanity was equally stupid. She’s two. She doesn’t have a sense of vanity yet, and I’m hoping to prolong that for as long as I can. When I talk to her, I ask her about the activities she does or the books she reads or the things she learns; I don’t talk about appearance ever. If I have to put up her hair, it’s so she’ll feel cooler in Singapore’s equatorial heat, not because it makes her look cute (although it does).

When she shouted, “I don’t want pretty!” (and I can’t tell you how proud of her I was for doing that), it wasn’t any kind of comment on vanity either. When she’s distressed, the Don’t Wants come pouring out: “Don’t want milk!” “Don’t want shirt!” “Don’t want Thomas train!” “Don’t want Daddy!” Even “Don’t want Anya!” In this case, she was trying to communicate that she didn’t want to have anything to do with what the librarian was saying, and that she wanted to the lady to just go the fuck away.

Fourthly, crying is a perfectly natural human reaction to being upset (and it’s a physiological way to relieve the stress of being upset). As we get older, we get better at suppressing this action out of embarrassment of making others feel awkward or uncomfortable, but it’s a natural instinct, and does serve a bodily function. When I was little, my parents bought me the record album Free to Be… You and Me, and my favorite song was “It’s All Right to Cry.”

Kids cry. It happens. The librarian could obviously see that I was calming Anya down, but either it wasn’t happening fast enough for her, or she wanted to somehow swoop in and save the day by getting Anya to stop crying herself. Either way, she fucked up big time, and ended up making everything worse.

Fifthly, has anyone ever told a boy to stop crying because it makes him look ugly? (It immediately made me think of misogynist spy Sterling Archer saying something similar to his mother’s secretary Cheryl on the animated show Archer.) Boys are told not to cry because boys (and men) don’t do that sort of thing; crying is relegated as a feminine action, and so boys who cry must be “pussies” or “pansies”. But then girls and women are told not to cry because crying makes them “ugly”. What the fuck is up with any of this logic?

It’s true that when we cry, our faces screw up, and we become less attractive, but so the fuck what? What is this need to force girls to quash their emotions so that they’ll be “pretty” all the time?

I’m sending a strongly worded letter to the National Library Board about this incident. I don’t expect or even want an apology, but I’m going to recommend sensitivity training for their librarians, especially the ones working in the children’s libraries. This could have been handled so much better than it was.

Thankfully, Anya didn’t take too much longer after Mean Librarian Lady went away to calm down again. We read some more books, and had a potty break (both of us), and wandered around a bit upstairs in the Big People Library before checking out the books we’d found and then walking back home. We played some more when we got back to the flat, watched some DVR’d episodes of Denise Keller‘s Passage to Malaysia, and ate some Koka mushroom-flavored ramen for dinner (the only instant noodles we’ve found that don’t contain MSG, and actually taste better for it). Anya was slightly subdued, but she seemed to have put the incident behind her. I gave her a bath, and then got her ready for bed, hoping that she’d konk out quickly; she fell asleep as I was reading her Dr. Seuss’s The Sleep Book (awesomely appropriate) right around 9 p.m.

I lay in bed for a long time last night, thinking about the incident in the library, wondering if I’d done all I could have as a father, still upset myself that it had happened at all. I worried that Anya still might be troubled by it today, but when she woke up this morning, having slept almost twelve hours (more than she’s slept in some time), she was back to her normally happy chirpy self, giving me a big hug when she came out of her room. None the worse for wear, but oh, my heart.

Anya Reads at Home

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Filed under Introversion, Parenthood, Public Libraries, Reading, Singapore

In Which Jason is Not Interviewed by The New York Times

I’m under deadline to finish writing an 8,000-word short story and a 12,000-word plenary talk cum essay, so today I’m going to perform the time-honored writerly tradition of procrastination and answer a bunch of interview questions instead.

The questions in question (ahem) come from this interview with Neil Gaiman by the New York Times Sunday Book Review (feel free to read Neil’s answers, as they’re guaranteed to be better than mine). The New York Times did not, in fact, interview me, although for the rest of this blog entry I will pretend that they did. Enjoy.

1. What book is on your night stand now?

I just finished re-reading The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov, as part of my quest to read all of the man’s published fiction in two years. This ur-Lolita should be judged on its own merits, but it is nigh impossible to do so; the shadow of Lolita (the book, not the girl) looms largest over all Nabokov’s fiction, and takes many of the plot points from The Enchanter and lets them breathe, lets them happen more naturally. My complete impressions of the book (such as they are) can be found here.

Also included on the night stand: Deathbird Stories (Revised and Expanded Edition) by Harlan Ellison, Kafkaesque edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh, The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories by Andy Duncan, June Fourth Elegies by Liu Xiaobo, Zeroville by Steve Erickson, and Paradise Tales by Geoff Ryman. (A lot of short stories in that list, I’m just now realizing.)

This of course does not count the around sixty ebooks purchased on or for my NOOK, which are patiently waiting for me to get to them.

2. When and where do you like to read?

I’ve had the habit, since I was in middle school or thereabouts, of reading for at least an hour every night before bed. And in the 25 years since, I’ve more or less kept to this pattern. As I may have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, reading helps my mind to calm down after a sensory-intensive day, and is one of the top activities in which I recharge my overloaded introverted brain. I know that I’ll be able to do so uninterrupted for a decent stretch of time, which aids in the relaxation, and gets my body ready for sleep.

This does occasionally backfire with particularly exciting novels that keep me up into the wee hours. But it’s a risk worth taking.

I love to read during the day as well, in pretty much any location in which I’m left alone, but this is difficult with an exuberant two-year-old running around the house or insisting I join her for a tea party or to solve jigsaw puzzles. If I can snatch a few minutes of reading time during daylight hours, I consider myself incredibly fortunate.

3. What was the last truly great book you read?

I recently finished reading The Mirage by Matt Ruff, and it blew me away. The premise of a politically-reversed world, wherein the United Arab States have been attacked by Christian fundamentalists and in response invade the Christian States of America, turns the entire War on Terror on its head. A riveting thought experiment, and a highly enjoyable fast-paced thriller.

I also quite enjoyed Lewis Shiner’s short novel Dark Tangos, which begins as an exploratory love story and then turns much darker (including a scene of meticulously described torture, which forced me to keep reading into the wee hours so that I could get past it, in order to avoid nightmares). Shiner’s evocation of Buenos Aires and his love of tango make this an incredibly compelling narrative, even, and especially, during the less “exciting” parts.

Some excellent essay collections by fiction authors I already love: Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon, Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson, and The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem, all of which I recommend.

But probably at the top of the most recent books I’ve read would have to be Nabokov’s exquisitely absurd Invitation to a Beheading, which sings with all of the things I’ve come to love about his writing. From my overly enthusiastic and loquacious impressions of the book:

O, what a riotously lovely piece of literature! I realize that Nabokov eschews any kind of Kafkaesque influence, but he and Kafka were clearly drinking from the same narrative well in this case. Our protagonist (with the mellifluous moniker of Cincinnatus C.) knows from the beginning the aspects of falsity and absurdity in the world he both inhabits and feels profoundly apart from. Convicted of the epistemological crime of “gnostical turpitude” (in other words, “depraved knowledge”) and sentenced to punitive decapitation, our dear narrator, who seems, on occasion, to psychologically split himself in twain, exists in a state of stultifying stasis, unaware of his execution date or his executioner, until both are revealed toward the end of the book. His reactions to the increasingly bizarre and hermetically implausible events that surround his impending death—largely consisting of his interactions with his unfaithful profligate of a wife, the prison guard, the warden, Cincinnatus’s lawyer, and his neighbor in the next cell—further illustrate his complete frustration with trying to apply logic in an illogical world, a theme Kafka was also quite fond of exploring.

4. Are you a fiction or a nonfiction person? What’s your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

I’m pretty firmly in the fiction camp for pleasure reading, of the “paraliterary” variety; most non-fiction to me either feels like work or research for my writing (which is another form of work). The main exceptions to this rule are essays by writers of which I’m already a fan (such as the ones mentioned above), but I also was recently bowled over by No Enemies, No Hatred by Liu Xiaobo (a collection of his political writings and poetry), Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (which I’ve already talked about in this blog), and The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry (a memoir that mainly covers Fry’s time at Cambridge, when he met fine folks like Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Rowan Atkinson, and immediately afterward, when he started to become successful in television).

I don’t know that I have any guilty pleasures when it comes to books. There are writers that I adore and will follow no matter what they write (a list of which is entirely too long to lay out here), but I don’t feel guilty about reading any of them.

5. What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?

1984 by George Orwell has had by far the greatest impact on me. It was the first book that completely gutted me as a reader; the first time I read it as a required text in high school, the last line made me burst into tears. Only true art can have such an emotional affect. I wasn’t as keen on the political elements on that first reading, although they made more and more sense to me with each subsequent re-read (and also made me realize how political the entire novel is, from top to bottom). 1984 showed me the power of writing, and planted that seed of discovering just what I wanted to say in my own writing.

I don’t know if any one specific book made me want to write. Since I was little, I’d made up little stories, and even wrote one down when I was around seven years old in ur-chapbook form, called “The Pulsar NX is Missing!” about ninjas who steal my mother’s car.

6. If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Other than my own? I’m not quite sure how to answer, as I don’t like the idea of “requiring” anybody to read anything. I’m happy to recommend, of course, but what am I going to do, stand over Obama’s shoulder monitoring his eyes’ movements over the page? That said, what I would very much like to see him read is a bound report of all the abuses committed by the Transportation Security Administration since its inception after 9/11, with page after page of humiliating accounts of innocent airline passengers being terrorized by the TSA, in the hopes that such a massive collation of offenses would finally convince him to abolish the agency.

7. What are your reading habits? Paper or electronic? Do you take notes?

I still vastly prefer books on paper, but more and more and I’m starting to edge into ebook land. After receiving a NOOK for Christmas, I can see the appeal of ebooks, especially if they might be books I wouldn’t necessarily want to keep on my shelves after finishing them (like Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs), or if they’re books I’d have a hard time finding in Singapore.

I never take notes in books. I’ve worked as both a bookseller and as a librarian, and the thought of marking up the pages in a book with pen or pencil makes me physically shudder. The only times I have broken this rule were for books that I taught in my classes, and even then I did so most grudgingly.

8. Do you prefer a book that makes you laugh or makes you cry? One that teaches you something or one that distracts you?

Yes.

9. Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov, which I stopped at the halfway mark; I found it a difficult, internalized, psychological plod, although I suspect that I might feel differently if I knew thing one about Russian literature. It’s as if, knowing this would be his last major novel written first in Russian (all the ones to follow were originally written in English), he decided to create his love letter to Russian poetry, and to do so in the densest manner possible. I am honestly befuddled by the comments on Goodreads that list it among his top works. It is not surprising at all to me that at the same time as he was writing The Gift, he crafted Invitation to a Beheading, mentioned above; a joyous aside during the creation of such a Serious Work.

10. If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

There’s a saying that one should never meet one’s heroes, as they will invariably deflate the image one has constructed from hopes and aspirations, but I really would have liked to meet Philip K. Dick. I didn’t get introduced to his writing until I was in college (more than ten years after he’d died), but there was something in UBIK, and in many of his other novels and short stories, that I strongly related to, mostly the idea that the world we know is an illusion, a fabrication, and that we must realize this basic truth in order to see that we are being manipulated. It’s the basic premise of The Matrix (which owes as much debt to Dick as it does to William Gibson and Jean Baudrillard), and it’s one of the core tenets of Buddhism.

11. What’s the best comic book you’ve ever read? Graphic novel?

It’s got to be the ten-volume set of graphic novels that comprise Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. I was a big fan of Gaiman’s prose writing before I made the plunge into his comics work, but this series is such a massive accomplishment, an epic story told in patient beautiful language that upends our assumptions about storytelling itself. One feels after completing the series a sense that the world is both more terrible and more wonderful than we could ever imagine.

12. What do you plan to read next?

The Left Left Behind by Terry Bisson, which is part of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors pocketbooks series. Terry was one of my instructors at Clarion, and I’ve enjoyed his fiction over the years, but it wasn’t until I jumped the gun and read the interview with him in this small book that I realized what a radical activist he was in his youth, and how those political leanings still inform his character today.

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Filed under Books, Introversion, Nabokov, Reading, Reviewing, Writing

Why I Write in Cafés

John Scalzi is one of my favorite bloggers, like, ever. He’s intelligent, witty, relevant, and damn funny; his blog is one of the few that I try to read every day. Back in 2004 on Whatever, John gave some wholly unsolicited writing advice, but it was point #5 that especially caught my attention:

5. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, You Know.

I mean, Christ, people. All that tapping and leaning back thoughtfully in your chair with a mug of whatever while you pretend to edit your latest masterpiece. You couldn’t be more obvious if you had a garish, flashing neon sign over your head that said “Looking For Sex.” Go home, why don’t you. Just go.

Admittedly if everyone followed my advice the entire economy of Park Slope would implode. But look, do you want to write, or do you want to get laid? No, don’t answer that. Anyway, if you really want to impress the hot whomevers, you’ll bring your bound galleys to the coffeeshop to edit. That’ll make the laptop tappers look like pathetic chumps. We’re talking hot libidinous mammal sex for days.

John has since given much more writing advice, and generously compiled it into a stellar book called, appropriately, You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop; I’ve got a first edition copy on my bookshelf (the hardcover is sold out, but the ebook is available), squeezed between Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Alabaster and Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends. However, I diverge from John on this particular point, much as I appreciate the sentiment, in large part because of the anecdotal reason that I do my best writing in cafés.

Totoro in the foamOf course, anecdotal evidence doesn’t hold up in an argument, but that’s the thing: I’m not actually arguing with John here. I’ve seen firsthand and personally known people who perform the exact poseur mating dance as he describes above. However, it’s not true in my case, and here’s why.

I’ve written before about being introverted, and this especially comes into play with information input. If there are too many things going on around me — too many visual distractions, too many loud sounds, smells that are too strong, etc. — my natural reaction is to remove myself from the overstimulated environment; an extreme version of this is that if there is a loud argument going on, or someone is having a temper tantrum (no matter how old they might be), I want to run away and shut myself into the bathroom. That, or I go into a weird sort of fugue state that can only be described as drawing inward. So, too much stimulation means I can’t concentrate on writing, and with a two-year-old running throughout the apartment at all times of the day singing at the top of her voice, this usually means I can’t write at home. (I exaggerate, although not by much.)

But I also can’t go somewhere too quiet. If I hole up at the library, or if I try to work at home with no one around (which, paradoxically, I am doing right this second as I type this), I get antsy from loneliness, and, perhaps not ironically, lack of stimulation. (Right now, it helps that I’m listening to Franz Ferdinand quite loudly on my sound system.) I discovered this acutely at college, during trips to the university library stacks, or just studying in my dorm room when no one else was around. This is also why I very likely would be ill-suited toward working in a solitary writing cabin, which seems to be the dream for so many other writers. I can’t be overstimulated in order to concentrate, but I need just a little stimulation to keep myself awake and on task.

A café provides that perfect middle ground. As long as it’s not too crowded or noisy, I can appreciate the other people sitting at their tables, drinking their lattes, eating their artisanal sandwiches, having quiet conversations. I still plug in my ear buds so that I can choose music that will fade into the background as white noise, but the sound level is never too much to overcome my focus. But the best part is that no one else there gives a shit about me, and I’m largely left alone, which is important in maintaining that focus, the only exceptions being the respectful staff who are either trained in or are instinctually keen on minimizing their intrusions. Interruptions are death to the creative process, as explained by John Cleese thusly:

This entire video is fascinating and brilliant, and I recommend it to anyone working in any creative endeavor. Cleese gets thoroughly into the psychology of creativity and the idea that we all have two modes when it comes to working: closed and open. “Closed” helps us when we know what we’re doing, and we just need to buckle down and finish it. “Open” is necessary for looking at many facets of a problem, or of coming up with several approaches to a joke, or of wondering what will happen in the next chapter. Both are important, but “open” is absolutely necessary to creativity, and one of the ways Cleese suggests to attain this open state is to give yourself enough time and space so that you can work without interruption; he suggests a quiet space, for a duration of about an hour and a half.

That hour and a half (at least) is also necessary because, as he states, and I can back this up with my own experience, most of us cannot just sit and let our minds calm down and get to work on that creative project straight away. It takes almost a half hour of worrying about bills, and thinking about that dentist appointment next week, and remembering to email that friend who wants to get together, and pondering what exactly your spouse meant by a certain comment during an argument earlier that morning, before your brain can settle down and you can focus on the work in front of you. For me, it’s usually between 20 and 30 minutes, but then I’m (hopefully) in the zone and can write fairly solidly (depending on my word rate for any given day) for up to two hours before my ass falls asleep and I need to get up and stretch.

So with all due respect to John Scalzi, I’m not concerned with impressing anyone or prowling for sex partners when I take my MacBook to a café. It’s honestly the most conducive environment for me to get my creative work done. Long may such a home away from home exist.

I’ll end this entry with a caffeinated linkdump, of all my favorite cafés in which I was given a cozy and comfortable atmosphere in return for the purchase of legalized stimulants:

In Raleigh, NC: Cup A Joe at Mission Valley, Café Helios on Glenwood Avenue, Neomonde on Beryl Road, Global Village on Hillsborough Street, and The Irregardless Café on West Morgan Street.

In Singapore: Brew 1819 Café at Temasek Tower (owned by my friend and former colleague Huang Si Jian and her husband), 40 Hands Coffee in Tiong Bahru, The Coffee Bean & Teaf Leaf at the Singapore Post Centre, and Pacific Coffee Company at the Red Dot Design Museum.

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The Sound of Silence

Once, when asked what made a good portrait, the great photographer Cartier-Bresson replied: “I am looking for the silence in somebody.” (Jonathan Carroll)

I’ve written previously about Susan Cain’s wonderfully researched and compelling book QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Below is the talk that she just gave at TED2012, which provides a good overview of the material covered in the book, and lays out a call to action to help introverts truly realize their potential.

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Introverted, Not Shy

This is a quick supplement to yesterday’s post on “Sense and Sensation“; today I read through Chapter 11 of Susan Cain’s Quiet (which I wish could be expanded and spun off into a book all its own), some while Anya read and played at the public library this morning, and I was blown away by the descriptions of introverted kids’ behavior (which I’m more and more seeing in Anya), and by the amount of incredibly practical information to make sure these kids grow up with self esteem and the understanding of their parents.

It makes sense that Anya would be introverted — both Janet and I are, and our fathers are as well — and in this light, some of her behavior, even at two years old, certainly fits in with this temperament. She’s reserved around strangers, and gets really upset if either someone gets in her face before she’s ready or there are too many people around for her comfort level. She’s slow to join in activities with other kids in a social setting, like a playground, preferring to hang back on the perimeter and watch the other kids first. It takes her a long time to brave a new experience, like going in the ocean, or riding her push-tricycle. She loves being outside, but not necessarily being really active. She really loves books — looking over the pictures and pointing out animals or colors or shapes, as well as listening to Janet or I read the text — and doing simple puzzles by herself on the floor.

Cain says the following about parents hoping their children will learn to self-regulate fearfulness or wariness:

If you want your child to learn these skills, don’t let her hear you call her “shy”: she’ll believe the label and experience her nervousness as a fixed trait rather than an emotion she can control. She also knows full well that “shy” is a negative word in our society. Above all, do not shame her for her shyness. (p. 247 in the ebook)

After reading this, I realized how many times I’ve labeled Anya as shy, never to her face, but to other people while she was nearby. It was typically after an invitation from another parent for her to play with a group of kids, or to ride a small carousel or other kind of kiddie ride with lots of  lights and noises. I don’t think that shyness has the same stigma in Asia as it does in the US, but if the constant push by the education system in Singapore is to produce outgoing leaders (and where class participatoin is a substantial part of a student’s grade), the Extrovert Ideal that Cain mentions is very much in effect here.

So now that I know, hopefully I’ll catch myself before referring to her as shy again, so that she’ll come to feel as she grows up that her introverted nature is nothing to be ashamed of, and is something that she can instead be proud of.

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Sense and Sensation

QUIETAs I mentioned yesterday, I’m reading Susan Cain’s new book Quiet: The Importance of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Currently, I’m about 2/3 through the book, and it has been an eye-opening experience. Cain confirms some information about introverts that I already knew, but she’s also done a tremendous amount of research into neurophysiology and how the brain chemistry of introverts is fundamentally different from those of extroverts.

One of the most memorable sections so far talks about sensitivity. Introverts are “high-reactive,” meaning that if you place one of us next to an extrovert, and make us both watch Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the quick cuts, endless explosions, shaky camerawork, and deafening soundtrack will more likely cause the introvert to run screaming from the room. (The extrovert may also run screaming from the room, but for other reasons, such as trying to figure out the nonsensical plot, or suffering from the headache and motion sickness associated with the 3D glasses. I seriously can’t understand how anyone survived watching such an abomination on a massive movie screen.)

It’s like this: given the same amount of sensory information, introverts process it with more sensitivity, and we can’t handle nearly as much. Interaction with other people is high on the list of exhausting activities for us, because of the sensory information associated with concentrating on the words being said, picking up visual cues from facial expression and posture, projecting an attitude of friendliness, and having to think of things to keep the conversation flowing. It’s the contrast between spitting water on someone through a plastic straw, and blasting them full strength with a fire hose.

Even Superman gets sensory overload!This explains quite a bit about some of the actions I’ve taken in the past. When I was about 16 or 17 years old, I was driving my mother and sister around one afternoon, and I pulled out of a shopping center onto a busy road in front of a tractor trailer. And even though the truck was far enough behind me that I had plenty of time to speed up and get out of his way, my mother got startled and yelled at me about how close it had been, that I wasn’t watching the road, etc. What I didn’t realize was that during her tirade, I’d slammed on the brakes, bringing the car to a full stop, and into much more danger than if she hadn’t said anything. All I remember feeling is a blank whiteness, as if all of my perception inputs had been muffled by this overload of sensory data.

It wasn’t until the truck honked its horn and pulled around me that I came back to myself, turned to my mom, and yelled back, “Do you want to drive?!” I was in the process of unbuckling my seatbelt and opening the car door when she pulled me back down into my seat, and said, “No, no, stop being ridiculous, I’m sorry, just drive.” My mother is one of the people I love most in the world, an amazing role model and the apotheosis of encouragement, but to this day I’m reluctant to drive if she’s in the passenger’s seat.

Another example: several years ago, when Janet and I attended WisCon (one of the many times we went), I’d been so looking forward to seeing a good number of my writer friends, but when we touched down in Madison, something inside me initiated “turtle mode.” (Which is not nearly as fun as “ninja turtle mode.”) There had to have been close to a thousand people attending that year, and even though these were my peeps, the people that I felt most comfortable and at home around, the sheer number of bodies moving around me at all times overloaded my poor brain. During the Ratbastards Karaoke Party the first night, I was unable to get up from my chair and talk to my friends, even though they were just right there! Tim Pratt (the same guy who made me a Writer, remember?) came over and sat next to me and Janet to say hi, and I was so unresponsive that I barely acknowledged that he was there (which I felt so bad about afterward; sorry, Tim!).

Even though I yearned to spend time with so many friends with whom I normally only interacted online, that extended weekend I spent more time in our hotel room than at any previous WisCon. Why couldn’t I just get out there? I kept berating myself. The convention felt like such a waste, and it made me incredibly depressed. I only saw these folks once a year, and I’d blown the chance to hang out with them. However, right at the end, a moment that nearly redeemed my intensely introverted experience: as Janet and I waited for the hotel van to ferry us to the Madison airport, Theodora Goss (herself an introvert) came over and kept us company. She’d bought one of Janet’s paintings in the Art Show, and effused over it. I’d previously bought the hardcover edition of Dora’s collection In the Forest of Forgetting, and effused over that. We had an incredibly pleasant and intimate conversation during that time, just the three of us, and it did me a world of good. I hadn’t been able to interact with many of the people I’d wanted to, but I’d had a wonderfully deep, if brief, conversation with a woman I’m now proud to count as a good friend.

I haven’t even finished Quiet yet, but it’s already high on my To Recommend list, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. It may help you to understand the people around you better, or even yourself. But even if all it does it allow you to find a bit more peace within yourself and others, it’s worth it; an increase in quiet is a good thing no matter where you might be.

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Filed under Books, Introversion

Go Away, I’m Reading

Go Away, I'm Reading

That image just says it all, doesn’t it?

Someone linked to this on Facebook, and I shared it last night, and within 30 minutes, 15 people had “Liked” it. Which is kind of remarkable seeing as I didn’t create this image or even post it originally (the initial posting has over 100 “Likes” and 35 Shares). I wish that I had attribution available so I could credit the person who did this; they did a spot-on job remixing this classic Penguin paperback design with new text, including typeface size and placement.

(There have been many remixes of the Penguin cover over the years, but my favorite still has to be the one created by Karen Wai and Kenny Leck for BooksActually’s Ode to Penguin exhibition last year. I own the very first two tickets given out to that event, but I never got to use them because of scheduling conflicts.)

Getting interrupted while I’m reading is one of my big pet peeves. And I’m talking about book reading here, not staring at the photons on my MacBook’s screen, like I’m doing right now. If I have a book in my hands, there is the reasonable expectation that I will be sinking all of my attention into those words, like a deep sea diver who’s most comfortable walking the ocean floor. And I ain’t coming up until I’m damn good and ready, at a section break or at the end of a chapter. I just can’t get my mind around people who can blithely stop reading in the middle of a chapter, or a paragraph, or a sentence, and have no problem picking back up where they left off next time. It’s as alien an action to me as eating french fries with mayonaise or leaving the house without a thorough pocket pat-down for keys, wallet, and phone.

One of my favorite books is Italo Calvino’s masterful If on a winter’s night a traveler (translated from the Italian by William Weaver). It starts off like this (and please forgive the long quote):

If on a winter's night a travelerYou are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice — they won’t hear you otherwise — “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position. With the book upside down, naturally.

Of course, the ideal position for reading is something you can never find. In the old days they used to read standing up, at a lectern. People were accustomed to standing on their feet, without moving. They rested like that when they were tired of horseback riding. Nobody ever thought of reading on horseback; and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the book propped against the horse’s mane, or maybe tied to the horse’s ear with a special harness, seems attractive to you. With your feet in the stirrups, you should feel quite comfortable for reading; having your feet up is the first condition for enjoying a read.

Well, what are you waiting for? Stretch your legs, go ahead and put your feet on a cushion. on two cushions, on the arms of the sofa, on the wings of the chair, on the coffee table, on the desk, on the piano, on the globe. Take your shoes off first. If you want to , put your feet up; if not, put them back. Now don’t stand there with your shoes in one hand and the book in the other.

Adjust the light so you won’t strain your eyes. Do it now, because once you’re absorbed in reading there will be no budging you. Make sure the page isn’t in shadow, a clotting of black letters on a gray background, uniform as a pack of mice; but be careful that the light cast on it isn’t too strong, doesn’t glare on the cruel white of the paper, gnawing at the shadows of the letters as in a southern noonday. Try to foresee now everything that might make you interrupt your reading. Cigarettes within reach, if you smoke, and the ashtray. Anything else? Do you have to pee? All right, you know best.

Calvino was a reader after my own heart.

As I mentioned on Saturday, I’m an introvert, and one of the most vital things toward preserving an introvert’s sanity is time spent alone. We need that time to recharge the dopamine levels in our brains, and then feel like we can emerge into the world again. There are many ways to do this (and I’d be curious to hear techniques and tips from other introverts), but the most satisfying and fulfilling way for me is to read a book. And specifically, to read fiction. Narrative is necessary for me to descend into that quasi-meditative state brought on by highly engaged reading. (Not to diss non-fiction readers; it may be fine for you, but it just doesn’t work for me, in that fundamental recharging manner.)

This past year, because of heavy commitments both at work and at home, I read fewer books than in any of the past five years, and this had a profound impact on both my state of mind and my behavior. As Janet can’t surely attest, I was much more irritable, much crankier, much more likely to snap. Some of this came with the stress I was under, but a big part of it was that I wasn’t able to properly recharge my batteries, and so I always felt as if I was running on fumes (to mix metaphors, sorry). I quit my teaching job at the end of the year, and even though I haven’t found something else full-time yet, I’m happier than I have been in years. I’ve already read six books in January alone, and finally feel as if I’m coming back to myself.

So if you happen to see me out and about with a book in my hands, you know what to do. I’ll be happy to talk to you later, but not until I’ve marked my page at the end of a chapter. Until then, respectfully, beat it.

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Filed under Books, Introversion, Reading

Publicity and the Introvert*

For the “Nabokov in Two Years” Goodreads Group, I’m currently reading Despair, which so far is highly enjoyable and the first book since King, Queen, Knave that I’ve gotten excited about. (Although Lolita is still the current all-time Nabokov favorite.) Once I finish Despair, the next book on my list is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. This is a book that I’ve been anticipating since I heard about its publication. I’m an introvert big-time; in every instance in which I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs personality test, since the first time in high school, I’ve always fallen heavily toward I and away from E.

When I’m in the writing phase, I’m happiest, deep inside my own head, pushing the rest of the world away for that small amount of time in which people I’ve created from my own brain walk around and talk to other invented people and get into trouble and fall in love. When the writing is flowing, it’s almost like I’ve entered a meditative space and the world falls away. Entering that space recharges me (and apparently, my dopamine levels), just as reading a good book does, or sitting in a darkened movie theatre, or leaning against a tree gazing up at the clouds.

Banksy PublicityBut, when one is lucky and talented and perseverant enough to have one’s writing published and then scrutinized by the reading public, one must publicize the work. And this is a problem for introverts. The whole interacting-with-other-people bit is exhausting for us, and especially so when trying to promote our own creative endeavors. It would be so much easier to just make an announcement on Facebook and/or Twitter about the new book, just one, and then huge masses of people will know about it, and buy it, and enjoy it, and recommend it to their friends, and push it on their coworkers, and then Jason can sit back and eat Tim Tams all day. But the world doesn’t work like that (especially the part about the Tim Tams; they’re delicious but wow, the calories!), and most working writers today, whether they’re published by a large house or a small press, have to take on a considerable portion of publicity for their book.

Dora Goss tackled this subject about a week ago, and it’s gotten me thinking a lot about how to handle publicity. Dora is also a proud introvert (if such a description exists), but she has several things going for her book The Thorn and the Blossom:
The Thorn and the Blossom

  1. The book has an interesting gimmick; subtitled “A Two-Side Love Story,” it’s published accordion-style, so that, read one way, you get one character’s POV, and read the other way, you get the second character’s POV. The whole story can’t be gained by just reading one side, and the narratives interlock in interesting ways. The design aspect is highly appealing and unusual here, and requires the strong command of the writer to pull it off.
  2. Dora is an amazing writer. She’s in the top-five of my favorite writers working in Fantasy today. Her background in poetry lends her prose a mythic resonance, and I fall in love with each of her stories whenever I read them. She’s won the World Fantasy and Rhysling Awards, and been nominated for countless others, and has steadily been building a fan base since she’s started publishing.
  3. She’s also a thoughtful and prolific blogger. She devoted herself to blogging nearly every day in 2011, and has covered a wide range of topics with both keen observation and openness toward discussion with her commenters. This has built an overlapping audience who value her accessibility and her regularity.
  4. Have you seriously not bought The Thorn and the Blossom yet? What are you waiting for?

So what about me? Red Dot Irreal was published in October 2011, so the shiny newness is starting to fade. (And according to a publicist commenting at Dora’s site, I should have been coming up with a publicity plan at least six months to a year before publication.) I gave readings at the Singapore Writers Festival and at BooksActually, but my accessibility outside of Singapore is limited. I blitzed Twitter and Facebook, but in my eagerness may have overdone it a tad. I’ve sent the book to reviewers, and am hoping to see some press soon. But I should have been doing far more.

Contest giveaways are a big way to promote, but before the POD edition was available through Lulu, I had to worry about nigh-prohibitive shipping costs from Singapore. I could have organized interviews, or blog-tours, but again, until the book was available in the US, many people who might have wanted to get the book wouldn’t have been likely to front the money to have the book shipped from overseas. The e-book launched at the same time as the Singapore publication, but the response there has been fairly quiet too.

These are all things that I’m dealing with in retrospect, and will improve for next time (granted there is a next time), but here are some things that you, my intelligent and beautiful readers, can do to help right now:

  1. Consider rating the book at Goodreads, and posting a short review. Goodreads is probably the most influential book-related social network right now, and if a book page shows a good number of reader reactions, it can help to gauge interest and possibly nudge a passer-by into trying the book for herself. Whether you own the paperback or the e-book, reader reviews are important there.
  2. If you’ve read the e-book, you can cross-post your review to whichever site you downloaded it from: Smashwords, Studio Circle Six, Weightless Books, Apple iBooks, B&N Nook, Kobo, or Diesel. (You can also buy the e-book from Goodreads.) E-books are a growing juggernaut, and the more people aware of the book through these various outlets, the better.
  3. If you were scared off by the price of ordering the book from Singapore, think about ordering it from Lulu.com. Hand to heart, the POD paperback edition looks fantastic, almost indistinguishable from the original offset-printed book, and at a much cheaper price for folks outside Singapore. Then, if you dig it, you can write a short review for the book page there (and then cross-post it to Goodreads).
  4. If you run or write for a book-review blog, email me and I’ll send you a code to download the DRM-free e-book gratis. If your blog is highly trafficked or if you write for a newspaper or magazine, I can also mail you a review copy of the POD edition. If you’re so inclined, you can link to your review on Facebook or Twitter, and if you email me the link, I’ll give a thankful signal boost in those places, and also here at the blog.
  5. If you really dug the book and want to go that extra mile to help others also find it, you can recommend the book personally to your friends, loved ones, book club, etc. Nothing piques a person’s interest in a book like an enthusiastic devotee! (And if your book club wants to read the book and then invite me to talk about it, there may be ways to do so involving Skype or Google+ Hangouts.)

Any and all pimpage efforts will be greatly appreciated. The goal here is to enable as many people as possible to enjoy the book. And please, if you have any other tips or learned experience, share it in the comments and spread the wealth of knowledge!

* Blog title and publicity suggestion list lovingly pinched from Dora. Apologies!

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Filed under Introversion, Publishing