Sunday, June 7, 2009

On Shyness and Being Socially Awkward

You always hear about MFA programs as first and probably foremost providing you with a community of writers. It’s the promise of that community, of at last finding ourselves part of a group of people that we actually have things in common with and can talk to about literature and about writing (and about music and comic books and independent films and . . .) that lures so many of us to these programs to begin with.

As for me, I’m extremely reserved, socially awkward, and I just don’t feel comfortable at parties or in large groups of people. I’m fine one-on-one, or in very small gatherings, but put me in a situation where there’s a ton of people there and I can’t help but fade into the background and stop talking altogether. Well it turns out that the way people get to know each other in this sort of community environment is by having large parties. Of course. How else can an incoming group of new students and a massive group of current and past students get to know each other but to just mingle together and, well, talk.

This was very difficult for me, and when I first got here and started hearing about a party at this stranger’s house and a party at that stranger’s cabin, I opted out. I knew, even at the time, that I should go to these parties to get to know the other people in the program, but knowing that you should do something and actually doing it are two very different things. Plus I had the comfort of having family in town so I didn’t feel this pressing urgency to make friends.

So as you can imagine, I didn’t get to know the other students the way they got to know each other, and once everybody developed relationships with each other they stopped having large parties that everyone was invited to and started hanging out in smaller – or sometimes still large – gatherings, to which they only invited the people with whom they had become friends. Obviously. And I wasn’t one of those people.

It wasn’t until my very last year in the program that I started forcing myself to come out of my shell and get to know people in the program, and once I did I was horrified that I had waited so long. I have met some of the coolest, funniest, most intelligent, most any-other-positive-word-you-can-think-of people in the program here and it makes me sad to think I could have been hanging out and developing close friendships with them from the start.

But something that I’ve come to realize in this past year as I have gotten to know people is that most of the people in the program see themselves as socially awkward and most everybody in the program is at least a little bit shy. I think the stereotype is true: writer’s are generally of an introverted nature. If I had realized that from the start . . .

It’s way less scary, I think, to push yourself to get to know people if you know that it’s scary for them, too. But making the effort is well worth the reward, because while yes there will be people in an MFA program, just like everywhere else in the world, that you just don’t click with, there’s a good chance that there will be more people that you really will. If you’re shy and afraid to say the wrong thing (or not sure if anybody will be interested in anything you have to say, which is how I usually feel) just remind yourself that most of them probably feel the exact same way. Just like everything else in life, you get out what you put in. That community doesn’t build itself.

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