The first scene of my book involves a woman at a bar. She doesn’t know most of the other people there, and for various reasons she has to stick around for a while. Although the others there don’t all know each other, it seems to her that they are all comfortable in this place, all falling into conversation and interaction and fun with ease. She can talk to people, and laugh, and act like she fits in; but inside she feels alien, out of place. She is coping as best she can, running down the clock until she can leave.
I think of this as one of the universal experiences of being human. I suspect everyone, no matter how confident or extroverted, has been in a social situation where they feel desperately out of place. And that’s the irony of such situations: no matter how much you feel like you’re the only one who wonders what all of these people know that you don’t, who is certain that they are all looking at you wondering “Wow, what’s she doing here?”, it’s a near certainty that you’re not the only person in the room who feels that way. You may not even be in the minority.
And knowing that…doesn’t really help.
I was the alien in the room for two days this weekend when I attended Readercon. The whole experience was both familiar and strange. The conference was populated by the sort of people with whom I have always felt comfortable: science fiction/fantasy fans, people who seek out what is strange and different. People who read. It wasn’t all young people, either; while I was older than the median age, I was by no means the oldest person there, or even close to it. And everyone I spoke to, from authors to panelists to booksellers, was cheerful and inclusive.
I do this thing when I am in a group of strangers: I mirror them. I watch them interact with each other – when they pause, when they tell jokes, when they interrupt each other – and I fall into that pattern (with varying levels of success). This isn’t conscious, but it’s something I’ve always done. It’s a kind of improv, I think; figure out the context, and run with it. It’s a performance, and the degree to which it presents me as I really am varies widely. I can never be a completely different person at times like this, but my behavior is far more a factor of nerves and what I see around me than my actual personality.
Back at IBM, I once told my boss I was an introvert. She gave me a confident smile and said “I don’t believe you.” Apart from the issue of her reacting like I’d just insulted myself, I wasn’t really surprised. I can, in some situations, be quite social. It isn’t even like I don’t enjoy it much of the time. It just exhausts me. But most of the time, other people don’t know how much effort I’m expending.
With software people, it’s easier. I know the industry pretty well by now, and I know the personalities of the players: the young idealist, the old cynic, the gladhanding manager who doesn’t really want to hear your opinion. Even when I’m doing the mirroring thing, I know where the edges are, what to say and what not to say. I can run on autopilot, to a certain extent, and I can channel some energy into observing other people, figuring out who they are behind their various façades.
Readercon, on the other hand, was disorienting. Some of that had to do with where I am with my own writing, wondering if I’d ever be attending as a published author and not just a reader. But most of it was because it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been around a large group of gregarious strangers who were not software people. All of my introvert instincts might have been completely off-base.
I was nervous. When I am nervous, I talk to much. My husband says nobody else notices, but I sure do. And I try to remember the things I said, the things I shouldn’t have, questions I should have asked, times I should have just shut up.
And I realize, in a situation like this, I have no real idea of who I am.
I know Liz the Coder. I know the kind of image I want to project. I know what sorts of skills I can and cannot offer to a project. I do not know Liz the Author. I know my book, and I know how I write, and what I need to do to clear my head and make myself compose, or edit, or polish to the point that I feel comfortable sending out another draft. But I do not know Liz the Author Who Talks To Other People. I have an agent now. This is a for-real business thing I’m doing. I need to figure this out.
I met my agent in person at Readercon. She was marvelous and upbeat and full of confidence. I am guessing she has dealt with people weirder than I am. I am guessing she has dealt with people who are far more shy. I don’t want to be that person who tries to hide behind her all the time. I want to figure this out. I want to be able to go to Readercon and know who I am, whether or not I’m doing the mirroring thing.
When I first went off to college, I was lucky to have a roommate who was an extrovert and also quite nice. I could follow her into a lot of social situations, and it wasn’t that hard to meet people. But I realized, at one point, that I had no idea who I was without being around the people I had known for years. So much of my behavior and temperament were reflections of them. Who was I without them?
Thirty-two years later, and I still don’t know.