My recent return from yet another AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Conference, this one in the city where I spent an embarrassing portion of my time as a graduate student haunting second-hand bookstores and dark, empty bars, I’m reminded of what it is that exhausts me about every conference, every workshop, every book fair or reading that I engage in these days: It’s the people. I know, I know. This is not something one admits to if one wants to be successful in the writing world (oh, and not thought of as a _____). And then there is also the legitimate and inevitable question that people ask me when I intimate this sentiment, however cautiously: “If you don’t enjoy meeting people and talking with them, why do you go to these events?” The answer to this question is one that is clear and painfully present to any introvert: because I have to. I have to meet people, to promote my work, to promote myself, to “put myself out there,” and there is nothing in this work that makes me more uncomfortable. I know I can’t be alone.
Don’t get me wrong. The very modest success I’ve achieved as a poet has been a hard-won, continual exercise in humility, so I take little for granted. In this strange land of youthful genius, I’m a latecomer—a career-changer who left my lit-crit career behind me and started writing poems seven years ago. I’ve been grateful to the amazing editors and publishers who have saved my work from drowning in the slush pile, and I have deeply appreciated every judge of every contest who has done the same. Still, I’ll confess to feeling somewhat inadequate to the task of promoting my own work, and I’m doing my best not to appear to my publisher as some kind of antisocial freak.
The truth is that it’s not natural for me to engage in many of the activities that promoting a new book entails, things like hocking my book, announcing upcoming readings on social media, or introducing myself to perfect strangers at the press booth in order to sell my book. One of the reasons I like to write is that, unlike some of my writer friends, I enjoy the solitude of the writing life. I have a demanding day job that requires me to interact with all kinds of people in a variety of circumstances, many of them very public, and the writing life gives me the internal, solitary life of the mind that I require to recharge from my other life of being “on” all the time, of being “her.” I like giving readings and talking with people about their writing, but as someone who taught college courses for twenty-three years, this part comes more easily to me. I can read my work as a kind of performance, just as teaching is a kind of performance, and I’ve spent my entire professional life teaching, which is all about talking with students about how they understand material or what and how they write. But selling myself and my work is a different kind of engagement, one that every fiber of me resists.
I’ve tried to explain this reluctance to my publisher, attributing it to the history of my working-class history, to my culturally mixed heritage (my mother is a Korean immigrant), and to an upbringing that eschewed any act that seemed at all like boasting. I have an incredibly hardworking, generous, and extroverted publisher who wants me to celebrate the success that I’ve earned, and I don’t want to disappoint him. I feel guilty that I’m not living up to my part of the publishing bargain when he and the press have been so busy on my behalf. But the truth is that I’m simply an introvert—someone who is diminished by a certain kind of interaction more than I’m energized by it.
My hope is that this reluctance subsides in time. The practice and repetition that allows me to do my job, to offer the kind of public performance that is teaching or giving a reading, will maybe one day allow me to embrace the challenges of promoting my work, of promoting myself. There was a time when I was nervous about reading aloud very personal, emotionally charged poems. But the more I included them in readings, the less difficult reading them became. I was able to develop into a different kind of “her” when I needed to be. For those of you who suffer from introversion, my hope is that you, too, learn to sing of yourselves with full-throated confidence.