This interview was published recently on The Big Smoke website:
Through Sherryn Groch’s interview with Sian Prior we learn that while writing is an act of creativity for some, it is therapy for others. Prior’s “Writing as Therapy” workshop takes place later this month.
When Sian Prior sits down to tell a story, it is more than just the impulse of a seasoned writer, more than habit leftover from a career in journalism. It’s repair.
For most of her life, the broadcaster and author has turned to the “straight line” of the sentence to make sense of her experiences – including, at times, a paralysing social anxiety.
“Something about the process that goes on between the mind and the fingers tapping on the keyboard and the pace at which that happens helps me to think more clearly,” Prior tells The Big Smoke. “I will literally just sit down and have a conversation with myself in text and say, ‘well, what’s going on, why am I feeling like this?’”
This month, Prior is holding a Writing as Therapy workshop at The School of Life in Melbourne to help others take away the same benefits from their writing.
“I guess it’s a natural fit given the subject matter of my memoir, which was in many ways a deeply therapeutic process for me as a writer,” says Prior. “I hope to give people some practical tools on how to use writing as a way of understanding themselves better, of finding some relief from whatever it is that’s causing them suffering.”
For Prior herself, that suffering has been a life-long struggle with what most of us call “shyness.” As she recalls in her memoir, Shy, social anxiety has always been an unavoidable reality for Prior – something she suspects may have just been hot-wired into her DNA.
“I have a memory of being on a beach at only three or four years old and hiding behind my mother’s legs because my big scary, teenage cousins were there,” says Prior. “That anxiety is something I don’t ever remember being without.”
Yet, even back in those early moments, Prior says there was another feeling too – a growing excitement for stories.
“My mother recently dug up a story I’d written when I was still at primary school, a little crime thriller involving the family dog,” says Prior. “It was very cute to read back over it and think there’s so much wrong with it but what’s right about it is the impulse to tell a story. I was clearly really excited by the possibility of story.”
That passion has since thrown Prior into a long line of very public careers – first as a campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation, then as an ABC broadcaster and now as a creative writing teacher and author in her own right.
“I don’t think any of us are a singular, unified identity,” says Prior. “I think we all have different versions of ourselves; different voices and different roles we play. It’s about turning all that babble that goes on inside our heads, all those contradictions, into words.”
And it is there on the page that the writer will often find catharsis, Prior says. Teaching at RMIT University, she has now witnessed countless students begin to make sense of their lives through memoir.
“I have one student at the moment writing about dealing with incurable cancer and staying alive and, by writing about it, she’s realising that she’s not letting it get on top of her,” says Prior. “I have another student making all kinds of personal discoveries and revelations by going back over her past as a stripper and figuring out how it changed her. Writing can be incredibly transformative in the right circumstances.”
But, while confessional memoir is “a great way of outing shame and embarrassment,” Prior believes writers should also understand its limits.
“Just blurting out all of your innermost secrets is not enough. You need to craft it into a story, to manage things like self-pity. You should always be asking yourself: ‘what’s the story in this situation?’”
Fortunately, the author is not expecting a class full of Hemingways made to order ahead of her Writing as Therapy workshop this month
“I don’t want people to worry too much about the quality of their writing when they’re first starting out,” Prior says. “Do it so that it’s pleasurable and useful for yourself and then you can start to think about how to apply a bit of craft to do it even better.”
After all, just as writing can be healing, it can also be a whole lot of fun.
(Sherryn Groch is a freelance writer and journalism student from Melbourne. She enjoys writing short stories, frolicking in unsecured meadows and sometimes tweets.)
This week I learnt a new term: notional ekphrasis (sounds like ’emphasis’). It means writing about an imaginary artwork. I learnt about it in a workshop with Robin Hemley, Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at RMIT.
And then I tried my hand at it:
The ceramic tiles will come from the demolition of a kitchen in which a woman only ever baked one pie (from a gift her husband gave her called ‘The Slut’s Cookbook’).
The tile fragments will be stuck in place by an artist who used to be an ornithologist (before an artery in her neck grew a lining of cells that promised to stop the blood flowing to her head next time she went bush).
The image will be of a rainbow bee-eater I once saw on an island where dingos outnumbered people (and where a woman whose child was bitten by one put out poison bait just before she boarded the ferry).
The ceramic bird will be attached to the back wall of my garden (over which I sometimes hear a man bullying his son into playing the drums while the piano-playing man belts out the same Elton John song at least fourteen times in a row).
The mosaic will soon be streaked with shit from the mynahs (who perch on the wall in a neat queue before taking their turn to bathe in the ceramic bowl I put in the garden for the native birds.)
In spring the jasmine vines will grow over the mosaic until all I can see from the kitchen window are kaleidoscopic fragments of a dirty rainbow.
(But it will smell great.)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And then there is simple ekphrasis: a verbal representation of a visual representation. Auden’s poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts (1940)’ is a lovely example.
I had a go at that too, with an old postcard of Mt Etna erupting:
Without imagination, there would be no science.
Stephen must have forgotten this.
He never believed the sky had turned purple.
He knew the postcard from his Italian uncle had been given the same technicolour treatment given to Dorothy before she clicked her imaginary heels in Oz.
Besides, even if those billowing clouds of ash had somehow washed the sky purple, this time there would be no clouds, no ash, no purple sky, because now all was dormant.
It had been ninety years since the last eruption. Tourists had been crawling all over the crumbling rim of the crater for the last sixty of those.
But perhaps Stephen had been carrying this image in his mind since boyhood. The invitation. The seduction. The promise. Perhaps this was the version of the world he’d secretly been hoping to find at the summit.
Stephen was a scientist. He looked for signs that came in clusters, for clusters that could be corralled into evidence. Imagination was the enemy of evidence. Imagination turned a blue sky purple.
When he felt a tightening twinge in his left shoulder as he knelt there in the crumbling pumice, he didn’t read it as a sign. He blamed his imagination.
The sky was blue, after all.
Try this short quiz: given the choice, would you prefer to A) make small talk with a stranger or B) chew your own arm off? If you answered A) you are probably shy. Don’t worry, you are in good company: approximately forty percent of us identify ourselves as suffering from shyness. And if you’d rather chew both arms off than engage in chit-chat with someone you’ve never met, you might even be one of the five percent of the population who are stricken by social phobia.
According to psychologists, shyness is a temperament trait that exists on a spectrum between approach and withdrawal. ‘Approachers’ are the ones who’ll try to strike up a conversation with you on the bus about the weather forecast or the football results. If, like me, you were born on the withdrawal end of the spectrum, you probably put your sunglasses on and bury your head in a book to avoid having to chat to any public transport approachers. For shy people small talk can be an agony.
According to Professor Ron Rapee, head of the Centre for Emotional Health in Sydney, shy people often suffer from social anxiety, at the core of which is ‘worry and fear about being negatively evaluated’.
‘A lot of shy people avoid social situations because of that concern about being evaluated by others. They have physical symptoms (of anxiety) like shaking’.
So it makes sense that engaging in small talk could induce distress in those of us who struggle with ‘stranger-danger’. As a young traveller backpacking solo around Europe for six months, the most frightening part of the trip for me was being called upon to chat with other travellers at youth hostel dining tables.
According to linguists, though, small talk is a vital part of human discourse. It oils the wheels of interaction and generates social cohesion. Think about the trust and goodwill generated between the new client and the hairdresser as they chat about the latest celebrity updates in the salon’s fashion magazines, or the stress relief for disappointed fans as they commiserate with strangers about their team’s loss on the train ride home from the match. Even the outcome of job interviews can be influenced by the tone set during those initial verbal pleasantries before the serious questioning begins.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar believes human chatter is a form of social grooming, a bit like monkeys picking insects out of each other’s fur. In ‘Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language’, he writes ‘it’s the tittle-tattle of life that makes the world go round, not the pearls of wisdom that fall from the lips of the Aristotles and the Einsteins. We are social beings and our world… is cocooned in the interests and the minutiae of everyday social life.’
But what if you’re shy and don’t think you can ‘do’ small talk? Won’t that increase your anxiety in social situations?
According to Robert Coplan from the Psychology Department at CarletonUniversity in Ottawa, Canada,‘it’s fairly well established that shy children and shy adults tend to talk less, typically because they are feeling nervous or self-conscious in situations, so they produce less language. Some people have suggested that if you speak less then you have less opportunity to practice your language skills.’ Psychologist Ron Rapee has a different take on this debate: ‘My view is that it’s all perception. Socially anxious people perceive themselves as incompetent at small talk but they are perfectly competent.’
Whatever the cause of our anxiety about small talk, we shy people are probably more interested in finding the solution. One American self-help author believes the best strategy is to focus on helping others as a way of helping ourselves. Debra Fine’s book ‘The Fine Art of Small Talk’ offers a strategy involving two basic rules.
The first could be seen a form of exposure therapy: ‘Take The Risk: it is up to us to take the risk of starting a conversation with a stranger… even if we are shy’. This is all very well, but when your shy brain is full of ‘what if’s’ (what if they don’t want to talk to me? what if they think I’m an idiot?) it can be almost impossible to make the first move.
Fine’s second rule has proved more useful for me as a way of tackling my aversion to small talk. ‘Assume the Burden’, Fine suggests; ‘it is our responsibility to come up with topics to discuss… to assume the burden of other people’s comfort’. According to psychologists, shy people are often deeply empathic. After all, we spend a lot of time wondering what others are thinking. We can employ that empathy to help ourselves in awkward social situations by focusing on helping the other person out. If forty percent of us are shy, there’s a good chance the stranger we’re stuck next to at the wedding party buffet is feeling just as anxious about making small talk. By ‘assuming the burden’ and making the first conversational offer, we can be simultaneously altruistic and self-serving.
This strategy can sometimes lead to even more awkwardness. At a book launch recently I took the initiative and began chatting with a young Asian woman who was standing alone, looking bereft. My chatter ground to a halt when I realized she spoke almost no English, and I skulked away in embarrassment. More often, though, I am finding that my Small Talk Super-Heroine impersonation leads to an enjoyable conversation with someone who soon feels more like friend than foe.
The fact that I’ve written a book about my own shyness is proving to be an excellent conversation opener when I’m targetting the most socially anxious person in the room to practice my small talk. Before long we are swapping tales of social terror and giggling about our irrational fears. And nothing oils the wheels of social discourse – and banishes terror – like sharing a laugh.
(A version of this article was published in Fairfax’s ‘Sunday Life’ magazine on June 14th)
I recently did an interview with Sophie Clews for the Creative Issue website about ‘Shy: a memoir’ and writing as therapy. Here is a transcript:
CI: (In relation to your career thus far) is there anything new you’d want to try?
Sian Prior: To be honest, I feel less professionally ambitious these days. I’m more interested in having time to think, reflect, and write, and communicate with people in that way, rather than in more high profile ways. But I’ve started doing some casual presenting on ABC Classic FM lately, which has been great, as it’s a possible path back into radio.
CI: Talking about your writing, how did you start? Were you always a writer?
SP: My mum actually recently found a story I’d written when I was still in primary school that she had hung onto. It was an extremely elaborate crime story involving our pet corgi at the time, so clearly I’ve been wanting to write and tell stories from a very young age. I’ve been writing short stories for a while, too.
CI: Have any writers in particular inspired you?
SP: I’ve always been a big Margaret Atwood fan. I also read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which Didion grapples with terrible grief after the death of her husband and the illness of her daughter. I just thought she was absolutely ruthless in trying to analyse her feelings as a way of getting on top of them, and particularly in avoiding sounding self-pitying. I think that’s really important when you’re writing that kind of confessional misery memoir.
CI: I take it Didion inspired Shy in that way? Why did you ultimately decide to write a memoir, out of all the types of literary endeavours?
SP: About ten years ago I started to write a novel that had a very shy main character, and I ended up drawing a lot of material from my own life. To be honest, it was terrible. I eventually abandoned that, and when I came back to the idea of writing about a shy person and decided to write about myself as a shy person, it felt so much more comfortable and authentic. It felt like I didn’t have to work so hard to make it believable.
When I started Shy, I intended it to be a much more informative and a less personal book. I was always going to include some of my own stuff in it, but I’d interviewed other people. But then I got feedback from early readers that the stuff that was resonating with them was the personal parts, so after that it became a strange tussle between writing a memoir or a self-help book, and what I think I ended up writing was a self-help memoir.
CI: If you were to write a novel now, do you think you’d write another shy character? Or do you think you’d explore?
SP: I’m not really thinking about writing a novel at the moment. I feel like I got so much out of the process of writing Shy. Non-fiction feels like a safe place for me, after working as a journalist for so many years, so I think when I write another book, it will also have to be non-fiction.
CI: When you started writing Shy, did you intend writing it to work as a sort of therapy?
SP: I didn’t attach that word at the beginning, but some part of my brain thought that if I got enough information about shyness, I’d be able to cure myself. But the process of writing did become very therapeutic for me. It enabled me to get rid of a lot of emotions that I had attached to shyness, like shame and embarrassment, and thinking it was some kind of weakness.
I now understand that it was something I was born with, and that it comes with a whole lot of positive things that I hadn’t realised before. It was also very cathartic to put it all out there in such an exposing way. I wrote incredibly frankly about all of my own fears, shames, and in particular about the end of my relationship. I found it very useful as a way of understanding that event. I have dialogues where I try and understand what that was all about through a conversation with myself. It’s made me much more aware of the therapeutic benefits of that kind of writing.
CI: So it wasn’t an intentional thing?
SP: The School of Life invited me to run this course, but they had wanted to run it anyway. They had read my book and then seen it as an example of therapeutic writing and asked me to lead the course. It’s been very interesting for me as I prepare, to think about what therapeutic benefits I got myself and how I can communicate it to other people in this kind of session.
CI: It seems like it’s a hard thing to teach.
SP: Yes and no. I’ve been teaching writing for a long time now, but not this particular focus. But I’ve taught a lot of nonfiction writers, in particular memoirists. I’ve observed how therapeutic many of my students have found those processes of digging back through their own lives and relating the experiences to other people, and trying to make sense of their experiences by turning it into a narrative, which is what the seminar will be talking about.
In some ways, it’s a no brainer. Lots of people love writing and we all have some level of need for therapy or stress relief. If I wasn’t teaching it, I’d be enrolling in the course myself!
CI: What is the course going to entail for the participants?
SP: There are two key ideas I want to talk about in the session. One is a notion that came to me from the book The Situation and The Story by Vivian Gornick. She writes very insightfully about how we use writing as a way of defining the story from a situation we might be in. That’s part of the therapeutic approach, I suppose, to say, “This is my situation, but what’s actually going on?”
The other thing we’re going to be looking at is psychological theory known as the dialogical self. It’s about the idea that we spend so much time having this conversation with ourselves about what’s going on and debating certain decisions, but it’s all happening inside our heads. It’s something I explored a lot in Shy, writing up conversations I’d had with myself. I want to talk to people about the value of attending to those conversation that go on inside our heads, and writing them down as a way of achieving clarity with what’s going on for us.
CI: If you’re not working on a novel, do you have any new projects in the works?
SP: I’ve got some essays on the go and a few ideas for nonfiction books, but they’re in similarly dark and self-revealing territory as Shy, so I think I need a little bit of pause from the therapy! With the new ideas, I need to gather my forces and decide how I’m going to approach this stuff, to make it more therapeutic than painful. I’m not prepared to talk too much about them until I really figure out how to do that.
Writing as Therapy will take place at The School Of Life on May 27th, from 6-9pm. Sian will also be In Conversation With Sarah Darmody on May 2nd, from 4-6pm. For more details, visit The School Of Life.
We’ve been traveling: three and a half weeks in my new camper van. It’s a cubby house on wheels that has been providing me with the same kind of joy and fantasy-fulfillment as the cubby houses of my childhood.
We’ve listened to all twelve episodes of This American Life’s latest podcast addiction, ‘Serial’. We’ve visited beaches, rivers and inlets, forests, mountains and hamlets – including a little place in country Victoria called Stratford. Which is to be found right beside the Avon River. It’s pretty quiet in this hamlet. Lots of shops closed down, lots of houses for sale. Not many reasons to stop in Stratford these days.
Except, of course, that it’s Stratford on Avon.
So in the spirit of post-Christmas generosity my companion and I have started a list of new business names to send to the Stratford Chamber of Commerce in the hope of inspiring a local tourism boom:
The butcher’s shop – The Merchant of Venison
The brothel – A Pound of Flesh
The other brothel – As You Like it
The coffee shop – The Witches Brew
The Country Women’s Association – The Merry Wives
The firearms store – Slings and Arrows
The bank – Outrageous Fortune
The art gallery – We’re for Art
The op shop – The Merchant of Vinnies
The surf shop – Once More unto the Beach
The dry cleaners – Out Damned Spot
The high-end homewares shop – Much Ado about Nothing
The maternal healthcare clinic – Mewling and Puking
The funeral parlour – All’s Well that Ends Well
The other funeral parlour – This Mortal Coil
The relationship counselling service – Loves Labours Lost
The greengrocer – Salad Days
The massage clinic – There’s the Rub
The audiology clinic – Lend me your Ears
The greyhound track – Let Slip the Dogs
The camping supplies store – The Winter of our Discount Tent
To be continued.
(With thanks to John Merkel and some Facebook friends)
In 2015 I will be offering a mentoring service for writers working on non fiction projects: memoirs, autobiographies, biographies, how-to and self-help books, immersions, histories, essays, articles, blogs, etc.
The mentoring will take the form of individual consultations (in person or remotely by Skype or phone) and/or small group workshopping sessions.
You will receive detailed individual feedback on your work-in-progress, including advice on: voice, tone, form, structure, research techniques, targetting a readership, developing disciplined writing habits, re-drafting, overcoming writers block, and finding a publisher.
You don’t need to be an experienced writer – just be willing to re-draft your work as a way of improving it.
Consultation schedules can be flexible – anything from once a week to once a month.
Details of my decade of teaching experience at TAFE, universities, writers festivals and with private students can be found on the ‘Teacher’ page of this website, along with testimonials from previous students.
Feel free to contact me by email for more information via the ‘Contact’ page.
Fifty years ago today my father died. This is a chapter from ‘Shy: a memoir’ (Text Publishing) in which i wrote about his death:
Sometimes when I’m at a surf beach I half expect to see him out there, floating serenely in the waves. He’s enjoying the feel of the water on his broad shoulders, the warmth of the sun on his wet scalp. He’ll come in soon and towel off, squinting into the glare, and then he’ll smile at me with my own shy smile, my mirror-face. We’ll sit together under a striped umbrella and watch the families gathered in little clutches around their blue and white Eskies, or spread out in human join-the-dots patterns, playing with wet tennis balls. The children with sand clinging to their legs, women tugging at their bikinis, men standing in pairs at the water’s edge, arms crossed in identical poses as they exchange information about the latest cricket scores.
But that’s not how the beach looked that day. That day the beach was wind-whipped and empty, until the busload of blinking orchestral musicians piled out onto the sand. A day when no one should have been swimming but some couldn’t resist. That’s what I’ve been told. I think. I can’t be sure now.
There were two of them leading the way to the water’s edge, young ones, feeling immortal. I picture them hopping over the waves, their pale musicians’ arms flapping at the froth under the scudding clouds. Then quickly sucked out beyond the shallows by the furtive rip. Arms flapping harder now, salt water leaping into their mouths. Frog-legs kicking. Frog-voices croaking uselessly under the roar of the breakers.
And the father suddenly forgetting about himself and hauling off his shirt. Running now, running away from his wife and children and into the clutching water. Those trumpeter’s lungs breathing deep, that blonde head diving over and under the waves as he heads for the furthest immortal.
And the rest of the orchestra watching, not breathing, as the slow-motion father reaches the furthest immortal and puts his hand under a chin and hauls the young body backwards through the over-taking waves until he can feel the sandy bottom under his feet.
Is this what happened? Or was there a rope around his waist and a silent group of onlookers at the other end, slow-motion-tugging them back to shore? I’m not sure. I have to fill in the gaps for you. And for me.
The rest of the orchestra is watching, breathing again, as the first immortal staggers onto the shore. But the father turns (isn’t one enough? why so helpful?) and goes out again. He’s tiring now, trumpeter’s lungs seared with salt, legs kicking slower, but he makes it to the gulping violinist. Again that strong hand under a chin and the slow progress away from the horizon. The onlookers turn to each other, shaking their heads in amazement. A hero!
My mother looks down at her eldest daughter and mouths ‘yes’ in response to a question that can hardly be heard over the whipping wind.
And when they all turn back the second immortal is safe.
Safe but alone.
The father has disappeared.
I imagine it as an upside down pyramid of suffering in the remnants of our family that day, gradually diluting as it goes down the family structure. Margot first: pure scarifying misery. But how can I conjure that?
My five-year-old sister is next, the one who had asked our mother ‘is he coming back,?’ The one to whom Margot replied ‘yes’ (but did my sister really say that? Have I made it up? Embellished the story?)
Then my brother, nearly two years old and so like his father already, everybody says so, the spitting image. Holding onto our mother’s legs for dear life as the sand whips around his chubby ankles.
And at the bottom of the pyramid there is me, the three-month old baby, blissfully unaware. Safe in Margot’s arms, eyes shielded from the whipping sand by a soft blanket. But I feel her heartbeat. It thuds against my ear, too fast. I feel her chest rising and falling as the fear sucks the air from her oboist’s lungs. I feel her arms tightening around me.
Perhaps too tight.
There is a photo I’ve seen (or do I imagine I’ve seen?) in another yellowing news clipping. Pinned up at my grandfather Stan Prior’s place, maybe. A woman is standing on a beach. Standing where the wet sand meets the dry, looking out to sea. She looks so alone, in spite of the three small children with her. She’s waiting, as I sometimes do, to see those shoulders rise above the waves and begin the slow swim back to shore.
Perhaps it’s not a photo I remember but a dream. I wonder if all four of us have had variations of the same one. He waits until we’re asleep and then he appears way out beyond the breakers and he’s swimming towards us. Pretty soon he’s stumbling through the shallows to the shore, tired but safe. We’re relieved but we’re also angry. Where have you been all these years, we ask? Why didn’t you come back? Didn’t you realise we’d be worried sick? Did you think about us at all before you leapt into the surf to save someone else’s children?
Sometimes when I’m swimming in surf I dive under the waves and stay down there while the water pummels my legs. I try to imagine how it must have felt for him in those last moments. Did he crash into some hidden rocks and then know nothing more? Or did he feel that pummelling too and fight to be able to breathe again? I wait until my lungs are screaming and then I surface, gasping like a fish, and stumble through the shallows to the shore, tired but safe. Like my dream father.
Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – review by Natasha Mitchell
Life Matters (ABC Radio National) – interview by Natasha Mitchell
The Sunday Age – review by Owen Richardson
The Good Weekend – profile by Stephanie Wood
Readings magazine – review by Felicity Ford
The Saturday Paper – review by ‘HT’
The Canberra Times – review by Owen Richardson
Booktopia – review and interview by Caroline Baum
Radio New Zealand – interview with Kathryn Ryan
The Conversation Hour (774 ABC Melbourne) – interview with Jon Faine
The Big Issue – interview with Emily Laidlaw
Australian Book Review – review by Dina Ross
The Australian – review by Agnes Nieuwenhuizen
Books and Publishing – review by Emily Laidlaw
The Wheeler Centre – essay by Kirsten Krauth
The Wheeler Centre – interview with Francesca Rendle-Short
Australian Financial review – review by Simon Hughes
The Bendigo Weekly – profile by Dianne Dempsey
Artshub – review by Olivia Mayer
Writers Edit – review by Jared Catchpoole
GoodReads website – reviews by readers
Conversations with Richard Fidler (ABC Local Radio) – interview with Richard Fidler
Melbourne Writers Festival blog – interview with Emma Jones
Kill Your Darlings literary magazine – feature by Carody Culver
The Book Club on 4ZZZ FM – interview with Sky Kirkham
RMIT News – profile
Northcote Leader – profile by Julia Irwin
Otago Daily Times – review by Ian Williams
The Listener magazine (NZ) – profile by Guy Somerset
Shyness and Social Anxiety Treatment Australia – review by Catherine Madigan
Mama Mia Book Circle – interview with Cheryl Ackle
Sydney Morning Herald – feature by Gina McColl
Wordmothers website – interview with Nicole Melanson
Writers Edit website – interview with Jared Catchpoole
SomethingToMove website – interview with Lucy Bourchier
http://katrinalezaic.com – profile by Katrina Lezaic
‘Slightly Nutty’ blog – review by Adrienne McGill
Daily Life – column by Sian Prior
The Age – feature by Sian Prior
New Zealand Herald – column by Sian Prior
The Wheeler Centre – essay by Sian Prior
Creative Issue – interview with Sophie Clews
Washington Post – column by Sian Prior
TES (Times Educational Supplement) magazine (UK) – article by Sian Prior
Radio Gorgeous (UK) – interview with Josephine Pembroke
Upstart magazine – feature by Erin Leeder
Victoria University blog – comment by Diana Gaba
Bookends blog – review by Michele G
The Age Spectrum – feature by Jane Sullivan
The Times (London) – feature by Rachel Carlyle
Meanjin website – blogpost by Jo Case
Abbey’s Bookshop blog – review by Lindy
From The Attic website – review by Louise Allen
EssayDaily wesbite – essay by Sian Prior
Amazon.com – reader reviews
Nudge-book.co – review by Julie Drewett
FrankGolding.com – review by Frank Golding
StyleAndShenanigans.com – review by Vanessa Rowse
Book Club notes for ‘Shy’ (via Text Publishing)
(This article was published in The Age newspaper on October 20th 2014)
Imagine this: you are about to deliver a presentation to a classroom full of your fellow school students, watched over by your teacher. Perhaps your palms are sweating, your face slightly flushed. Perhaps your heart rate has increased. Perhaps there is a tremor in your hands as you shuffle the pages of your talk, anxiously checking that they’re in the right order.
Imagine yourself imagining that everyone in the classroom is staring critically at you, waiting for you to stumble over the first paragraph. Imagine yourself standing in front of that critical audience, wishing that you were invisible. Now imaginefeeling just like this every time you find yourself in a social situation with people you don’t know intimately, because you are shy.
I have had a lifelong battle with shyness. I know the intense distress this common temperament trait can cause for those of us born on the shy end of the spectrum, especially at school. And it is at school where shyness threatens to impact both social and academic development, preventing a person from full participation in school life. But can teachers actually do anything to help?
First, we have to understand shyness. Shyness is a state you inhabit physically as well as mentally. Shyness can freeze you over and refuse to let you thaw out until you feel safe. And feeling safe can be the hardest thing, when you’re shy. But what are we shy people afraid of? Why are our autonomic nervous systems telling us there’s a hungry lion about to pounce on us, when in fact we’re just minding our own business in the corner of someone’s balloon-strewn living room?
I have spent the last four years researching shyness for a memoir called ‘Shy’, published in June this year. According to the experts, shyness is just one of many temperament traits we might inherit from our parents. Shyness sits down one end of a spectrum from ‘approach’ to ‘withdrawal’. Picture a bird on an electricity wire. If you’re very shy you’re hanging around on the far left of the wire, staying away from the other birds. Every now and then you might chirp quietly at them, simultaneously hoping that they will ignore you and that they will chirp back. What you really want is to be hanging around with the other birds, but you’re afraid of them. You fear their negative evaluation and the possibility that, if you approach them, they might reject you.
So teachers should realize that shyness is not a choice, or a student acting up. It is a real problem and one that is likely to be inherited.
Shyness manifests as social anxiety and at its most extreme, this anxiety can become a form of phobia so severe you cannot leave the house. Social anxiety usually provokes a range of physical symptoms, from blushing, trembling, sweating, hyperventilating and feeling physically stiff. It induces hyper-vigilance, a hyper-awareness of one’s physical presence in social environments, and a mental preoccupation with how one is being perceived; in other words, intense self-consciousness. In social situations, the shy person’s body can easily become caught up in a distressing feedback loop of shame, awkwardness and discomfort.
Over years, even decades, these repeated experiences of anxiety-related distress (and the mere anticipation of these experiences) can become inscribed upon the body. For me, shyness is a kind of poison that enters my body, a toxic elixir of anxiety that eats away at my digestive system so I can only eat what I ate as a baby – comforting, squishy, easy-to-digest foods like potato, pumpkin, rice and porridge. Anything else hurts.
I also get a lump in my throat every time I feel acutely socially anxious, a lump that no amount of swallowing can remove. I have discovered this constriction is aptly called ‘globus hystericus’, but it feels like my own body IS trying to strangle me, perhaps to punish me for my foolish fears.
Finally, there is the sensation of liquefaction that can accompany the experience of social anxiety, when it seems your whole body has turned to water.
Teachers need to watch for symptoms such as this and note shyness as they would other special education needs.
But what can teachers do to help these students?
My own shyness became most acute when I spent six months in a London comprehensive school as a teenager. Transplanted from my hometown of Melbourne, Australia, I felt like an alien in that environment, and making friends was almost impossible. I simply didn’t have the skills or courage to insert myself into this new school’s social cliques. In the classroom, I was reluctant to speak up, even when I knew the answers, for fear of drawing attention to myself. Many long lunch hours were spent hiding out in the school library, reading books, avoiding social interactions, immersed in loneliness. No doubt you know children just like this in your school.
So is it possible that some of my distress could have been alleviated by my teachers? According to psychologist Barbara Keogh, the author of Temperament in the Classroom (Paul H Brookes Publishing Co, 2003), if teachers have a better awareness of individual temperament styles they can not only help their students but they can also alleviate some of their own classroom stress. Keogh uses the example of a shy teacher who may be especially understanding of a shy and inhibited child, whereas another teacher may be impatient with that child, not understanding why they are so reluctant to participate in class activities.
Another thing to bear in mind, says Keogh, is that shy and withdrawing children may have problems when they are faced with a program with many demands for quick adaptation to different activities. Hence, reframing your expectations of that child in those situations may be advisable.
There are other things you can do, too. My shyness research and my own experience as a teacher of creative writing (and as a shy person) has given me some insights into how to manage shy students.
- Find alternative tasks: If a shy child is grappling with intense self-consciousness, having to present or perform in front of their classmates may be excruciatingly anxiety inducing for them. Offering those children alternative ways to demonstrate their learning may help them to achieve better outcomes.
- Offer social opportunities Shy children often find it very difficult to approach others in social situations, for example in the free-form environment outside the classroom. Offering them structured opportunities in class time to interact in a more relaxed way with their fellow students (group projects for example) could facilitate better social interactions for them outside the classroom.
- Manage your expectations Teachers should try to avoid making shy students feel even more self-conscious than they already are. Trying to force them to behave like extroverts when they have inherited a shy temperament will only increase their distress.
- Help them understand the problem Helping students to better understand their own temperament could help them feel less socially incompetent. Since the publication of my memoir I have been inundated with emails from shy readers, thanking me for explaining their own behaviour for them, and expressing relief at the knowledge that they are not alone with their irrational fears.
Some might argue that to prepare shy children for adult life their teachers must insist they behave in non-shy ways. Gentle encouragement from empathetic teachers, though, will be much more effective than rigid insistence on confident performance in the classroom. Allowing shy students to take small ‘safe’ risks will help them to imagine their way into a less frightening world.
There were a few chapters that didn’t make it into the final cut of my memoir ‘Shy’. Somehow they didn’t fit. So i had to kill my darlings. But they’re not entirely dead. Here’s one:
Between the NSW country towns of Grenfell and Forbes the world seems to turn upside down. Through the windows of a Countrylink bus I watched flourescent fields of canola throwing sunlight up into the cloud-dark skies. Soon the skies would return the favour by throwing back rain. Which would no doubt turn the canola an even more lurid lemon.
As I pointed the camera, trying to capture proof of this improbable sea of yellow, I remembered a newspaper article about a canola farmer. His lush springtime crops looked perfect from ground level. But then he flew over them in a light plane. Looking down, he discovered field after field had great gaping holes in the middle where a mice plague had swarmed through. From above, those perfect paddocks looked like slices of Swiss cheese laid out on a giant open sandwich.
This was my first visit to Forbes and I was in extremis. A five week-long winter cough had left my lungs shrunken and my vocal cords shredded. Or so it felt.
And yet I was here to sing the most difficult music I had ever learnt.
The world premiere of a contemporary art song cycle.
In front of an audience of skeptical strangers.
With a chorus of amateur choristers.
At a first-time regional community arts festival.
Upon whose success the future of any further festivals entirely depended.
But, like, no pressure.
The evening of the day I got to town there was to be a get-together at the Forbes Bowls Club. The local choristers wanted to meet the visiting musicians who’d come from the big cities of Melbourne and Sydney; four instrumentalists and the opera singer. The Festival coordinator welcomed me with a hug at the caravan park where I’d be staying for the week. As she was leaving she mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that the singers were all worried about their parts and, in particular, about meeting the standards of The Professional Soprano.
Professional? This was only my second paid gig all year, and the year was almost over. The Pretend Soprano, more like it.
A party full of new people.
All waiting to meet me.
My anxiety went so deep I could scarcely access what was left of my lungs to inhale the crisp country air.
What if: my voice gave out entirely during the performance and I had to flee the stage in shame?
What if: my personal failure led to the failure of the entire festival enterprise?
What if: the locals didn’t like me?
I wanted Tom to be there with me. To tell me that I was worrying for nothing. To answer my what ifs with his but remember whens. To remind me I’d been in this pit of fear before and climbed out.
But he was on the other side of the world.
Sitting on the porch of my little cabin beside the Lachlan River, watching the birds flitting over the water, I thought about the singers I’d conducted in the Trade Union Choir all those years ago, the Fearless Boss-Slayers-by-day who reverted to Chastened Schoolchildren by night, who had come to me with their own shameful hoard of what ifs, their tales of music teachers who’d instructed them to mime in the school choir because their voices weren’t good enough. I tried to remember how it felt to play the Confident Choir Mistress, reassuring them they were gonna be just fine, that everyone could sing in tune, all it took was practice.
Then I tried to focus my mind on the choristers I was about to meet. To imagine their terror. Imagine not being able to read the notes on the pages of music. Imagine having to try and memorise the strange, unpredictable rhythms that the faraway composer has given them to learn. Imagine how they might be imagining me.
I remembered the fictional visiting soprano in Thea Astley’s novel ‘The Kindness Cup’, a bloated, attention-seeking diva who lords it over the local ladies in a Queensland country town. A middle-aged woman with a fortissimo laugh and poccissimo empathy. I wondered if that was what they feared from me?
And as I burrowed my way into the minds of the imaginary choristers I was about to meet, calm descended.
This was not about me, after all. I was here to reassure. To erase the anxieties of others. I was here to help in upside down world. My role would be The Humble Soprano. From this lowly position I would throw sunlight up towards the dark clouds of anxiety hovering over the caroling residents of Forbes. Helpful Sian.
When I arrived the partygoers were milling around in porch light out the back of the Bowls Club. Drinks were being served in plastic cups and there were platters of crackers and cheese being handed around. A dozen silver heads turned towards me as I made my way up the path.
My face was ready.
I lent towards strangers, shook their hands, gripped their arms, nodded and smiled. I tried to remember names – Marj with the matching green eyes and scarf, Beryl with the mannish haircut, Olive with the laugh-lines that reach from her eyes to her ears – and I told everyone about how hard it had been to learn the music, about my shredded vocal cords and my fear of letting them down. I laughed and wheezed and coughed and laughed again. I was self-deprecating and expectorating.
Soon their anxious chorus of ‘we’re just a country choir, you know’ faded away and they were reassuring me that it would be okay, that we were all in it together, that we-can-only-do-our-best and that our-best-will-have-to-be-good-enough. A woman with a South African accent and loud jewellery placed the palm of her hand on the middle of my chest, looked up towards the heavens and instructed The Good Lord to take away my cough. Another promised me lemons from her own tree to make a curative hot drink with honey. Handing around plastic glasses of champagne, I imagined that I was sharing the elixir of sympathy.
The choir members of Forbes would never guess just how much self-doubt was gnawing away at me like a plague of mice mowing through a canola field.
And as I took my leave, promising them that I would rest well and be fit as a fiddle in the morning, I could swear the scoreboard on the other side of the moonlit bowling green read:
Sian – 1
Shyness – 0
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