As a child, my unattainable object of desire was a giant Derwent pencil set. I knew that if I could just get my hands on one of those big boxes, my whole life would be more colourful. It took four decades but last Christmas I finally scratched that itch and bought myself a set of 36 Derwents. I pored over those creatively-named pencils, wondering who’d first come up with Blue Violet Lake and Golden Brown.
Over the New Year, as my TV screen filled with images of bushfire-menaced towns, I had a new language to describe what I was seeing. Walls of flame in Straw Yellow. Skies stained Orange Chrome. Fireys’ faces streaked with Gunmetal. Trees and animals charred Ivory Black. These were the colours of climate horror.
Another youthful longing of mine was to tour New Zealand in a campervan. In early January I left my smoky hometown and travelled to the South Island. For the next two weeks I motored past rivers tinted Kingfisher Blue by glaciated rock particles. I hiked through rainforests under towering trees of Mineral Green. On the mountain drive from Lake Wanaka to Queenstown I marveled at the technicolour lupins lining the road, every shade from Rose Pink to Imperial Purple.
But there was no escaping evidence of the climate horror. The white tip of New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mount Cook, was dusted with Brown Ochre – ash blown over from Australia’s bushfires. Hiking to the foot of the Franz Josef Glacier, I discovered that this vast expanse of Chinese White ice has been shrinking rapidly as New Zealand’s average temperatures have been rising.
In the busy lakeside town of Wanaka I hired a kayak and paddled away from the tourist hordes, wondering if we were in danger of ruining this colourful planet. Humans – we’re a scourge, I thought, as I floated on the Prussian Blue lake. We don’t deserve all this beauty.
Back on shore I found a throng gathered on the footpath, everyone clapping along to some singing. Through the crowd I could see flashes of Lemon Cadmium and Deep Vermillion. Moving closer I discovered it was an Aboriginal flag hanging above a stage, and beside it flew an Ultramarine Australian flag. The Wanaka locals were holding an all-day singing marathon to raise funds for bushfire relief. For us.
Humans. Maybe we’re not so bad after all.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in February 2020)
I am very pleased to share the news that I have been offered a contract for a second memoir. It will be published by Text Publishing and I aim to finish writing it this year. More soon.
The TES (Times Educational Supplement) recently commissioned me to write this essay on shyness, published January 2020.
‘Come as you are, leave as you want to be!’ shouts the billboard outside the local grammar school. It sounds great, but it’s a false promise. No school – and no individual teacher – can fundamentally re-shape a student’s inherited personality. Different temperament traits can impact on students’ behavior and learning styles, and when it comes to shyness in the classroom, I have experienced the downsides first hand.
Shyness has afflicted me throughout my life. I was a timid young child but my fears became more acute and distressing in my teenage years. At secondary school I felt lonely, isolated and ‘weird’. My reluctance to speak up in class left me bored and frustrated. My teachers thought I was arrogant and aloof; one even told me so directly as she was handing me an award for Dux of Humanities.
As an adult I developed strategies to overcome my shyness in most professional situations, but in my personal life it has continued to cause me distress. To put it simply, being with other people has often made me feel anxious and hyper-vigilant. Over the decades this anxiety has impacted profoundly on my friendships and my love life. I will cross the road to avoid having to engage with acquaintances, and dating has always been an agony for me. I could never understand why it required so much emotional energy for me to interact with other humans, and why I felt compelled to hide my fears.
Singer-songwriter Morrissey describes the impact of these fears in his song ‘Ask’. ‘Shyness is nice’, he sings, ‘and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to.’ When shyness leaves you feeling breathless, voiceless and friendless, though, it can be anything but nice.
A decade ago I was teaching vocational education, freelancing as a journalist and working up the courage to write a book about shyness. Deep down I was hoping to ‘come as you are’ to this book project and ‘leave as you want to be’: cured of shyness. I began my research by interviewing a number of eminent professors of psychology.
Shyness, I learned, is an inherited temperament trait on a spectrum stretching from ‘approach’ to ‘withdrawal’. If you are at the approach end (the non-shy end) you are naturally more socially confident. If you are on the withdrawal end you are more inclined to be fearful of people you don’t know intimately.
Temperament psychologists have observed evidence of these traits in babies and toddlers. Some will happily reach out their arms to strangers, while others cling fearfully to their parents when approached by people they don’t know. It all made so much sense to me. My older cousins still tell stories about how, as a toddler, I would hide behind my mother’s legs when visitors came to our house.
Given both my parents were shy, it’s not surprising that I was born way down the withdrawal end of the spectrum. Discovering that my shyness was inherited rather than a character ‘flaw’ was very comforting, and some of the shame I felt about my irrational fears began to melt away.
I also discovered that Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to make a study of shyness. In his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal (1872) Darwin described shyness as one of ‘the mental states which induce blushing’. As a shy person himself, Darwin had a sympathetic understanding of this state.
‘It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance, but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush,’ he wrote. ‘Shyness seems to depend on sensitiveness to the opinion, whether good or bad, of others, more especially with respect to external appearance.’
According to the psychologists I interviewed, Charles Darwin was spot on. As we shy folk are growing up these fears of ours begin to manifest as social anxiety, at the heart of which is a fear of ‘negative evaluation’. We worry about what others think of us, and feel self-conscious in company. We may be reluctant to speak up in social situations for fear of saying the wrong thing.
Acute shyness can feel like a permanent state of performance anxiety, with the same physical symptoms – blushing, sweating, trembling and hyperventilating. For some people social anxiety becomes so extreme that it turns into a phobia, and those people avoid social situations at all costs.
No wonder the school environment had been so challenging for me. For thirteen long years I had been forced to spend many hours each day with large groups of people in situations where I was often literally being evaluated, both for my academic success in the classroom and for my social status outside the classroom.
Mind you, not every quiet student is shy. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, notes that shyness and introversion are not the same thing. According to the psychologists I spoke to, introverts are not necessarily anxious being in company. They might be quite happy spending lots of time alone or with just a few close friends. Solitude is not unwelcome. If you’re shy, though, you may long to have more friends and be included in more social circles but find it difficult to reach out to others for company or intimacy. This has certainly been my experience.
I recall my mother trying to encourage me take the initiative with my childhood friends. In my book about shyness I describe my reluctance to visit my classmate Sally who lived just around the corner from us. My anxious mind was full of ‘what ifs’ – what if she doesn’t want me there? My mother even resorted to bribery to try and persuade me to visit Sally. It rarely worked.
Speaking to other shy people for my research I discovered we had much in common. Writer Kate Holden, author of the best-selling memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic, described herself as having been a shy child.
‘My mother tells me that when we’d go to my friends’ birthday parties I wouldn’t leave her side. Then she would invite all these people for my birthday parties and I would run away and hide while they all sang happy birthday to the cake’.
Holden had vivid memories of being tormented by her fears.
‘I remember at school being asked to do something for a theatre class and freezing up. I sat on the side curling tighter and tighter into a little bundle with my knees up to my chin saying “no, no, no”. Everyone gathered around me asking “what’s wrong with her, Miss?” and the teacher took me to the staff room.’
Holden’s teachers contacted her parents and suggested she see a psychologist. ‘After six weeks the psychologist said “Leave her alone, stop pestering her, she’s not comfortable with this and not good at relating to people in these situations.”’
Holden reported feeling socially inept throughout her childhood. According to the psychologists I spoke to, though, research studies prove that shy people can do small talk as well as anyone else. But we are also highly self-critical and evaluate our own ‘performance’ in social encounters harshly.
In researching for my book on shyness I discovered that sociologist Dr Susie Scott has written a book called Shyness and Society: The Illusion of Competence. Dr Scott argues that this feeling of relative incompetence is central to the experience of shyness. She puts the blame on ‘the illusion of competence’; the mistaken belief that we all have to present ourselves as socially competent all the time.
According to Dr Scott, shy people are often perceived as failing to pull their weight in social situations. While non-shyness is seen as normal and acceptable, she says, shyness is seen as deviant and undesirable. This misperception of shyness as rudeness plagues many shy people, when in fact we’re often longing for social inclusion and connection. I have been told many times that I come across as remote in social gatherings, when in fact I’m usually grappling with anxiety.
I recently met a student who attends the same girls’ high school where I was educated all those years ago. She told me her classmates had done a research project in which they asked their fellow students how teaching could be improved at the school. The girls produced a booklet in which they wrote that some students ‘wished teachers could understand that they prefer to stay silent in class and just listen, because they learn best by listening’. Students are often ‘forced into answering a question, and when they feel they have to answer, or are preparing to be picked on, all their focus is placed on answering the question, and thus are no longer listening to the lesson’.
I have vivid memories of sweating with fear whilst waiting for my turn to speak in class. A friend of mine who is a psychology teacher told me she always gives her shy students more time than the outgoing students to contribute to class discussions. If they are worried about being negatively evaluated (as I was) they will be very focused on not saying the wrong thing.
The book I eventually wrote, Shy: a memoir (2015) is the one I wish someone else had written and handed to me when I was a teenager. Or perhaps I wish it had been handed to my schoolteachers, so that they were more understanding and patient with me. As Kate Holden’s anecdote demonstrates, pushing shy kids into situations they find frightening can make things even harder for them.
Imagine if, instead of trying to force all the shy kids to be extroverts, we talked openly about the positive attributes that often go with shyness? According to the experts I spoke to, Morrissey was right when he sang ‘shyness is nice’. Shyness is often accompanied by ‘pro-social’ attributes and behaviours, like greater sensitivity and greater levels of honesty. Shy people are often good listeners, with a lot of empathy. There are plenty of non-domineering positives that go with having a shy temperament.
After my book was published I began teaching a short course called ‘Wrangling Your Shyness’ for The School of Life in Australia. The verb in that title was chosen very carefully. Wrangling is something we do to manage wild horses or other unpredictable animals. For me, dealing with the symptoms of my shyness has often felt like managing something wild and out of my control. Wrangling also implies that you shouldn’t try to tame it, but rather try to understand how it works, and learn to work with it.
The dictionary has another meaning for the word wrangling: to ‘have a long complicated dispute with’. I’ve been doing that with my shyness for fifty years now and it’s time to settle the dispute. I hereby call a truce.
These days we’re reluctant to let strangers into our homes. We hover behind security doors, peering warily at people who come knocking. The click-baity media feeds us a steady diet of stories about scammers, con artists and home invaders, fuelling our sense of stranger-danger.
Here’s the weird thing, though. Over the summer holidays many of us will allow strangers to colonise our homes. Courtesy of short-term rental websites, these folk will sleep in our beds, dry themselves with our bath towels and muck around with our TV remotes.
My place is listed on one of these sites. Each winter I go travelling and let strangers stay in my home while I rent the homes of other strangers. Have my tenants been as curious about me as I’ve been about my absent hosts?
Some pads are entirely soulless. In Reykyavik my tiny apartment was as sterile as a hotel room. No knick-knacks, no scuffed skirting boards, no clues about the owner’s character. Just the ghostly smell of cleaning fluids.
My temporary home in Cardiff, though, was chock-full of personality. The suburban townhouse was an amateur detective’s paradise. Tubs of plant food from last century and a rusty pair of secateurs – why did the owner stop gardening? Dog-eared picture books and bedheads covered in Pokemon stickers – where were her children now? Elaborate woodcarvings from exotic locations – was she a compulsive traveller like me?
I wanted to open her cupboards and drawers to find more clues, but I hesitated. What is the protocol? Where are the privacy boundaries when you’ve paid to camp in someone else’s home? If I opened her drawers, did that mean my tenants were probably opening mine?
A thousand years ago, when most of us lived in small tribes or villages, everyone knew everyone else’s business. Social bonds were cemented by the sharing of personal triumphs and travails. Once most of us started living in sprawling cities, though, it became harder to satisfy our curiosity about other humans.
No wonder so many of us are reading strangers’ blogposts (over 400 million people view more than 20 billion pages each month). And no wonder memoirs are one of the fastest-growing areas of publishing (UK sales were up 42 percent last year). We want to know how other people live. Reading these personal stories is the textual equivalent of rifling around in someone else’s drawers, but with the owner’s permission.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in January 2020)
Out in the Wimmera everything is enormous. Wheat fields march towards the horizon. The mammoth machines that harvest them are straight out of a Mad Max movie. The sky stretches further than any other sky I’ve seen, and humans are Lilliputian, tottering around under the endless blue.
I discovered the wondrous scale of things in the Wimmera on a recent jaunt to see the silo art up there. Giants with paintbrushes have been striding the landscape, stopping to paint delicate portraits on concrete wheat silos – or that’s how it looked to me.
Here in Australia we’re used to seeing giant things in the landscape. Our country towns are graced with gargantuan prawns, pineapples, bananas, cassowaries, guitars and gumboots. The boffins call these wacky installations ‘shire promotional grotesques’ and while they’re fun, many of them are also repulsive.
Up in the Wimmera, though, the giant silos are things of beauty, and the smallest details have the biggest impact.
On the silos at Sheep Hills, just east of Horsham, you’ll find the faces of two indigenous children rendered against a starry night sky. If you look closely at the eyes of the child on the right, you can see in them a reflection of the bitumen road scarring the landscape in front of him.
Further north, on the bottom of a silo at Brim, there is just a glimpse of a walking stick, the first sign of vulnerability in the elderly farmer depicted in monochrome. Her face is shadowed by a floppy sunhat but she is definitely smiling.
In Sea Lake there are three emus whose feathers shimmer in luminescent orange and red, backlit by an imaginary ‘shepherd’s delight’ sunset.
On the silo in Rosebery a man is holding a fearsome whip in one hand, but there is such tenderness in the way his other hand is stroking his horse’s head. And the working dog with the pricked ears on the silo in Nullawil looks smarter than any human I’ve ever met.
Then there’s the Murtoa Stick Shed, built to store three billion bushels of wheat during the Second World War. Nearly twice as long as the MCG, it’s a humungous hangar made of corrugated iron and mountain ash poles, and the acoustics were so good I wanted to sing an opera aria in there.
So here’s my tip. Get yourself to the Wimmera. Look up. It’ll take your breath away.
(This column was published by Fairfax in December 2019)
Was it when the German and the Kiwi did an after-dinner haka? Or was it when the Swede and the Brazilian did the lindyhop that I changed my mind?
I was on my first ever group tour, visiting the Indonesian island of Lombok. The thought of travelling with a group of strangers had always filled me with horror. What if I got stuck with people I didn’t like? I was used to travelling solo or with close friends – people like me. But going solo can be tiring and none of my travel buddies were available this winter. So I bit the bullet and signed up for a tour.
The travel company website talked about how to avoid offending the locals. For example, most Lombok people are Muslim so skimpy clothing is a no-no. Fair enough. I was happy to respect Lombok’s cultural differences. It was the differences I might encounter in our travel group that had me worried.
On our first night together I discovered I was several decades older than most of the other tour members. There were a dozen of us from all over the globe and most of these folk were party animals. There was a travel agent, an airline pilot, a couple of childcare workers and a computer programmer. What would we have in common?
Our Indonesian tour guide Ari was an extrovert and a joker, and he quickly learnt everyone’s names. But how was he going to manage this motley crew, all out of our comfort zones?
Over the next ten days, under Ari’s watchful gaze, we sat cross-legged with local women as they hand-made clay pots and reed baskets. We climbed terraced hills and drank coffee with Lombok farmers. We visited a traditional Sasak community and were offered herbal medicines. We passed piles of rubble left over from last year’s lethal earthquake and watched villagers patiently rebuilding their gleaming mosques. All the while our guide Ari hovered beside us, quietly translating, explaining the local history and demonstrating how to say thanks in the local language. Bridging the gaps.
Every evening after dinner Ari persuaded us to share something of our own. The Brazilian did the samba, the Swede danced the lindy hop, I warbled an aria, the Kiwi stomped a haka and Ari sang the Islamic call to prayer for us. And finally it dawned on me just how delightful differences could be.
When I was an ABC radio presenter the management mantra in vogue at the time was ‘try to use the present tense’. Reporting in the present tense, we were told, makes stories seem fresh and exciting. For example, ‘An artwork was sold for a million dollars’ sounds like yesterday’s news. ‘Artwork sells for a million dollars!’ sounds like it could be happening right now.
I had a running joke with my producer friend Sally. We tried to out-do each other in ‘freshening up’ imaginary stories. ‘Michelangelo paints ceiling and crowd goes wild!’ she’d say. Then it was my turn: ‘Elvis leaves the building and Elvis impersonators rejoice!’
Sally is one of those ‘social glue’ people. Friendship groups form around her. She used to bring her dog Teddy into the office and stern colleagues would melt at the sight of him. When she left the ABC she took the party vibe with her.
In her next job – media guru for Parks Victoria – she persuaded taciturn park rangers to share their best bush stories with the world. She once created a viral internet sensation by posting a nutty photo of a hairless baby wombat on the Parks Vic website (go ahead, Google it).
I haven’t thought much about past and present tense since I left radio. But recently I re-discovered just how very different they are.
Early this year Sally was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive lymphoma. While she endured months of fierce chemotherapy, Sally’s room at the Peter Mac cancer hospital became party central.
Dozens of friends and relations came to visit, marveling as Sally modeled her new beanies and told us stories about her amazing life. These stories happened in the past but they deserve to be told in the present tense.
‘Young Australian woman hitchhikes alone across Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror’. ‘Farmer’s daughter runs remote sheep farm with her sister and shows the shearers what’s what’. ‘Former sheep farmer writes children’s book about pet lamb caught up in live sheep export trade.’
Two months ago Sally’s story came to an end in a hospital bed surrounded by her loved ones. And overnight I had to start talking about my friend in the past tense. Every sentence hurts.
I would much rather compose a sentence about her in the future tense: Sian will never forget her fabulous fearless friend Sally.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in September 2019)
If you want to know if the grass really is greener on the other side, why not spend a day in a stranger’s garden?
For a while now I’ve harboured an escape fantasy from my day job. Telling stories for a living can sometimes feel like hollering into a head wind. It’s hard to know whether anyone can hear you. Sometimes I’ve dreamt of buying a mowing franchise. I could prune trees and zig-zag through overgrown grass and at the end of the day the results would be right there in front of me – smooth lawns and happy customers. But would the reality match the fantasy? I decided to find out.
Recently I spent an afternoon working with a bloke we’ll call Jim. He tells stories for a living too, mostly on the television, but when there’s a lull in that work Jim tows his trailer around the suburbs and sorts out other people’s gardens. This particular day the job involved cutting back a dense hedge that had grown to twice Jim’s height.
Before we began work Jim handed me some radio headphones pre-tuned to an ABC talk station. He had a pair on too. As he wielded various screeching chainsaws and I dragged fallen branches into the trailer, we both listened to people telling stories on the radio.
When the elderly owner of the hedge popped out his front door to see how we were going, he and Jim and I swapped stories about garden-wrecking possums. When Jim and I paused for a drink, Jim told me stories about his wife and children and I told him stories about my latest travels in the campervan.
When we finished trimming the hedge we headed off to the tip. As we crawled through the peak-hour traffic Jim and I passed the time raving about the best TV shows we’d seen lately and the clever story-telling devices their writers had used.
We got to the tip just after closing time and there was a woman locking the gate. Jim jumped out of the ute and told her all about the high hedge and the terrible traffic and the family drama that would ensue if we couldn’t drop off the green waste. Jim’s story was so persuasive she unlocked the gate again and let us in.
Driving home that night I decided storytelling wasn’t such a bad way to earn a living after all.
(This column was published by Fairfax in August 2019)
I have been travelling to warmer places over the past couple of weeks. I joined an Intrepid Travel tour group in a trip to Lombok and the Gili Islands. It was the first time i’d done an organised tour like this and i had a brilliant time. then i had four days at the Darwin Festival with friends, attending art exhibitions, concerts and theatre productions. Here are a few photos.
There’s a scene in the Elton John movie Rocketman where young Elton is auditioning for a place in a music school and he gives a note-perfect performance of a piano piece he’s just heard for the first time. No sheet music, no preparation. It’s a kind of magic.
I’ve always had to depend on my eyes. Learning the piano as a child I had to look at the notes on the page, then at my fingers on the keyboard, then at the notes again, one painstaking bar at a time. Imagine my amazement when the blind pianist came to visit.
Ian and his flautist wife Roma were friends of my parents. They had all met at National Music Camp when they were teenagers, gathering together over the summer holidays to play in bands and orchestras. Roma and Ian lived in Mittagong, NSW but every few years they would visit us in Melbourne. After tea and biscuits Roma would lead Ian to our piano. Any requests? He would stroke the keyboard to find his place then launch into a note-perfect performance.
I remember looking at his fingers, then at his unseeing eyes, then his flying fingers again. It was a kind of magic. I was a shy child so I never asked all the questions I had for him. How come he didn’t make any mistakes? How did he remember those tunes? How many other blind people could play like this? Did they learn by ear or was there some other way?
My life has been littered with moments like these – curiosity stymied by social anxiety. Ian passed away a few years ago so it’s too late to ask him now. But sometimes the universe delivers. Recently I stumbled across an article about Roma and Ian in a National Music Camp newsletter. This is some of what I learnt.
Three and a half decades ago Roma and Ian helped to start up a National Braille Music Camp for blind and visually impaired students. Each year students would come from all over Australia and New Zealand to Mittagong, NSW. They would learn to read braille music, sing in choirs and play in bands and orchestras. Generations of kids have gone home with new skills and friendships. Some come back later and tutor at the camps, and Roma still helps out.
It’s not magic. It’s a kind of equality.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in July 2019.)
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