I hug my mother’s leg like a koala bear hugs the branch of a eucalyptus tree. She tries to peel my sweaty palms from her polyester slacks, but every time she extracts me from one leg I grab the other. Eventually her exasperation turns to impatience, and I am shamed into letting go. I look at the other kids scrambling around the school yard having tons of fun, but playing is out of the question for me. My heart beats like a tom-tom drum. I feel like I can’t breathe. I am sure, at age six, I will die of what grown-ups refer to as a massive coronary.
This was my ordeal every school morning until I was seven or eight years old. These days it is hard to believe I was so shy as a little kid because now I seem socially at ease. But while it’s true I am often totally chill, there are still times when shy girl feelings undo me like a clammy hand on the back of my neck. New encounters, or even familiar ones, can bring on that fluttery feeling when my impulse is to go hide behind the nearest facsimile of my mommy’s leg.
The shy people reading this will probably agree: Once a shy person, always a shy person. Shyness is a misunderstood, genetically pre-disposed personality glitch that, because it is not a mental disorder, is thought of as something a person can “master” or “just get over”.
Yeah. Right. Sorry, all you socially fluid folks, but it’s not so easy. Many shy people get acclimated to social exchange, and even grow to enjoy it. Some merely endure it. Others, like me, take it another step and become performers, because there’s something about the remove of a literal spotlight that dispels the excruciating scrutiny of up close and personal exchanges. To this day I’m more comfortable up on a stage than chit-chatting at a cocktail party. But many of my shy brethren never experience social ease in any context, any time, any where.
Shyness sucks at all ages, but it is probably the worst in the teen years when even the most social of social beings tussles with self doubt. Everyone between the ages of twelve and eighteen fears doing lame, stupid, immature, uncool, ridiculous, embarrassing things at some, if not many, points along the way. Teenagers always live with the threat of an unwanted spotlight. The inherently shy teen lives with this terror all the time.
My novel Wavehouse is about sixteen year old Anna Dugan, an incredibly gifted surfer and artist. Because it is a contemporary YA novel, there’s also family dysfunction and a heart-throbby love interest. But it is Anna’s shyness and its potentially damaging effect on her destiny that drives the engine of the story.
I wrote Wavehouse because, while there is much great YA literature out there that deals with mental illness, social ills, physical and sexual abuse, there aren’t that many books that deal with shyness and its crippling sidekick; performance anxiety. Often shyness gets folded in to general outsider-ness; the cool, creative oddball or brilliant computer geek. Other times it is characterized as a symptom of larger woes like anxiety or depression. Rarely is shyness front and center in stories about teenage struggles.
With Wavehouse, I’m hoping to shed a light on shyness, which is oxymoronic, since the last thing shy people want is to illuminate their introverted quirks. But who knows? Maybe a shy book feels differently. I know Wavehouse wants all the attention it can get.