Being a Quiet Girl in a Very Noisy Time
Am I respecting the gravity of language and story, or shirking my responsibility to speak?
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Facebook recently informed me that I have had an account now for ten years: the whole of my adult life. I will be 28 in a few months, and in the past ten years I have watched, via Facebook, at least three acquaintances go through mental health crises: first, the odd syntax, then the long rants on obscure topics, the strangely-angled selfies, the unsolicited poetry, the deep silence of disappearance.
In each of these cases, I did nothing. I did not reach out in support. I did not report the posts. I did not try to get in touch with the person’s family or close friends. Instead, I agitated, trying from the shadows to guess what was going on, telling myself all the while that it wasn’t my business and that I should stay quiet.
Quiet is the word I most intimately associate with social media. The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone; who has not felt cowed by the sheer volume of conversations being carried on on around us at all times? Scrolling through feed after feed, day after day, I become a virtual wallflower, lurking at the edges of chatter, aware of my own invisible, awkward presence. More than anything, social media has reminded me of my introversion on a daily basis, worried it to a dull and ever-present point:
How should I reply? Should I like this? Who read my post? Is this caption funny enough? Why didn’t she like that? What is he up to, now? Is it even my business? Do I even belong here? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I say nothing at all?
What we have done to ourselves is create a perpetual theater of human interaction, in which one is never exactly off-stage. In this theater, there are so many tones of voice, crossing each other all at once, that it is impossible to know when the drama has reached its peak. It’s hard to tell when you are meant to be the leading lady, or a member of the chorus, or just part of the audience.
I regret very much that I did not say anything. I am grateful that my acquaintances, as far as I can tell, may be all right.
I spent most of my teenage years selectively mute. I am borrowing the phrase from a fellow teacher, who used it to describe one of her students. For months, I turned the phrase over and over in my mind like a shiny coin, studying the engravings. I am still turning it over, even as I am sitting quiet girls down and telling them things like,“You’re going to have to start talking eventually. People aren’t ever going to leave you alone about it. I know. I was you. Everyone told me, and eventually I got so tired of it I started talking. Now look at me! I never shut up.”
In presenting myself this way, I am offering these quiet girls a model of hope: You don’t always have to be quiet. You can be powerful. Your words matter. Everyone wants to hear them.
Except none of this is true; I am still a quiet girl. I am not powerful. My words may matter, but no one, especially the fidgeting girl in front of me, wants to hear them. These quiet girls do not need my hope, because nothing is wrong with them, nothing at all.
A scene: I am four years old. I am in the preschool classroom, standing at the play kitchen, where I pretend to chop tomatoes. Who am I chopping these imaginary tomatoes for? I chop and I chop and I chop a big pretend pile. I share with no one. I don’t even like tomatoes.
In an office somewhere: “We would like to hold her back a year, because she doesn’t seem to enjoy playing with other children.”
My mother: “Why does she need to enjoy playing with other children?”
It should not strike anyone as unusual that, in lieu of making friends, I wrote stories. I did this to entertain myself, to fill up the quiet space I had cultivated.
To be clear: quiet girls are not necessarily sad ones. I was terrifically happy. I was blissfully unaware that being quiet was a problem until my teenage years, when it seemed to be on everyone’s minds, when quiet came to mean weird or sad or strange.
I found community online, in the early phase of the internet: in Yahoo! Groups called “Serious Teen Writers” and “College Writers,” and “Fiction Writers,” among others. I still receive email notifications from these groups to the address I had carefully chosen at fourteen — username: “storyspinner” — even though as far as I can tell, no one populates these groups anymore. The emails all automated, scheduled to repeat into eternity.
At fourteen, I started my own literary journal, although I would not know what a literary journal was until years later. It was called The Writ, a play on words that captured the demand I felt to write. I took the necessary steps to bring The Writ to fruition: coded the website myself, did the layout for every issue (of which there were, ultimately, only two or three). Soon after I began soliciting work, a young man — initials, incidentally, B.S. — in one of my writers groups reached out, wondering if I would publish something written by his mother. Our correspondence became a partnership. He was a few years older than I was, and when he went to college, he decided to turn the magazine into a club of the same name. Perhaps of little relevance, B.S. also sent me my first invitation to Facebook, which I declined, as I wasn’t yet allowed to use social media.
By sixteen I had realized that he wasn’t interested in working together; he just wanted my idea. I had stopped communicating with him entirely, a habit we now call ghosting, a favorite defense mechanism of the introvert. Why he didn’t merely start from scratch still puzzles me. Instead, he sent an email:
Under Article one of the Constitution of The WRIT Teen Writers’ Magazine, if you do not reply, you will be expelled from the magazine. I hate to say this, but I have sent emails to you and gotten no reply. This is your final warning, and if there is no reply by the end of the week, I will formally take over all major productions under The WRIT’s requirements. I hope you understand this and do not take offense at this email if you are still there.
En Cristo por siempra,
I have never looked back on this memory as traumatic, although I suppose it could and should have been. I suspect that I expected it, which foreshortened any anger or betrayal I might have felt. After all, I had not replied. After all, I could have said something.
I graduated from high school, as scheduled, in 2008, one of six valedictorians in a class of 385. At the ceremony, I would give a speech before a crowd of my teachers and peers and their families. I had written several drafts. Oddly enough, for a quiet girl, I wasn’t nervous; I had never been nervous about public speaking. It was more that I felt bothered.
For me, high school wasn’t the charmed experience I believed the rest of my classmates were having. “High school is rarely charmed for quiet girls, for smart girls, for girls like you,” I sometimes catch myself telling the ninth graders in my English classes. My valedictorian speech was full of the trite clichés I knew people wanted to hear. It was serious, because I was not brave enough to risk being funny, and it was gracious, because I knew that if I was going to speak in front of a crowd of people safely, that was all I could be. It was good, but it wasn’t honest.
I brought the draft to my eleventh grade AP Language and Composition teacher, Mr. Benoit. He read it over. He had been patiently reading over my drafts of things for years, and once, I had cried in his class, after giving a speech to my peers about how much my dad meant to me. He liked the valedictorian speech, offered a few suggestions. I said I did not want to give it.
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t feel this way. I feel like a lot of these people were hard on me. They don’t know me, and I don’t know them, and this is fake.”
“Why don’t you try writing another speech?” he suggested.
I considered it, but in the end I gave the false speech I had written, because I could not risk saying what I felt. I knew it was inappropriate for the occasion. I had cleaved to my lessons.
Of the six valedictorian speeches given that evening, mine was the only one quoted in the local paper:
“We may be here for a short while,” said Lewis as she advised the class of 2008 to strive to be remembered as more than just graduates. “Be remembered as part of a legacy.”
For a brief period in my mid-twenties, I thought I had left that quiet girl behind. I had taken everyone’s advice; I started saying what I felt, even when it wasn’t polite.
I had realized that there is power in being a quiet girl: that when a quiet girl suddenly starts talking, people listen. What I hadn’t yet realized is that they aren’t always listening for the right reasons. Mostly, they want you to shock them, to reveal yourself, to give occasion for them to remind you why you became a quiet girl in the first place.
“All this writing you’ve been doing,” says one, “is great, but now you need to go out, grow up, and live some life.”
Nowhere is this more apparent to me than on social media, where emerging to say any little thing can become the argument of someone’s afternoon. As a writer I’ve learned to choose my language carefully. I know that a word is both sign and signified; it means, and in meaning, it can wound.
My anxiety around speaking — on the page, online, out loud — is the anxiety of responsibility to use language well. Every year, I begin my freshman English classes by explaining language’s power. I tell them that when someone recites a story before a live audience, science has shown that the audience’s brain waves sync to the speaker’s.
“Stories are mind control,” I say, “They bring us in closer touch.”
I show them slides of advertisements. I show them propaganda.
“Stories will liberate or destroy us,” I continue. I see their concern.
In understanding the weight of language, at some point my care became apprehension. My quiet came back. I felt the need to take my time. On the page, this is possible. In the world, where the speed of language seems only to be increasing, I always feel three steps behind.
A scene: My boyfriend and I are in the kitchen. I am making bacon, and listening to him tell a story. The story reminds me of something. I become excited. I run into the other room, leaving the sizzling pan on the stove. I return with a book. I say, “I feel like this is the book I have been waiting my whole life to read.” I elaborate, “It’s not even that it’s a great book, just that I feel like it captures my childhood in a way.” I turn to a dog-eared page. I begin to read an underlined quote:
“It was only in 1984, four years after Don Novey took over the union, that the new max and supermax prisons began rolling online, Solano in 1984, ‘New Folsom’ (a quarter mile removed from ‘Old Folsom’) in 1986, Avenal and Ione and Stockton and San Diego in 1987, Corcoran and Blythe in 1988, Pelican Bay in 1989, Chowchilla in 1990, Wasco in 1991, Calipatria in 1992, Lancaster and Imperial and Centinela and Delano in 1993, Coalinga and a second prison at — ”
“You don’t have to read all that,” he says. “You can just get to the point.”
“But that was the point,” I say.
Even at home, there is occasion for failure; I am again in a too-small kitchen, chopping tomatoes only for myself.
On a random day at work, I decided to tally all of the questions my students asked. In approximately 230 minutes, there were 153 questions, or one every 90 seconds. Their questions ranged from “Can I go to the bathroom?” to “How do you know when the author is using irony?” to “Have you ever been to Aventura?” We cover the personal and the political and the practical. I am constantly answering questions, or asking them; research shows that teachers ask up to two questions per minute, or one every thirty seconds. I am never not talking.
Still, I am quiet. When they want to know how I feel — not just how I feel right now — but how I feel deeply, overall, I do not answer them.
“You’re hard to read,” the savvy ones say, picking up the fact that my vibrant expressiveness, my raging joy and bewilderment and humor and delight are all a form of method acting, meant to solicit their engagement.
On social media I read the stories of teen girls who will not be quiet. Even their silence speaks.
Is it okay to admit, even just a little, that I want to be like that?
Instead I burrow; I agitate; I lay words down on paper. The realization that this life is a loneliness profound and sparsely punctuated: I wrote that sentence.
I engage with social media while hating it, wondering all the time whether or not I’m doing it right.
When a friend calls, I am both panicked and grateful.
“How are you?” we say, “How are you?”
We discuss what we came to discuss: my manuscript.
My friend, like all my dear, good friends, tells me: “I want to hear a little more of her voice.”