Recently I read the post of an autistic blogger in New Zealand, where he explained that in social settings that are structured he is okay, but when the structure is removed and the small talk starts he feels like a fish out-of-water. It’s a very interesting post and I’ll say more about it later.
This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Searching my 50 yrs of personal journals, I could probably produce 50 accounts of that experience. Most of them would involve workplace lunches, or drinks after work, when the ‘team’ gets together. Very early in life, as soon as I entered schools, I learned that I didn’t fit in with groups, but it took me a long time to understand what that means.
The event that woke me up took place in the winter of ’83/’84, when, age 37, I was in an evening eighteenth century university humanities class, two hours a night with a dozen other students of all ages. Each night around a circle of tables we debated books we were reading. The eighteenth century, the doorstep into the modern age, was a time of great debate and its debates are still going. Night after night we had entertaining, sometimes heated discussions.
In a situation like that, I’m in my element. I love ideas, and I’m always happy exploring the past that abounds with mostly forgotten ideas. Our reading was in the stratosphere – Voltaire and Rousseau, Goethe and Schiller, Fielding and Blake, etc – The more controversial a debate became, the more I was at the center of it, again and again throwing out challenging thoughts. During a class I was often the focus of attention, and comfortable with it.
Then, on the night of the last class, someone proposed that we all go for a drink after in the pub downstairs. So we all did.
Within five minutes of arriving in the pub – and I was no stranger to drinking – I realized that I no longer belonged. The change was astonishing – 180 degrees. I would have continued talking about books, but that isn’t what they wanted. Now it was all small talk, in the same language as we used upstairs, English, but in a form of it that I have never been able to speak. And no one tried to engage in small talk with me. They seemed to know better than I did that I didn’t belong there.
After about a half hour, my beer finished, I got up and left.
Yes, that was the moment when I first began to think about this phenomenon. It wasn’t just that I felt like a fish-out-of-water though – I felt like a fish of another species altogether. I’ve never forgotten that night. But only after another 15 or so years, did I find an answer.
Simply put, I was not one of them and shouldn’t have tried to be. The remarkable thing is that as soon as I recognized that, I was suddenly much more comfortable in those situations.
I didn’t withdraw. Instead, I began to mingle more readily with other people, for I was more comfortable knowing that I was not one of the group. I began to see myself as a kind of detached but interested reporter, or, as the famous autistic animal behavior scientist Temple Grandin said, like I was an “anthropologist on Mars.”
Do you see what I mean? I could still talk to them, but knowing and accepting that I was not one of them eliminated the anxiety. This simple idea freed me more that anything else I’ve learned. During my last fifteen years in the insurance claims world, when I was forced to work in teams of claim handlers as I moved from company to company on temporary contracts, I talked with them, joked with them, and still joined them sometimes after work. But I always left alone, and always well before the group broke up, because I now knew that I was not one of them.
This is what I mean when, in my book The Shyness Guide, I say you can become less shy by becoming more shy.
I learned how to spot the moment for leaving (a moment when you’re not in direct conversation with someone) and I developed a skill for doing it without being noticed. For example, if you leave for the washroom but don’t come back, trust me, no one notices. You only have to make sure beforehand that your coat or anything else you need is in a location where you can pick it up without being seen. That’s pretty easy actually, for a group of social people talking, while drinking alcohol or just coffee, have almost no perception of what is going on outside their group. Unlike a band of hunter-gathers, where everyone is a sentry, they’re too focused on each other to keep a lookout.
The next day someone will often ask, ‘When did you leave?” I just say I’m not sure, or I don’t remember.
Was detaching myself from other people like that a mistake? No, for that change produced an explosion of writing and reading.
After I finally graduated in 1991 (it took me 19 years to get my BA), I continued the same reading, and even the debates. But now, in my reading and writing, I debated only with those authors and thinkers of the past. Sometimes it went beyond that. For example, one night, in a long dream, one of the most memorable of my life, Voltaire and I met at the end of the world, and we walked together over the ruins, talking and talking about what had happened and why.
Yes, mixing with other people that new way I became more interested in them. I studied them and that’s why I was able to write a novel like The Birdcatcher, that has so many characters.
What about other writers? Didn’t I want to know them? For a long time, I looked forward to meeting other writers. I actually believed that when I finally joined them I would be like a fish joining a school of its own species. I thought it would be like being with the ex-patriot writers in Paris in the 1920s, described by Hemingway in his book The Movable Feast, who loved talking about books, art, music, philosophy and history.
But when I did join writing groups – I tried 4 of them – it was the same thing. In formal group sessions they talked books, or rather, we read or listened to each other’s books-in-the-making. But afterward it was all small talk. As soon as I learned the few things I needed, I abandoned Toronto writers.
My inability to get published commercially is closely tied to what I’m talking about here.
By the way, if those writers, or those fellow students in 1984, or fellow employees during the decades of working, wanted to talk about fishing or hunting, football, baseball or hockey, trees, mushrooms, birds, insects, rocks, stars or galaxies, quantum physics, history or economics, I was ready for that. All those things interest me, and occasionally I have met someone who could share them with me.
Also, to be fair I should say that in those writing groups there were a few among them who also wanted more – usually they were young, beginning SF writers. Like me, they usually dropped out quickly, also disillusioned. I was attracted by them – I too write SF – but I was a bit too old by then, and I suppose a bit too detached, to join them wherever they went.
But no, what most people today seem to want to talk about is themselves, and each other. It’s either got to be about “Me” or about relationships among people we know.
Well, no, wait …..also allowed is anything to do with Money. Many are ready to talk about that, along with its vassal gods – mortgages, stocks, bonuses and commissions, the management ladder, etc.
Yes, as strange as it might sound, although I’ve been writing fiction since 1968, I’ve never had writing friends.
That is remarkable, for many writers known to be loners, including my favorites – Joseph Conrad, Hemingway, Graham Greene, George Orwell – all had writing friends. Maybe they found schools of similar fish which they could join.
Or maybe the problem is that in this confusing, chaotic, dysfunctional world we’re in now the smaller schools of fish get broken up before they can get started.
The only writer like me (except that he was the most financially successful author of his time) that I can name, is James Michener, who wrote in his autobiography The World is My Home:
I am a loner to an extent that would frighten most men ….. I chose not to become involved in the literary scene on a social level. It did not appeal to me; it did not seem rewarding; it was distracting rather than productive and, most important, because of my personality and attitudes I would not have been very good at being part of it. I have thus remained off by myself, and it may seem shocking that at age eighty-five I have known almost no other writers…...”
Maybe that’s why, in the novel I’m currently writing, I’ve just met Michener walking along the path next to Neshaminy creek in southeast Pennsylvania. He’s dead now, of course, in the story too, but we quickly become friends and walk together, while we talk and talk about the things in this world that we both love – books, rivers, trees – and simultaneously set out together to solve the book’s central mystery. It’s going to be a good book.
But back to the autistic blogger I mentioned at the beginning – Barry in New Zealand and his always interesting posts in Another Spectrum. Unfortunately, today I can’t locate his ‘fish-out-of-water’ post, so I’ve linked to another interesting autism post. But Barry does explore this fish-out-of-water question and shows how he resolved it for himself while joining the Quaker community. His is a different path from mine, but he found his way on it by thinking his way through as I did, to a different resolution just as fruitful as mine, or maybe more so.
Compare us and I hope you’ll see that you too are free to think your way forward to a rewarding path that is uniquely your own.
PS – I now have the link to Barry’s ‘fish-out-of-water’ post: